Sometimes, meeting in the middle can create the best outcomes. But sometimes, it’s the byproduct of indecisiveness and results in getting left behind.
That middle ground is where West Virginia continues to find itself on coal, an industry that has seen its best days long ago. As the 2021 legislative session wound down, an amendment to a bill that would have established a program to move the state beyond gazing backward at the energy industry’s past died in the Senate. Ironically, that amendment was attached to a bill aimed at keeping coal-fired power plants in West Virginia operating as long as possible — continuing to whip the horse, even though it’s dead.
While that bill did pass, the Legislature stripped it of its most meaningful guts pertaining to keeping the coal industry wheezing along. That included requiring in-state power producers to maintain 2019 coal consumption levels and file compliance plans every three years — with the long-dormant state Public Energy Authority — specifying how 2019 coal consumption levels would be maintained.
So, the majority of the Legislature doesn’t want to look forward through something like McDowell County Democrat Delegate Ed Evans’ coal community comeback plan, but realizes coal is quickly becoming obsolete and the government can’t really do anything to reverse that trend.
What remains is some fence-straddling that is damaging the state. Many members of the Legislature want to give the appearance that the coal industry is vitally important — partly because they cater to the coal lobby, and partly because they don’t know how to do anything else. But that’s all it is. An appearance.
Meanwhile, the state economy continues to suffer and West Virginia is left behind.
That’s not to say the state shouldn’t fight to save miners’ jobs, benefits or pensions. Far from it. If anyone should be made whole as the coal industry dies, it’s the people who actually did — and those that still do — the work. It’s also completely understandable that the 14,000 or so people still employed by mining in West Virginia don’t want to have to learn a new profession, or train to do something else, when they’ve got what has been a traditionally stable and good-paying job.
In the end, though, the reality is that energy companies — coal’s biggest customers — have been turning away from coal, and they continue to do so. Natural gas and renewables are cleaner and cheaper. It’s plain capitalism. That’s why the Legislature should have passed something like the community comeback plan, which would work to ensure communities once entirely beholden to the coal industry can grow with the right help.
If this state is going to move forward, West Virginians and legislators need to face facts, rather than investing time, energy and money in keeping up appearances.