Coal's Dying Light: The decline of coal is hurting Kentucky and communities across the country
The world’s appetite for coal is diminishing, and the communities that mined it for generations are struggling to adapt. Kentucky’s Republican lawmakers are leveraging the economic turmoil to bolster support for coal, but experts say mining communities would be better off supporting the transition to a sustainable future.
Linda Craiger’s ancestors mined coal in the Appalachian hillsides of Harlan County. Today, Craiger makes her living on the nostalgia left in the coal economy’s wake.
Craiger works as the chief financial officer at the former town school that now serves as a hotel. Guests check-in like students late for class, walk up the stairs past the lockers and swipe a key card to check into a classroom for the night. Many come through for the local tourist attractions: a nearby state park, the Portal 31 underground mine tour and the Kentucky Coal Museum.
“God put the coal here for the mountain people to make a living,” Craiger said, adding that she’d like to keep coal a part of this community for as long as possible.
Generations of Americans relied on the coal mined in Kentucky to forge the steel, heat the furnaces and power the homes of this country. The nation’s reliance on coal, however, is coming to an end, and the communities that once produced it are struggling to adapt.
Nearly 15 million Americans live in energy communities impacted by coal mine and power plant closures, according to an LPM News analysis. Nearly three-quarters of them make less than the national median household income.
Appalachia tops the government’s list of energy communities most impacted by closures. Counties like Harlan are now among the most economically distressed in the country, according to the Appalachian Regional Commission.
Coal is disappearing from the electricity grid. It’s disappearing from the hearts and minds of Americans who are more concerned with the impacts of a warming planet than the fate of fossilized plant matter and those who mined it.
In Kentucky, the winter nights are warmer, the last decade has been wetter, and scientists say natural disasters like last July’s floods in eastern Kentucky will become more frequent. Allowing warming to go unchecked will push people further into poverty, contribute to food insecurity, mass migration and potentially spur global armed conflict across the planet.
State lawmakers are less concerned with climate change than the economic turmoil they say the energy transition is causing in their communities. As a result, many elected officials who represent coal communities are leveraging economic struggles to push for laws supporting the fossil fuel industry at the expense of the climate.
This year, Kentucky’s Republican-dominated Legislature passed legislation making it more difficult to retire coal-fired power plants, and prohibited state investment advisers from considering the long-term ramifications of climate change.
Their rhetoric belies a growing number of Kentuckians who understand the climate science and are looking for economic opportunities amid the energy transition. While many Republicans and Democrats disagree about the role the fossil fuel industry should place in the future of the country, there is bipartisan support for revitalizing the coal communities that helped build this country and can now pioneer a low carbon future.
Advocates argue there’s a moral imperative to help these communities. Federal experts say the revitalization of energy communities is crucial for the country to pivot to a cleaner burning economy at the speed and scale necessary to avoid the worst impacts of warming.
Groups at the local, state and national level are working to get there. That includes Brian Anderson who grew up in West Virginia and is now the executive director of the Interagency Working Group on Coal and Power Plant communities and economic revitalization.
“If we don't involve the energy workers that have powered us for the last 100 years, then I don't think we can get there,” he said.
Politics getting in the way
State Rep. Chris Fugate grew up in the Appalachian hollers of Kentucky. During this year’s legislative session, he told lawmakers how the coal furnace kept his Pappaw’s house so hot when he was young they’d have to crack the windows in the dead of winter.
“Had we had solar panels, Pappaw couldn't have made the sunshine. He couldn’t have made the wind blow, but he’d say ‘son go down there and throw another shovel of coal in the stove,’” he said.
In December, freezing temperatures from Winter Storm Elliott knocked out a portion of Kentucky’s coal and gas power causing rolling blackouts on the coldest day of the year. Kentucky’s largest energy provider, Louisville Gas & Electric and Kentucky Utilities, implemented forced outages for the first time in the company’s history.
Republican Rep. Jim Gooch of Providence chairs the House Natural Resources Committee that oversaw the hearings. In his role, he wields power over the energy and environment related bills that move through the state House. He’s also a long-time climate denier who compared climate change to a cult, a talking point used by the right wing think tank American Enterprise Institute.
“Part of the reason that we had the shortages is because of the retirement of coal-fired power plants. Nothing you’re going to say is going to convince us otherwise,” Republican Gooch said.
