Categories: Politics

Industry Advocate Tells Ky. Lawmakers Coal Still Vital Despite Dreary Outlook

A coal industry advocate told Kentucky lawmakers on Thursday that “coal is not a silver bullet” for the country’s energy needs, but said coal should still play a role as natural gas and renewable energy continue to grow.

Paul Bailey, president of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, said power companies should be rewarded for using coal as an energy source.

“Right now coal is not being compensated fairly for some of the attributes it has. For example, coal has a very, very secure fuel supply,” Bailey said during a legislative hearing on Thursday.

Bailey argued the ease of storing coal in large piles makes it an ideal power source in “high impact, low frequency events” like hurricanes.

But he admitted that low natural gas prices and low growth in the consumption of energy still give the coal industry a challenging outlook.

“We’re saying coal is not a silver bullet, nuclear is not a silver bullet, gas is not a silver bullet,” Bailey said. “All of them together can be a silver bullet if you design an electricity system in the right way. But do whatever you can to keep up this discussion about the need for a coal fleet.”

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, natural gas and renewable energy will make up about 75 percent of the country’s power capacity by 2040.

But officials in President Donald Trump’s administration are attempting to prop up the ailing coal industry.

Last week, U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry directed the Federal Energy Regulation Commission to change the rules that govern energy prices so coal plants can get a “a fair rate of return.”

Critics have said the plan amounts to the federal government “putting a thumb on the scale” of the energy market.

In Kentucky, employment in the coal sector has imploded over the past decade, falling from nearly 19,500 jobs in 2009 to about 6,300 jobs in the middle of 2017.

The state’s coal production has spiraled over the same period and saw a nearly 10 percent decline between the first and second quarters of 2017. The industry shed 200 jobs during the same time period.

Analysts point to a variety of factors that played into the decline, including government regulations, mechanization, declining accessible reserves and competition from cheap natural gas.

Pro-coal Kentucky lawmakers chiefly blame federal regulations enacted during President Barack Obama’s administration for the decline.

“Literally bad legislative policy in D.C. wiped out the heritage of this state,” said Sen. Brandon Smith, a Republican from Hazard.

“I liken it to a man-made disaster,” said Republican Rep. John Blanton of Salyersville. “I have people that sold off everything that they own simply to try to keep their lights on.”

Rep. Jim Wayne, a Democrat from Louisville, suggested Kentucky’s coal regions to look to other industries in face of the dismal outlook.

“I think that’s all the more reason for us to look at things like solar in eastern Kentucky and other initiatives at the state and hopefully federal levels to revitalize the economies of traditionally coal counties,” Wayne said.

Rep. Jim DuPlessis, a Republican from Elizabethtown, asked for Bailey to weigh in on whether shifting coal regions’ focus from coal or reducing regulations would help employment in the areas.

“Do we want to move more solar power to eastern Kentucky? Or do we want to get the government out of the way? Which one is going to have a faster ‘get back to work’ thing?” DuPlessis asked.

After a long pause, Bailey responded “I don’t know. I’m trying to give a useful answer, I really don’t know.”

Ryland Barton

Ryland Barton is the Capitol bureau chief for Kentucky Public Radio. He's covered politics and state government for NPR member stations KWBU in Waco and KUT in Austin. He has a bachelor's degree from the University of Chicago and a master's degree in journalism from the University of Texas. He grew up in Lexington.

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