Commonwealth Journal

August 24, 2007

Column: Coal debate presents difficult choices

By Ronnie Ellis

FRANKFORT, Ky. — My friend Mitch Jayne – a member of the musical group, The Dillards, better known as The Darlings on the Andy Griffith Show – loves to remind me that I’m a flatlander. Mitch loves his Ozark Mountains in southern Missouri and proudly claims the title of hillbilly.

There aren’t any mountains or coal in my native Barren County. Despite living for nearly 10 years near the western coal fields around Henderson, Union and Webster counties, I don’t know much about coal. But I know that it exerts a powerful influence over the lives of those who own it, mine it, or live near it. And for good or ill, it affects the lives of millions more who depend on the cheap power it produces.

Tom Fitzgerald of the Kentucky Resource Council says it’s not that cheap, that the “footprint” of mining coal is costly to the environment and hidden economic costs aren’t factored into calculations of the true cost of our “cheap” electricity. He knows we can’t live without it in the short term, but he warns a day of reckoning is coming when mandated reductions in carbon emissions which are warming our planet will dramatically increase the costs of coal-generated electricity. Lawmakers respect Fitzgerald, courteously listen to him, and then vote against his counsel.

At least they listen. And this week, it appeared others got through to lawmakers about the devastation of coal mining. Members of the Kentuckians for the Commonwealth were eloquent and moving in their condemnation of coal and its effects on their lives and the environment – eloquent enough that several lawmakers asked to go and see for themselves.

Teri Blanton, who was forced to move from her home in Dayhoit because of coal, told lawmakers she wants her children and grandchildren to understand that “to serve God is to love His creation.” Carl Shoupe said places “where I played as a kid are not there anymore. The mountains are gone!” He said the bill lawmakers passed Friday granting incentives to coal companies promises “a dream, but you’re going to get a nightmare.”

Lawmakers supporting the bill, many from coal producing areas, were just as passionate about the need for jobs and economic development in areas starved for them. Senators Bob Stivers, Tom Jensen, and Dorsey Ridley and Representatives Brent Yonts and Rocky Adkins made persuasive – if less emotionally powerful – arguments for the measure.

They base their arguments and hopes on evolving science and technology and the chance they will provide safe, clean ways to extract and burn coal. But I recall the words of my journalism instructor Jim Highland 30 years ago: “Every time you solve a problem, you’re probably going to create two new ones.” Whether it’s the technology to capture carbon emissions and store them under ground; or extracting coal by mountain top removal rather than sending men and women deep under ground; or driving up food prices through conversion of agricultural products into fuel; there’s always a cost.

As a flatlander who has never depended on the livelihood provided by coal mining nor lived near its destruction, I don’t possess any answers. There seems a high price for coal but its backers promise a high return. Still, the debate this week reminded me of a lyric in a song Mitch Jayne wrote for The Dillards:

“Promises are words for things they never do. Mountains are promises come true.”

Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. He may be contacted by email at