The truth is more complicated. The rapid onset of freezing temperatures disrupted natural gas supplies for seven power plants in Kentucky and knocked off a significant amount of Tennessee Valley Authority’s coal generation. Wind energy was one of the most reliable sources of electricity during Winter Storm Elliott, and helped supply some power to Kentucky utilities.
Gooch and Fugate are far from the only Kentucky lawmakers who would rather the state continue to rely on coal in spite of the consequences to the climate. There’s Republican Sen. Johnnie Turner of Harlan who doesn’t deny the changes in his community, but says his faith in God reassures him about the ultimate result.
“It ain’t the climate change that’s causing all this, in my opinion, because the world is changing because there’s somebody above us that’s watching us,” he told LPM News.
Sen. Brandon Smith of Hazard, who chairs the Senate Natural Resources Committee, says federal regulations have made coal plants too expensive to operate. Republican Sen. Phillip Wheeler of Pikeville frames climate adaptation as an order imposed by wealthy liberal elites disconnected from the realities of the working class.
“It’s really tough for me to talk about because I’ve represented coal miners in my legal career my entire life. I’ve watched them lose their cars, I’ve watched them lose their homes all because of misguided policies out of Washington,” Wheeler said.
Rather than diversify the state’s energy portfolio following the hearing, Republican Sen. Robby Mills of Henderson pushed forward legislation that makes it more difficult to retire coal-fired power plants. Power companies broadly opposed the law. They said it could force them to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in outdated coal-fired power plants without consideration of the costs.
“It does not make sense from a customer’s perspective to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in those [coal] plants that were built in the ‘70s,” Louisville Gas and Electric Vice President Kent Blake told a House committee in March.
Later that month, the Republican-dominated Kentucky Legislature passed the bill. Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear, who is running for re-election, let it become law without his signature. Earlier this month, Beshear expressed his support for the coal industry, according to WCHS.
"We need the capacity. We need the power on the grid, and so right now we need all forms of energy here in Kentucky. we shouldn't be retiring any of them," Beshear said.
The decline of mining jobs in Kentucky
The rhetoric from state and federal lawmakers, including Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, is that environmental regulations “cripple” domestic energy production and “squeeze” job creators in Middle America. The reality is that coal employment was on the decline in Appalachia long before Obama and Biden-era policies designed to limit pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.
What was once U.S. Steel’s largest coal mine is now a tourist attraction in Harlan County only a few minutes down the road from the hotel where Craiger works. Visitors ride the rails on a mining shuttle inside Portal 31 as automated displays of coal-dusted mannequins explain the history of mining in the region.
In May, the audio tour was under renovation, so Portal 31 Director Nick Sturgill walked visitors through. Near its end, he stopped in front of a machine that chews through rock called a continuous miner.
“Mechanization, it’s a positive in that you can mine a lot more coal a lot faster, but with mechanization you just don’t need the manpower,” Sturgill said. “So that’s why right after World War II you start to see the number of coal miners steadily decline, and it really continues that way throughout the entire mining industry all the way up until today.”
Coal employment peaked in Kentucky in 1948 at nearly 76,000 miners. Though the demand for coal actually increased in the post war period, the mechanization of the mines that began in the 1940’s led mining companies to shed the workforce they’d established in the hills of Harlan County.
Coal’s been on its way out in Harlan County for nearly as long as Craiger, from the Benham Schoolhouse Inn, has been alive. Craiger’s grandfather worked in the mines. Her father quit school at 14 and mined coal until he had a non-fatal heart attack at work at the age of 49, she said.
“When you’re from the area and your heritage is in coal; Your dad was a coal miner, your grandpa was a coal miner. You know? It’s different,” she said.
Sturgill, at Portal 31, says tourism’s one of the few industries left bringing money into the region.
“There's really no big industry anymore. I mean, there's still a few mines in operation. But as far as bringing people in here to spend their money, and to bring revenue into the county, tourism is about all we've got,” said Sturgill said.
Though mining employment peaked in ‘48, coal production peaked in Kentucky in 1992 while in the U.S. coal production peaked in 2008. The effects were especially pronounced in Appalachia where production declined 64% compared to the national average of 40%.
The thick, easily accessible coal seams that were once plentiful in the mountains of eastern Kentucky have been mined. What’s left is labor intensive, costly to extract and has increased the rates of black lung disease. Meanwhile, increased competition from coal mines in the Powder River Basin of Montana and Wyoming so strained demand for Kentucky’s coal that lawmakers passed a law to discount it for in-state utilities; a move the 6th U.S. The Circuit Court of Appeals said is likely unconstitutional.
