WILLLIAMSBURG, Kentucky—The first few months of 2017 haven’t been especially kind to the coal miners of Kentucky. Eighty-eight of them lost their jobs when a single company, Mountainside Coal, laid off its entire work force.
Deb Moses was one of them. “I volunteered for the layoff because somebody had to go,” she told POLITICO Magazine. “I was the one that could handle it because I didn’t have a mortgage.”
Whitley County, in the Appalachian foothills, was one of the hardest hit counties in a state that saw an overall loss of 216 coal jobs during the first quarter, according to the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet. In a region where coal still dominates a sagging economy, even small fluctuations like this are parsed for signs of larger trends.
But there is a surprising amount of optimism in Appalachia these days. The recent job losses weren’t nearly as painful as relentless declines the industry has felt over the past six years, which in itself was a kind of good news. Then, six days after I spoke to Moses in Whitley County, President Trump announced that he would pull the United States out of the Paris climate accord, honoring a campaign pledge to revive the coal industry by removing the yoke of environmental regulations. The announcement, met largely with anger and frustration in America’s coastal cities, was cheered in this part of Kentucky.
“Hopefully it signals the beginning of the end to the war on our local economy from federal regulations,” Pat White, the County Judge Executive for Whitley County, told me by email two days after the president’s announcement.
But perhaps the best reason for an out-of-work miner in Whitley County to think she’ll be back underground before long has little to do with the regulations Trump has stripped away. Interestingly, it has more to do with the demands of the new economy driven by Silicon Valley.
The coal under the hills of Whitley County, like about a third of the coal in central Appalachia, is metallurgic coal, a higher grade of coal that burns hotter and cleaner than the power plant-fueling thermal coal that has been demonized by environmentalists in debates over carbon emissions and climate change. Used to forge steel and other metals, metallurgic coal will be essential for any future infrastructure project boom, and Kentucky’s mountains have an estimated 35-year supply. But the seam in Whitley County is an even more valuable variety of metallurgic coal known as “blue gem.” It burns even hotter with a low ash content, making it useful to produce silicon, the basic material for computer chips and solar panels.
“You need the blue gem to make the solar panels, and that’s what people don’t know,” Moses told me, articulating a simple truth: Without Coal Valley, there’s no Silicon Valley.
Here in Appalachia, the new and old economies remain linked in inextricable ways often ignored in partisan debates that cast fossil fuels and renewable energy in a zero sum battle. In early June on MSNBC, reporter Willie Geist asked EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, “It’s true is it not that there are more jobs created by solar energy, by the next wave of energy in this country, than by the coal jobs that you have cited?” Pruitt responded that “all jobs matter,” but he could have gone further. He could have told Geist there’s a seam of coal in Whitley County that is in high demand by American industry, but 88 people lost their jobs because of the Army Corps of Engineers’ permitting restrictions caused a coal company to go dark.
“One of the biggest headaches we have in the U.S. is getting permits,” said Dr. Rick Honaker, chair of the Department of Mining at the University of Kentucky’s College of Engineering. “If you go to Canada, you can up there and get started in two or three years, but in the U.S., it’s a five to 10-year process.”
Eastern Kentucky coal miners were once a key Democratic Party constituency on the front lines of the labor movement. Then, in 1980—just three years after the documentary film Harlan County, U.S.A. about striking coal workers won an Oscar—Hal Rogers was elected to Congress as an Appalachian Republican. Four years later, Mitch McConnell won statewide in his first race for U.S. Senate. Still, Democrats continued to hold their own in Kentucky, especially in the mountains, until the first term of the Obama administration.
In 2011, two things happened nearly simultaneously: Obama’s EPA announced its mercury and air toxins standards at about the same time that the price of natural gas fell below the price of coal for the first time in history, resulting in power plants converting from coal to gas. The market for thermal coal cratered. Republicans wasted no time blaming the job losses on Obama’s regulations. Though some said this was roughly the equivalent of blaming the president for the price of gasoline at the pump, the “War on Coal” became a convenient political weapon with which Republicans cudgeled Democrats. And when Republicans weren’t beating Democrats over the head, Democrats were doing it to themselves, as evidenced by Hillary Clinton’s campaign gaffe about “putting lots of coal miners out of work.” In November, a region of the country that had been reliably Democratic a generation or two ago voted for Trump in overwhelming numbers.
