The little town of Paradise, Kentucky was the site of McLean Drift Bank, the first commercial coal operation in Kentucky. Coal mining and coal users such as iron furnaces and, later, power plants, quickly grew around the little town. Paradise was eventually partly strip mined, becoming the topic of the famous John Prine song “Paradise.” When the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) enlarged the enormous Paradise Fossil Plant, air pollution became so dangerous that the whole town was bought and bulldozed. Today, the land around the Paradise Steam Plant is a blasted landscape, thousands of acres of pothole lakes and ridges of mine spoil. The TVA is preparing to convert the Paradise Fossil Plant to natural gas and the coal era will come to an end for Paradise.
Throughout Kentucky, coal is on its way out with remarkable speed. Coal jobs in Eastern Kentucky have been declining for decades, as they have nationwide. There are now more solar energy jobs than coal mining jobs in the US. Many utilities are retiring coal units in favor of cheaper natural gas, and the first utility-scale solar project is under way in Central Kentucky. With the EPA’s announcement of new regulations on existing power plants, and the plummeting price of renewable energy, we are beginning a long and irreversible process of weaning ourselves from fossil fuels.
You might not know this from the local news. Our politicians are busy fighting over who is the best “Friend of Coal” and are trying to convince Kentuckians that coal is the only thing keeping us alive. The “war on coal” exists only in the fevered imaginations of Mitch McConnell and other pols. If there is a war on coal, it is simply market forces at work. Fighting the end of coal is a losing proposition. Legal and political challenges to the new EPA regulations will fail because our very conservative Supreme Court has already instructed the EPA to treat greenhouse gases as a threat to our health and welfare under the Clean Air Act. It would have been better for Congress to pass implementing legislation, but we all know that Congress is presently incapable of accomplishing anything important.
There are only a few people who still deny the reality of global warming: those whose fortunes are tied to fossil fuels; those who are paid handsomely to mislead the public about the problem and its solutions; and those who are easily misled. The rest of us understand that global warming is a serious threat to our way of life and are willing to take action. That action has to include the orderly winding down of our addiction to coal. While it is too late to avoid serious damage to our Earth from global warming, kicking the coal habit as soon as possible will help avoid the worst impacts of rising greenhouse gases.
Kentucky has something much more valuable than coal: water. In the Bluegrass, where I have made my home for more than 30 years, water creates our verdant hills, productive farms, sparkling lakes and gentle rivers. It is water that will create our future prosperity.
Global warming will dry out the West and drown the coasts. Businesses, farmers, industries and families will have to seek more suitable climates. This has already begun: I know two farmers who have given up on raising cattle in Texas and moved to more productive land in Kentucky. Access to clean, fresh water will become an increasingly important factor in where farms and businesses can operate and where people choose to live.
Kentucky is a riparian state, which means that nobody can selfishly consume water and not leave enough for people downstream. This helps us avoid some of the worst examples of water greed in the West, where prior appropriation rights mean that some people can take all the water they want and leave nothing downstream.
Kentucky is not immune from global warming. Average temperatures will increase, we will have more droughts, but we will also have more precipitation. Our total water supply is already increasing, and it appears that we might already have entered an era of higher rainfall. As I write this, we are in our second week of rain, with over 6 inches near my home last Sunday. Of course, that is weather, not climate, and we won’t know for some time if we have entered a wetter era.
We may have plenty of water, but we do a poor job of managing it. Strip mines and mountain-top removal have devastated our headwaters. Sewage, industrial runoff and excess fertilizer burden our rivers. We have very limited capacity to store water during drought. Global warming will stress our water systems, making them more eutrophic, increasing evapotranspiration. and overheating aquatic ecosystems. We urgently need to adopt state-wide water management.
If we can do a better job of managing our water resources, and get ourselves off coal quickly and finally, Kentucky will thrive in coming decades. We may not be able to restore Paradise, but we will improve our prospects when we top being Friends of Coal and become Friends of Water.