Sunday, November 1, 2015

Reality Check for West Virginia Politicians

It's no secret that among most West Virginians, animosity towards the federal government runs high. What's ironic is that so many of the state's residents rely on funding from the same bunch they profess to hate.

With a population that is poorer, sicker and older than most, West Virginia could not survive without government help of some type. And this rather depressing fact didn't just suddenly pop up because Barack Obama was elected president.

About 25 percent of West Virginia's personal income is derived from disability, medical, unemployment or welfare benefits. Nearly one in five West Virginians receive food stamps.

Scattered throughout the state are reminders of the billions in federal dollars the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd sent back home... roads, bridges and buildings.

For all the fuss raised by Republicans about a supposed "war on coal" the bald fact is Appalachian coal mining has been in overall decline since the mid 1980s - except for a brief spike when George Bush deregulated what mountaintop removal operations could dump into streams and valleys.

West Virginia coal jobs are vanishing for many reasons: depletion of the most accessible and productive reserves; mechanization; and competition from cheaper energy sources. Proposed federal regulations haven't helped but at worst they have just sped up slightly what's been brewing for decades.

As frustrated and angry West Virginians turn away from Democratic ideals for the first time in generations, they look to West Virginia's newly-elected Republican leadership for answers - and regrettably aren't getting much, if anything, in the way of substance.

Instead, what they hear is more of the same "Obama's war on coal is dragging us down" rhetoric they've been hearing since 2008. West Virginians need action, not stale words. There are bright spots in the state's economic picture that need to be replicated elsewhere.

The northern part of the state has a booming energy industry, fed by the Marcellus shale formation. The eastern panhandle has been transformed into a bedroom community of the Washington metropolitan area. The FBI's largest division is now located just outside Clarksburg and employs thousands of people. The burgeoning Hatfield-McCoy trail system brings ATV riders into the state - and resorts and cabins are popping up to provide them with lodging and food.

This type of growth needs to spread into the many coalfield communities abandoned by the mining companies and a changing energy market. Sitting around waiting for the coal jobs to come back is to deny the reality of a shifting state economy.

State Republicans, elected partially on campaign promises of job growth, don't seem to have done much to actually entice business and industry to invest in West Virginia.

Spearheading lawsuits against the EPA won't bring back jobs. Fighting the Clean Power Plan won't either. Conservatives in Charleston apparently believe another coal boom is just around the corner - if that darned Obama and his overreaching agencies would just get out of the way!

Bill Cole, Shelley Moore Capito, Patrick Morrisey, Evan Jenkins, et al., need a reality check.

The EPA could vanish overnight but Appalachian coal will never return to its former glory. It's now more expensive than wind or natural gas. It's even more expensive than coal mined in other parts of the United States.

Rather than fret over what was and will never be again, West Virginia's government needs to be better managing the state's seismic economic shift. Too much time has been wasted blaming the Fed and praying for King Coal to return.

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