The “War on Coal” rhetoric loses some steam when confronted with the reality that 21 gigawatts of coal-fired power plants are scheduled to be shut down over the next four years. The coal firing those plants will likely be replaced by natural gas and renewables, according to the American Public Power Association. But that hasn’t made regulation bashing any less popular in this part of the country, which is why Trump’s popularity remains so high. Trump, to the delight of his supporters, has followed through on several major campaign promises on coal. Even before the much-touted retreat from the Paris Accords, Trump had dumped the Stream Protection Rule and pulled the plug on Obama’s Clean Power Plan.
In March, Fox News put a camera crew down a long-wall mine outside of Hazard in Perry County. Miners were back at work there and this news seemed to endorse the notion that onerous regulations really were the thing holding back the coal industry. Perry was one of the lucky counties in the region, recording a gain of 54 jobs in the first quarter. But overall, Kentucky’s job numbers were down by more than 200. Only in a region as bruised by job losses as this one would that be seen as good news. But that’s what it looked like to Tyler White, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, who observed that any number that wasn’t a four-digit loss suggested “that maybe the bleeding has stopped.”
Back in October 2015, Mountainside Coal began applying for permits to mine the blue gem in Whitley County. Like all coal operations, it required permits from an array of state and federal agencies, including the Army Corps of Engineers, which claims jurisdiction over all waterways in America. The Army Corps granted a permit to Mountainside in April 2017, but Mountainside had been laying people off since July 2016.
“I can tell you that if we had gotten that permit in a timely manner, we could have mined that coal while we had a contract to sell it,” Moses told me.
When I asked the Army Corps if it slow-walked coal mining permits, as many in coal country believe, a spokesman for the Corps pushed back: “If use of the term ‘slow-walks’ is meant to imply that we intentionally drag our feet or delay processing of applications related to coal mining proposals—that is simply not true.”
Stories like this one, confirm for the people of eastern Kentucky that the federal government is not a benevolent force, says Judge White. There’s “a perception in communities like this that we’re being done wrong. People around here get the feeling that the government is not being reputable with them.”
Regulations, big environmental ones or just the plodding bureaucracy, define the federal government in this region and will remain a fixation for the residents of coal country for the foreseeable future.
“If the regulations level out and they get that worked out, that’s going open up more jobs and help with the blue gem market, and maybe extend that market,” said former exploration foreman Kent Sears, who, like Deb Moses, was also laid off from Mountainside Coal in the first quarter of 2017.
As of 2012, eastern Kentucky had 5.5 billion tons of metallurgic coal remaining inside its mountains, enough for 35 years, according to a report from the University of Kentucky. That’s the good news. The bad news is that only 17 percent of those reserves are greater than 42 inches thick. Anything narrower than that requires cutting out additional rock, which raises production costs.
In addition to metallurgic coal, another bright spot in the future of eastern Kentucky is a reserve of coal near Hazard called the Fire Clay seam, which yields a surprising byproduct during the coal cleaning process: large quantities of rare earth elements (REEs)—vital to the production of smart phones, tablets, electricity-generating windmills and military hardware. Experts say there’s enough to meet U.S. demand for 20 years.
Currently, the world’s largest reserves of rare earth elements is in China, which is keeping the price for the elements low because its REE reserves are the first step of the Chinese smart-phone supply chain. Consequently, China is keeping the costs of its REEs low, according to Dr. Rick Honaker, the chairman of the the University of Kentucky’s Department of Mining.
At the Fire Clay seam near Hazard, Dr. Honaker and his team have demonstrated they can extract industrial amounts of REE’s during the coal-cleaning process from the clay immediately adjacent to the coal — a substance that is normally a waste product.
“What was the environmental headache of coal could be an economic gem,” Dr. Honaker told me by telephone. “We can do it today. The problem today is that China controls the market and keeps the REE prices suppressed.”
So if Silicon Valley were ever interested in repatriating its smart phone supply chain, the first thing it would need is a reliable domestic supply of REE’s, and according to Dr. Honaker, there’s a 20-year supply in eastern Kentucky. One might think that a domestic supply of REE’s would be a big deal to Silicon Valley companies like Apple that rely heavily on REE’s for its smart phones and tablets. But earlier this year, Apple pledged to work towards a zero-mining future, envisioning its primary source for its aluminum, silicon, and REE’s to come from recycling instead of China or eastern Kentucky.
Apple chose not to respond to a request for comment for this story, when I asked them about the company’s reliance on metallurgic coal for its computer chips and for the 50-megawatt solar array it just built in Arizona to power its data center there.
“They think about coal as being dirty or whatever, but you have certain things that are a necessity. You’re going to have to get it somewhere,” Kent Sears told me. “If you look at all the regulations we have, maybe we got too many. Maybe consolidate a few, or streamline them. We’re not their enemy.”