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Why Coal Is No Longer King

Energy

In West Virginia, the writing has been on the wall for decades. Scholars have been predicting this day for 40 years. But coal companies and their representatives in Charleston and Washington, DC, have traditionally viewed economic diversification in southern West Virginia as bad for business.

Today, coal is still king only in the minds of West Virginia politicians.
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State officials choose not to look inward. They blame the federal government for the dramatic downturn in the coal industry. And many West Virginians have bought into the coal industry-fed narrative. They've been taught to believe the only things preventing prosperity in West Virginia are environmentalists and federal regulations.

President Obama's Environmental Protection Agency is the latest to face the wrath of West Virginians. But state officials, including the West Virginia Coal Association, were blaming outsiders for downturns in the coal sector long before Obama took office in 2009.

"You're dealing with decades of the companies controlling the narrative around here," Chuck Keeney, a West Virginia historian and expert on the state's coal industry, told EcoWatch. "It wasn't just as though Obama getting elected exasperated all these feelings. These feelings were already there against the federal government."

Across southern West Virginia's coalfields, "Friends of Coal" signs are everywhere, paid for by the West Virginia Coal Association. Keeney, who grew up in West Virginia and attended West Virginia University, said students in schools are taught climate change is a hoax or a liberal lie.

"Many families think they're losing their job because some Washington politicians believe in a hoax. But of course that ignores the fact that the coal industry has failed to compete in the open marketplace. Natural gas is overtaking it," explained Keeney, who teaches history at Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College.

Only a few years ago, coal companies active in Appalachia were making huge acquisitions. Among the largest was Alpha Natural Resources Inc.'s $8.5 billion combination with Massey Energy Co. in 2011.

"When Alpha bought Massey, they couldn't pay for it. They had to take out huge loans. They were expecting a big boom to come in metallurgic coal. And it didn't come. And as a result, coal is now taking this unbelievably dramatic downturn," Keeney said.

West Virginia native, journalist and environmental communicator Jeff Young believes it is important for people to recognize that West Virginia is "less a fully functioning state government than a resource-extraction colony." From timber and salt to coal and now natural gas, the political, economic and institutional forces of the state are almost completely aligned with the needs of the companies who are taking raw natural gas materials form the state and exporting them.

"Yes, there have been heroic political stands against coal's abuses [Ken Hechler and Denise Giardina] and, yes, many have fought for environmental sanity and economic justice in the coal fields [RIP Judy Bonds, Larry Gibson and James Weekley]," Young told reporter David Roberts in 2014. "But the politics are such now that the electoral winners will be the ones who double down on the dumbness of 'standing up for coal.'"

Anybody who speaks about economic diversification in southern West Virginia, Keeney emphasized, gets quashed very quickly. "The industry has self-serving reasons for that. You don't want to have an automobile plant here because then your coal miners can vote with their feet. They can go to the job that they may not get squashed to death. You don't want the people here to have options," he said.

In West Virginia, Keeney contends the industry and the politicians remain one in the same. "Many of the key politicians have major stock holdings in companies and many of them are executives themselves," he said. "We have a number of our House of Delegates who are executives in coal companies and in the land companies."

Today, coal is still king only in the minds of most West Virginia politicians. Unlike in Kentucky, where political leaders have approved state-sponsored economic transition efforts for the coal industry, West Virginia's political establishment has pushed residents to fend for themselves in the midst of coal's decline over fears of angering the coal companies.

"People are afraid of being seen as anti-coal because it is such a dominant political force," said Jeff Kessler, a West Virginia state senator and gubernatorial candidate who tried (but failed) in 2014 to get support for a publicly funded jobs initiative similar to one pushed by political leaders in Kentucky.

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Up to half of the detrimental impacts of the "landscape simplification" that monocropping entails come as a result of a diminished mix of ecosystem service-providing insects, a team of scientists reported Oct. 16 in the journal Science Advances.

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"Our study shows that biodiversity is essential to ensure the provision of ecosystem services and to maintain a high and stable agricultural production," Matteo Dainese, the study's lead author and a biologist at Eurac Research in Bolzano, Italy, said in a statement.

It stands to reason that, with declines in the sheer numbers of insects that ferry pollen from plant to plant and keep crop-eating pests under control, these services will wane as well. But until now, it hasn't been clear how monocultures affect the number and mix of these species or how crop yields might change as a result.

Aiming to solve these questions, Dainese and his colleagues pulled together data from 89 studies cutting across a variety of landscapes, from the tropics of Asia and Africa to the higher latitudes of northern Europe. They tabulated the number of pollinating and pest-controlling insects at these sites — both the absolute number of individuals and the number of species — along with an assessment of the ecosystem services the insects provided.

In almost all of the studies they looked at, the team found that a more diverse pool of these species translated into more pollination and greater pest control. They also showed that simplified landscapes supported fewer species of service-providing insects, which ultimately led to lower crop yields.

The researchers also looked at a third measure of the makeup of insect populations — what they called "evenness." In natural ecosystems, a handful of dominant species with many more individuals typically live alongside a higher number of rarer species. The team found as landscapes became less diverse, dominant species numbers dwindled and rare species gained ground. This resulting, more equitable mix led to less pollination (though it didn't end up affecting pest control).

"Our study provides strong empirical support for the potential benefits of new pathways to sustainable agriculture that aim to reconcile the protection of biodiversity and the production of food for increasing human populations," Ingolf Steffan-Dewenter, one of the study's authors and an animal ecologist at the University of Würzburg in Germany, said in the statement.

The scientists figure that the richness of pollinator species explains around a third of the harmful impacts of less diverse landscapes, while the richness of pest-controlling species accounts for about half of the same measure. In their view, the results of their research point to the need to protect biodiversity on and around crops in an uncertain future.

"Under future conditions with ongoing global change and more frequent extreme climate events, the value of farmland biodiversity ensuring resilience against environmental disturbances will become even more important," Steffan-Dewenter said.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Mongabay.