As a result of mechanization, market competition and a decreased demand for coal, Kentucky employed fewer than 5,000 coal miners last year, according to a state dashboard. Today, this part of Appalachia has the country’s largest concentration of coal mine and power plant closures in the country, according to a federal group working to revitalize these regions.
Counties like Harlan are also among the most economically distressed in the country, according to the Appalachian Regional Commission. The poverty rates in Appalachian Kentucky were the worst in the region at 183% of the U.S. average between 2016 and 2020, according to the Appalachian Regional Commission.
“I mean, you can see shells of communities all across Appalachia that have been devastated by what has been a many decades of decline in employment,” said Brian Anderson, executive director of the Interagency Working Group on Coal and Power Plant Communities and Economic Revitalization.
Appalachia believes in climate change
Ask people across eastern Kentucky about climate change and you’ll find a range of opinions like most anywhere else.
A Yale climate opinions survey from 2021 found 59% people in eastern Kentucky believe global warming is happening (a 13% decrease from the national average) while 46% believe that warming is caused by humans (11% lower than the national peer average).
Randy Brock used to make a living doing coal quality control. These days he’s helping with renovations on the automated displays that teach people about the history of coal mining at Portal 31.
“I don't think that people here have any belligerence involved in the way they feel about climate,” Brock said. “I think everybody's concerned about it. But I do think that it's almost as if it's been oversold. To the point of detriment when you really feel what it costs for energy now and you’re looking at that power bill, you miss the coal, that’s for sure.”
Michael Obradovich worked 28 years in the coal mines of Harlan County for U.S. Steel and Arch Mineral before retiring in 2002. He said he knows coal has contributed to climate disruption.
“It does, it’s a fact that it does do that,” Obradovich said. “That's where technology's just going to have to come into a better place to scrub out the impurities.”
There are people like Gwen Christon, who lost her grocery store in last year’s floods, and hasn’t given a second thought to whether climate change played a role. And, of course, there are those who dismiss the science outright.
Mary Cromer works as deputy director for the Appalachian Citizens Law Center in Letcher County, Kentucky, at the intersection of environmental justice and workers’ rights. She works with people across the region who have varying beliefs in climate change, but a united desire to improve the quality of life in their communities.
She’s seen the environmental harm caused by acid mine drainage, landslides, polluted streams and abandoned mines left idle. She also represents hundreds of miners with black lung disease pushing for better healthcare coverage.
“I think it's hard for a region that has been so defined by coal to be able to just pivot and find a new identity or find a different way of thinking of themselves. I think it’s been hard for all of us,” Cromer said.
For Kentuckians and energy communities across the country, the transition away from fossil fuels has caused real and perceived economic harm, Cromer said. She thinks offering a positive vision of what the future could look like for these residents is the successful way forward.
“This area can move beyond coal and can move beyond coal in a positive way. And I think once you have that, then you'll lose a lot of the resistance to what, to me, is clear science that climate change is happening.”
Economic revitalization in Appalachia
It’s not the miners’ fault the coal that built this country is also burning up the planet. It’s not their fault that the energy transition is moving away from the industries that their communities once relied on, according to Brian Anderson, the West Virginian native and executive director of President Joe Biden’s new economic working group to revitalize coal communities.
“We cannot put the burden of tackling the climate crisis on the backs of the hardworking people, who through no fault of their own, have been blessed with a carbon resource,” Anderson said.
A recent study from Energy Policy modeled how the transition to net-zero emissions could affect the energy workforce in the coming decades. It found that employment and wage losses in the fossil fuel industry could be offset by increases in low carbon resource industries, and actually grow the country’s energy workforce from 1.5% of the U.S. labor force in 2020 to as much as 5% by mid-century.
To that end, Biden signed an executive order establishing the working group to revitalize coal communities. Its goal is to use a place-based approach to target energy communities across the country with federal investments totaling $672 billion.
UPDATE: The Interagency Working Group on Coal and Power Plant communities and economic revitalization mistakenly told Eastern Kentuckians and LPM News that federal investments in energy communities totaled more than $900 billion dollars. As of Aug. 3, the group revised those numbers down to $672 billion.
Editor’s note: This is the first of three stories in the “Coal’s Dying Light” series. Thursday’s story will dive deeper into the funding available to help energy communities and the path it will take to get into the hands of those who need it most. This series was supported by the MIT Environmental Solutions Journalism Fellowship.