By Xinhua writer Yang Lei
LEXINGTON, Kentucky, Feb. 4 (Xinhua) -- President Barack Obama touted his green energy policy throughout 2009, but now it appears the much-maligned coal has not been forgotten.
On the night of January 27, during his first State of the Union address, Obama advocated "clean coal technology", shifting some of his attention from alternative energy sources to the substance they are designed to replace.
To the coal industry, this is not a step back, but rather a step forward to face the reality -- on the journey to the clean energy utopia, there is no way to get around the Appalachian Mountains.
The United States is one of the world's coal super-powers and Appalachia holds the nation's largest coal reserves. The region's West Virginia and Kentucky are among the country's top three coal production states.
According to data compiled by Energy Information Administration of the U.S. Energy Department, about 50 percent of the nation's electricity was generated by coal-fired plants. But in Kentucky, the ratio is 92 percent. Kentucky may be known as home to thoroughbred racehorses or the birth place of Colonel Sanders's fried chicken and Abraham Lincoln, but as one of the poorest states, it is coal that has been the bedrock of local economy.
Kentucky ranks 44th among all the states by per capita gross domestic product (GDP) and has 20 of the top 100 poorest counties. There is a large permanent unemployment base and the real jobless rate could exceed 20 percent, according to attorney and former state and federal mine regulator Tony Oppegard.
The coal industry paid more than one billion U.S. dollars in direct wages in 2006, directly employing 17,669 persons and indirectly providing three additional jobs for every miner employed, according to government data. In Eastern Kentucky, a coal miner normally earns about 20 to 22 dollars an hour and can pocket 50,000 to 60,000 dollars a year, while the median household annual income in the area could be as low as 10,000 dollars. "For local people, it is good money," Oppegard said.
In fact, Kentucky has attracted manufacturing industry like autos and steel largely because of the low energy bills. Average electricity costs here were 5.43 cents per kilowatt-hour in 2006, the fourth lowest in the United States and just about a third of the costs in New York State. Cheap coal has made it possible.
All the coal states, like Kentucky, have been anxiously observing the White House's moves, which could potentially endanger livelihoods in their states. And the resistance has to some extent slowed Obama's pace. The U.S. House of Representatives passed a cap-and-trade bill last summer but when it will be debated in the Senate is still unknown.
Meanwhile, West Virginia's congressional representatives have expressed their opposition to emission taxes, cap-and-trade or other carbon-reducing measures, which would cripple the coal industry.
Last week, West Virginia's Senate and House adopted a resolution requested by Governor Joe Manchin that opposes a national cap-and-trade program if it threatens jobs. Manchin said rising energy prices were "otherwise unduly burdensome" and a Wall Street trading system wasn't going to be the cure for the nation's energy problems.
In a bid to uphold an agreement struck last year during the G20 summit, the Obama administration said it would cut roughly 2.3 billion dollars in coal subsidies during the next decade in the latest federal budget proposal. But lawmakers from Kentucky have vowed to block the proposed cuts.
"Senator McConnell opposes both the president's proposed new national energy tax and the tax on coal included in his budget outline," said Robert Steurer, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, "Both would hurt Kentucky families who are dependent on coal for their livelihood."
The coal mining industry has donated heavily to the state congressional delegation's campaign war chests, but lawmakers say taxpayers' purse strings, not politics, are at the heart of their opposition to the cuts.
Kentucky's and West Virginia's concerns were echoed among other coal states. With the Democratic Party losing its majority in the Senate and a mid-term election coming this autumn, President Obama will face more pressure to push forward his clean energy plan.