It was only a few months before his tragic death when, in the winter of 1968, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy traveled to eastern Kentucky to investigate one of the most poverty-stricken areas of the nation.
At a time when the federal government was waging a “war on poverty,” 98 counties in Appalachian coal country were considered among the poorest in the nation. And in Perry County, near where Sen. Kennedy briefly stopped on his poverty tour to address the media, more than 60 percent of residents lived below the poverty line.
“There is no real hope for the future amongst many of these people who work hard in the coal mines,” Kennedy professed to residents. “And now that the coal mines shut down, they have no place to go. There’s no hope for the future…”
Regardless of whether or not Kennedy foresaw a coal industry in Kentucky 45 years later, weakened by market forces and all but crippled by regulatory fiat, in 2013, his 1968 prediction concerning Appalachia’s historic poverty appears to be truer than even he realized.
Kentucky coal mining jobs are now at their lowest number in recorded history, and all of the job losses this past quarter occurred in Kennedy’s old stomping ground: the eastern Kentucky coal fields of Appalachia.
Coal miners in that region now number less than 8,000 — down 30 percent from just two years ago. As a result, funds collected from the coal-severance tax to pay for basic public services like water and sewer projects, libraries, firefighting and even law enforcement, are down by 23 percent compared to last year.
It’s true; market factors have played a significant role in Appalachia’s disproportionate job loss. Decades of coal mining have rendered the remaining supply of the black rock in Eastern Kentucky harder and harder — and more costly — to get to.
Adding to the misery is the fact that western Kentucky coal, formerly less desirable due to its higher sulfur content, is now in vogue due to more technologically sophisticated emission controls in power plants.
But that’s not the whole story.
Piled atop these recent market downturns are the Obama administration’s newest environmental mandates and executive orders taking advantage of climate-change hysteria.
It’s these draconian regulations that could make Kennedy’s troubling prediction permanent by crystallizing Appalachia’s dismal economic outlook once and for all. In the very likely case that market conditions do change — and they constantly are doing just that — eastern Kentucky, and the nation’s entire coal industry for that matter, may not have a chance to rebound.
But from where could new market demand for Kentucky’s most valuable natural resource come? Look no further than developing nations like China and India, or even third-world countries in Africa which have increased their coal use by 15 percent during the past decade.
It’s this increased global demand for cheap energy that has the International Energy Agency reporting that by 2017, coal is set to become the world’s largest source of energy. An extra 1.2 billion tons of coal per year are expected to be consumed worldwide during the next five years.
This would all be tremendous news for those Kentuckians in Appalachia, who historically have endured unrelenting poverty, if only the current administration did not insist on using every weapon at its disposal to keep Kentucky coal precisely where it currently stands — at its lowest point in recorded history.
It’s ironic that while the federal government once waged a war on poverty in Appalachia, that war has shifted into one for poverty — and against coal.
Jim Waters is vice president of policy and communications for the Bluegrass Institute, Kentucky’s free-market think tank. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read previously published columns at www.bipps.org.