Green Around The Hills: Big Coal’s been beaten at its own game

8:44 am | October 1, 2012

By Jennie Young

Alpha Natural Resources announced on the local news the closing of eight coal mines in West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Virginia, the latest in a string of recent closings in Appalachia by other companies to cut production and jobs. Alpha’s cuts will immediately affect 160 of the 400 workers slated to lose their jobs. By early next year an additional 800 Alpha jobs will be lost. The bright side is that the initial 400 workers will be moved into jobs now either vacant or handled by contracting firms.

Alpha Natural Resources is a huge conglomerate, by revenue America’s second-largest producer and by production third-largest. Alpha bought the shamefully disgraced Massey Energy and by general agreement operates a somewhat more humane and environmentally conscious enterprise. The language among observers seems to boil down to “not as bad.” Even that little is to the good. I hope that means they are more likely to work with local, state, and federal entities to retrain workers now that the handwriting on the wall indicates rapidly declining domestic coal use.

I’d be more reassured if the industry would be straight-forward in press conferences. By positioning young families affected by job loss before the cameras, prior to the entrance of their spokesman, they demean themselves and the region. They’re right from one perspective. The faces do personalize frightening insecurity. But it’s deeper than that.

The people of coal-rich Appalachia haven’t been allowed much say in the way things have worked out in their land. They’ve been at the mercy of an industry not reliably merciful. It’s before the cameras that they become not just the face of new, expanded hardship. It’s before the cameras that they’re more the faces of company propaganda. The press conference is for politics, not information. It’s to assign blame once again to the old nemesis, the government, for “crippling regulations.” Truth is, the conditions for that as an effective ploy has evaporated from under (literally under) the industry.

Five years ago utilities were making plans to build dozens of coal-fired power plants. (That’s when Tennessee’s mountains showed up in the crosshairs of the big conglomerates.) Meantime, the natural gas industry was undergoing its own revolution and figured out how to get to the immense previously inaccessible gas reserves. The electric power industry lost no time in abandoning dirty, more expensive coal for cheaper, cleaner natural gas. In a report to investors, away from the cameras and need for propaganda, Alpha told the truth: “As is painfully obvious now, coal generation is swimming in a pool of natural gas and inconveniently located on top of the Marcellus Shale, among other shale plays in the area.”

The government didn’t do it. Hurting families shouldn’t be pawns in disgraceful public displays. The bullying-est, most exploitative industry in the land needs to stop whining and grow up. Business is business. Competition is competition. When beaten at their own game, powerful Big Coal shouldn’t play victim. There’s that “your own boot straps” thingy….remember?

— Jennie Young is a retired educator and a member of First Presbyterian Church in Elizabethton. Each week, she provides insights into environmental stewardship and offers ways to protect and preserve the world around us. 

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