Climate change concerns versus coal dust celebrations, clean air rules versus community freedoms, environmental ideals versus mining jobs? What if the way America’s been debating its energy future is based on false dichotomies? What if the very industry blamed in part for climate destruction has the most power to build a renewable energy future? In our series, Green Goes Mainstream, we take you into the Appalachian Mountains to explore those questions.
Cattle droppings dot one gated pasture, while there’s talk of elk spotted early in the mornings. A wild turkey hen and her brood cross the gravel road from one growth of shrubs to another. Landowner Jesse Salyer proudly considers himself a steward of the land where he’ll selectively cut 18-inch diameter timber from time to time. Stands of trees fill out some valleys, while a meadow attracts butterflies with clover among other wild plants. Salyer mentions the potential for places like this to become recreational destinations. It’s not typical farmland. We’re standing atop an Appalachian mountain that’s endured several years of destructive coal mining.
“It’s like a canvas and you’re just painting a different picture,” described Salyer of reclaimed land after he’s done leasing to companies for mountaintop surface mining, while underground mining continues below. Salyer says the public typically only sees aerial photos of recently mined mountains, not the greening of wildlife habitat in the years to follow. We drove to a sediment pond that croaked with amphibian life.
Heritage is important to Salyer, as is a way of life that includes extracting natural resources from the land, whether coal, oil or gas. “My family’s been here since Daniel Boone came through the gap,” he shared. When I asked the name of the mountain we were exploring, he told me he called it Ford Mountain for the family name of colleague Roger Ford who has worked with Salyer on some business deals. This mining area is just outside Pikeville, Kentucky — a city that proudly calls itself “The City That Moves Mountains!” Mountaintop removal mining, complete with blasting and valley fill, has been a way of life in recent years until the state got pushback from the Environmental Protection Agency in the form of stricter water permitting for pollution control.
“That put us at an economic disadvantage compared to other coalfields,” explained President Bill Bissett of the Kentucky Coal Association about a certain type of water permitting hurting Eastern Kentucky in particular. The KCA and other mining groups have been at odds with the EPA over the water permits as well as newly proposed clean air rules, which many Kentuckians fear jeopardize the coal industry and job opportunities. Surface mining is also less labor intensive than traditional underground mining, while providing maximum profitability. Kentucky coal mining jobs hover under 12,000 now, when they were around 18,000 just a couple of years ago.
Salyer and Ford are willing to try planting a new sort of green in the coalfields in the effort to grow profits and new jobs. Ford is CEO of Patriot Bioenergy and says he’s applied for a government grant that could make possible a solar farm atop a previously mined stretch of Ford Mountain. Depending on the scope of the project, it could provide energy for the underground mine or beyond to meet a mix of commercial and residential needs.
Longtime conservative Ford makes clear he’s all for coal and oil jobs, while he’s willing to explore opportunities for mixed energy sources. “It’s about integrating fossil fuels and renewables all together and then you get a net zero,” Ford said. In addition to the proposed solar park, Patriot Bioenergy has as intellectual property a newly published white paper on the use of hemp as biofuel, which could be grown on mining reclamation lands. The addition of hemp to an energy mix would require special government approval, which has not happened yet. The paper notes that research shows the potential to curb coal-fired power plant carbon emissions by 40% when replacing half of coal with hemp biofuel.
Neither Ford nor Salyer claim to be concerned about climate change. Ford does express concern for limiting industrial pollution with responsible energy usage. “We don’t need to poison our water and we don’t need to poison our air,” said Ford. Both seem primarily focused on a mix of energy sources as a way to bring jobs back to the coalfields. “I just want employment to stay here in Eastern Kentucky,” said Salyer, who is President of JASF Energy. “We could go from being a major carbon producing area to a major solar area on reclaimed mountaintop land. You could put miles of solar here!”
Ford detailed that hiring well-paid mining electricians to install solar panels makes good sense, as does being open to a pragmatic approach to energy, not phasing out coal anytime soon. “I think it’s a matter of rethinking the position on some of these things. You’re not going to get everybody to agree. The integration is an easier path forward. It enables you to diversify economies like this that have been hit hard.” Ford also views energy as a national security issue in which the longevity and diversity of America’s energy resources can benefit the nation.
Co-author J. Eric Mathis, who assisted with Patriot Bioenergy’s white paper, brings a visionary outlook about energy in Appalachia, including utility-scale solar. “We’re rapidly moving toward a reality in which we’re going to be installing a lot of those systems across the region.” Mathis has been helping bridge the gap between fossil fuels and renewables via a broad-based Central Appalachian Sustainable Economies (CASE) Network. Mathis cautions that outsiders simply painting fossil fuels as the problem harms the people of Appalachia, when local stakeholders themselves should be creating a new energy future. “If we’re going to build a really sustainable post-carbon society, we need to be genuine about it.”
Mathis has been publicly critical of the modern environmental movement, including its denouncement of all mountaintop removal mining and critiques of the coal industry. “The problem is the nonprofit industrial complex itself, since the launching of the War on Poverty,” declared Mathis. He said environmental activists tend to be out of touch, not comprehending what’s at stake in communities that once flourished with the coal industry. “If we’re really talking about changing the world for the better, we have to start critiquing the models that claim they’re producing a better world,” said Mathis with confidence. “I argue that they aren’t. They’re disconnected from people’s real lives.”
CASE network programs are encouraging personal health, community pride, education and entrepreneurism as local residents build their own solutions that don’t necessarily fit an environmental paradigm. If and when energy grants come through for a coalfield solar farm, Ford sees the opportunity to grow even more economic opportunity. “My position as a businessman is it has to make economic sense. It has to be profitable without large amounts of government subsidies. People look at it as either-or. Our position is to integrate the use of all available resources where those work.”
Salyer is clear that incentives like research and technology grants or new investors are much more likely to lead him into the green energy business than more government regulation ever would. He’s proud of the black locust trees and greening mountaintop meadows, and calculating the best way to capitalize on natural resources. “I can do whatever I want with my land,” he stated emphatically, “I pay the taxes on it.”