There was a debate in Kentucky yesterday between U.S. Senate candidates Mitch McConnell and Alison Lundergan Grimes, and while there was lots of disagreement, one thing both candidates agreed on is that what their state and America needs is more of that sweet, sweet coal. McConnell accused Grimes of being complicit, because she's a Democrat, in "Obama's war on coal," and Grimes protested that she loves coal more than she loves her own mama (though not quite in so many words). Throughout this campaign they've both been so enthusiastic about coal, you almost expected them to pull out a few lumps of the stuff and start smearing it all over their faces while moaning, "Oh, coal, God yes, coal, coal, COAL!!!"
Here's a dose of reality: There are only a tiny number of people left in Kentucky who mine coal. According to the state's department of energy: "At the end of 2013, coal mines in Kentucky directly employed 11,885 people." Since there are about 3.4 million people over the age of 18 in Kentucky, that means that the coal industry employs 0.35 of 1 percent of the Kentucky work force, or one out of every 285 Kentucky adults. Coal mining employment dropped 15.5 percent in 2013 alone.
If you were just looking backward and lamenting those lost jobs, that's one thing. But is there anyone even in Kentucky who seriously believes that there's going to be some kind of coal revival if only we get the right policies from Washington? You could reverse every regulation the Obama's Environmental Protection Agency has enacted, and the coal industry wouldn't have any brighter a future than it does now (in no small part because of the fracking boom that has made natural gas so much cheaper and more abundant than it was just a few years ago).
I realize that coal has a cultural power in Kentucky that goes beyond the number of people the industry still employs. So apparently, what the voters of Kentucky want is representatives who will tell them that this industry isn't dying, that things can turn around for coal, and if we just stop worrying about clean air and global warming, before you know it the mines will start humming again and more generations of Kentuckians will don their helmet lamps and head underground to find a brighter future.
I have a hard time believing that very many people think that might actually happen, even in the places where coal's decline has been economically devastating. But I guess people would rather be sold that fantasy than be told the truth, which is that those jobs aren't coming back, and if they actually want to improve life in their state they're going to have to figure out a different way to do it.