Friday, December 3, 2010

Coal was West Virginia (for publication December 10, 2010)

Weren’t those commercials in which Joe Manchin put a bullet through the Cap and Trade Bill cool? Isn’t it neat that John Grisham’s bestselling novel, “The Appeal”, was based on a coal company CEO’s attempt to buy a Supreme Court seat right here in West Virginia? And don’t you remember back in the sixties when WVU football could be heard on radio and every commercial break featured God’s own choir on loan to Consolidation Coal Company singing the glorious refrain, “Coal is West Virginia!”?

As recently as last month an editorial in this newspaper declared, “No other issue even approaches the importance of coal for West Virginians.”

That’s a very large claim to make about a state that has the nation’s lowest average income, the highest rate of disability, the lowest level of educational attainment, the highest prevalence of half a dozen diseases, as well as the highest rate of death by drug overdose.

Of course, some people will argue that the revenue West Virginia earns from coal is critical to addressing these challenges, while others will argue that coal is a cause, either directly or indirectly, of many of them. And both groups have some justification. Either way, the issue of coal still rises to the top reminding us that our embrace of coal was always a Faustian bargain.

We’ve always known that the thing which sustained us was also killing us and, thus, in addition to all its other roles, coal became our greatest source of drama and pathos. From the coal wars of the 1920’s, so effectively memorialized in John Sayles’s movie, “Matewan”, through assorted strikes, a murder of a union president and his family, the Buffalo Creek flood in which 125 people died and more than four thousand homes were destroyed, and including any number of mine explosions and cave-ins always accompanied by days-long vigils marked by hope and nearly always a tragic ending, coal has been the beginning and the end, the alpha and the omega.

It was all summed up neatly by Mother Jones, the union organizer who famously declared, “When I get to heaven, I shall tell God Almighty about West Virginia” – and, of course, she was talking about coal.

So, it is with a touch of regret, but also with overwhelming relief that I, a native son of West Virginia, steeped in its history and mythology, am here to tell you that coal is dead. And the sooner we begin thinking and acting as though we’re a post-coal state in a post-coal economy, the better off we’ll be.

When did coal die? It’s hard to fix a precise date. Certainly a line was crossed at some point as the number of coal mining jobs in the state declined from 130,000 in the 1940’s to only 20,000 today. It could have been when the number of disabled miners first surpassed the number of working ones. Or maybe it was when we started blowing the tops off of our mountains to get at the stuff. But, more likely it was when coal fell to only fourth place as a contributor to the state’s gross domestic product behind government, manufacturing, and healthcare. Shall we have the choir sing, “Medicare is West Virginia”?

In fact, today coal generates only 9% of West Virginia’s GDP even if you include all of its supplier industries. The number is just 6% if you confine the analysis to the coal industry itself. And only three West Virginia households in a hundred have a worker in the coal industry. Finally, this year the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy released an analysis showing that the cost to state government to support the coal industry actually exceeds the amount the industry contributes in taxes and fees.

But, the most withering fact may be that where there is coal there is misery. The West Virginia counties that are most dependent on coal are also West Virginia’s poorest and those which are losing population the fastest.

Perhaps it would be different if the wealth extracted from our soil stayed in the state and in those nearly shuttered coal communities that are increasingly populated only by the old and infirm. But, less than 5% of West Virginia coal is mined by West Virginia-based companies. So, a few of us get paychecks and the state gets some taxes, but the profit, the big money, goes elsewhere.

What did the editorial say? “No other issue even approaches the importance of coal for West Virginians.” Maybe that was true once, but no longer.

Coal is now West Virginia’s issue of mass distraction, commanding more attention and more public resources than its contribution warrants. That’s dangerous because, whether Cap and Trade comes to pass or not, coal’s value to West Virginia will continue to decline and, as it does so, those who are most dependent on coal will clamor even more loudly for West Virginia to increase subsidies to an industry on which the rest of the world is turning its back.

More and more effort for fewer and fewer returns. It’s a game we can’t win and hopefully our leaders won’t try. Instead, they must begin to develop a vision and strategy for a post-coal West Virginia.

What will that West Virginia look like – maybe Vermont with a twang? I don’t know. But, as I compare that state’s economy with ours, it doesn’t sound so bad.