Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Roundup: A Tired Analysis on Coal

04/21/2014

Photo by Travis Dove for the New York Times A man collects water for cooking on a hillside in Welch, West Virginia.

How many generations of politicians and press can blame Appalachia's economic and social problems on the decline of the coal industry – and imply that coal’s “resurrection” will improve the situation?

The New York Times’ 50th anniversary look at President Johnson’s Appalachia poverty tour features a profile of McDowell County, West Virginia. McDowell is in rough shape by just about any economic or social measure you’d like to use: population decline, family income, dependence on government relief programs like food stamps.

The culprit? Well, a 1964 TV report on Appalachian poverty that’s embedded in the Times’ story blames poverty on “the lack of industrialization and losses in the coal mining industry.”

Fifty years later, the Times story puts a new twist on the story, but it’s still the same old theme:

…Residents also identify a more insidious cause of the current social unraveling: the disappearance of the only good jobs they ever knew, in coal mining. The county was always poor. Yet family breakup did not become a calamity until the 1990s, after southern West Virginia lost its major mines in the downturn of the American steel industry.

One byproduct of blaming the economic collapse of Appalachia on the decline of coal is the implication that reviving coal will revive the region. To what? The good old days, when LBJ picked Appalachia to personify poverty in America?

- Tim Marema

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An onion by any other name may taste as sweet, but only if it’s picked at the right time. At least according to Georgia’s agricultural commissioner, Gary Black. Black has drafted a rule, since stricken down by a judge, that would fine farmers up to $5,000 per box of Vidalia onions harvested and shipped before a certain date, claiming early-picked onions lose the sweetness that sets them apart. Farmers, who tend to know a thing or two about harvesting, aren’t super excited about someone telling them when to pull their crops from the ground. Black, however, is enforcing the rule while the state appeals the judge’s ruling.

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Shares of TransCanada – the company that’s trying to build the Keystone XL pipeline – fell 3.3% Monday morning after Friday’s announcement from the State Department that it was delaying a decision on approval of the controversial project.

The State Department said it will wait on a ruling from the Nebraska Supreme Court before it decides whether to give the project the green light. The Nebraska court is considering an argument from landowners that the Legislature sidestepped the state constitution in giving the governor the authority to approve the pipeline’s route through the state. The pipeline would carry tar-sands crude oil from Canada to refineries along the Gulf of Mexico.

The delay will postpone a final decision on the pipeline until after the November midterm elections. Bloomberg reports:

David Domina, an Omaha lawyer representing the landowners who brought the lawsuit against the pipeline, said the case won’t be argued before the Nebraska high court until September or October. After that, a decision wouldn’t come until months later, he said.

“It’s a case that involves some complexity,” Domina said.

So far, the national political analysis of the State Department's delay focuses on bifurcation within the Democratic Party, where Democratic Senators in conservative states are whacking Obama for the delay while environmentalists in the party push Obama to kill the pipeline. There's little mention of the Nebraska landowners behind the lawsuit and their attorney, Domina, who also happens to be a Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate. At this point the press seems more comfortable attributing the delay to coastal, urban environmentalists than to anyone in Nebraska.

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The USDA recently announced the creation of a for-profit company, the Rural Business Investment Company, with the mission of pumping investment capital into agricultural businesses in rural areas. The $150 million program will use money from eight borrower-owned Farm Credit banks to set up an investment fund that will be used to support businesses that have gotten off the ground but may need a little push as they try to expand.

Along with the investment fund, the White House Rural Council is holding an ‘Investing in Rural America’ conference this summer with hopes of enticing businesses to invest in rural America.