Eastern Kentucky and coal: What's next and what's the back-up plan?

02/26/2013 08:32 AM

It hasn’t been a good stretch for the Kentucky coal industry.

Demand for coal continues to shrivel in the United States as more power companies switch to natural gas.

Coal severance tax receipts that go to the counties and the region are down $88 million dollars. And mining companies have laid off more than 2,000 workers in Eastern Kentucky – and perhaps as many as 3,000, said Rep. Leslie Combs, D-Pikeville.

And while emerging economies like China and India are using more coal, the United States is poised to cut back with the number of coal-fired power plants nationally dropping to 384 from 521 in 2010, as McClatchy Newspapers national correspondent Sean Cockerham reported last week.

Still, Eastern Kentucky leaders have remained hopeful that coal can rebound. Several, led by Combs and Democratic House Floor Leader Rocky Adkins of Catlettsburg, said so on the House floor Thursday during a debate over creating new scholarships for students in coal-producing counties.

In an interview with Pure Politics Monday, Combs said “I do think it will be back to a certain level. Will it be back to the levels we’ve been used to in times past? No.” (1:00 of the first interview segment.)

If that’s the case, that begs the question, “So what’s next for Eastern Kentucky?”

That’s the focus of the first part of that interview with Combs, whose 94th House District includes parts of Pike, Letcher and Harlan counties — three of the biggest coal producing areas.

Combs, last week, successfully pushed through the House the bill for a scholarship program that would divert coal severance tax to pay for natives of coal producing counties in Eastern and Western Kentucky to go to college in those regions. The scholarships would cover between $2,200 and $6,000 in tuition costs depending on the college.

Without a four-year public university in the Eastern Kentucky coal region, aspiring college students who want to stay in the area have access to community and technical colleges, satelite campuses from Morehead State University and Eastern Kentucky University and non-profit colleges like the University of Pikeville and University of the Cumberlands that can cost as much as $10,000 more a year than fou-year public schools.

But even if more students get college degrees, then what? That’s where the conversation with Combs picks back up:

About Ryan Alessi

Ryan Alessi joined cn|2 in May 2010 as senior managing editor and host of Pure Politics. He is now pursuing an advanced degree in non-fiction writing from Murray State University and is a regular contributor to Pure Politics. Ryan has covered politics for more than 14 years, including seven years as a reporter for the Lexington Herald-Leader. Ryan can be reached at purepolitics@twcable.com or @mycn2 on Twitter.

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