In one of his first community meetings since taking office, Gov. Matt Bevin spoke Friday with residents in Hazard about the decline of the coal industry and the area’s economic depression.
Kentucky has lost more than 11,000 coal industry jobs since 2009, and the Eastern Kentucky coalfields have been the hardest hit. Numerous factors have contributed to the decline: competition from natural gas, environmental regulations and rising production costs. But for the past eight years, many Kentucky politicians have placed the blame solely on President Barack Obama and his environmental policies.
Bevin largely stayed away from using the “war on coal” rhetoric during his community meeting in Hazard, though he did include several pointed mentions of EPA "overreach" and blamed Obama for the region’s woes.
“The EPA and this current presidential administration have absolutely gutted coal,” Bevin said. “Our current president said he was going to bankrupt the coal industry, and boy has he worked his hardest to make sure he’s done exactly that. I tell you, the fall of 2016 can’t come soon enough as far as I’m concerned.”
But unlike many of the past discussions of the state’s coal industry, Bevin didn’t tell the roomful of people in Hazard that the coal industry would return to its previous strength. He said the industry waxes and wanes, and said he’d do whatever he could to extract the resources.
“And I’m determined as governor — and this is my commitment to you — that to the absolute degree possible, I am committed to ensuring that we make maximum use of a resource that we’ve been blessed with an abundance of,” he said.
Besides a brief mention of an increased demand globally for the fuel — although last year, global coal consumption saw the biggest decline in history — most of the meeting focused on theoretical talk about diversifying Eastern Kentucky’s economy.
Bevin said he supports a bill introduced by Republican U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers — the RECLAIM Act — which would expedite the funneling of a billion dollars in the Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fund toward economic development on former mine sites. He asked the community to bring him examples of projects already in the works, or ideas for future projects, that might help push the legislation through.
“One of the ways that [Rep. Rogers is] going to be able to make the case for [the bill] is if we have projects that show an immediate return on investment,” Bevin said. “A couple, three, simple projects, projects that will allow us to show a return that will justify the ability for Congress to get behind this.”
Bevin also urged laid-off coal miners to consider going back to school or getting additional training. He emphasized personal responsibility. Although he didn’t offer any solutions to the region’s woes, he said he would work to send a message to companies that there is potential in the coalfields.
“There is opportunity here,” Bevin said. “There is untapped talent in these hills. There are people who are capable of working, there are people who want to work, there are people who will bust their tails to do what needs to be done and do it well.”
Despite his relatively more nuanced language at the event, Bevin did use the phrase "war on coal" in a press release sent out 12 hour after the event: “I spent the afternoon with the citizens of Eastern Kentucky, because there is no substitute for personal conversation with those directly affected by Obama's war on coal," he wrote.