WASHINGTON -- Eastern Kentucky coal country is filled with people competing for nonexistent jobs, tied to the area by family and unable to sell their homes even if they want to leave.
People such as 50-year-old Frank Dixon, who was laid off from a coal mine right before Christmas. He has a son in college, another in high school and a mother in failing health. Dixon has worked in the coal industry since he was 21 years old, and hes struggling to figure out how to make a living.
Ive been looking for a job. But there are so many miners laid off in this area that wherever you go theres already been 20 or 25 other people there looking for the same job, or for any job, Dixon said.
While Dixon and thousands of others in the United States have lost their jobs, coal is booming in the rest of the world. The International Energy Agencys latest report forecasts that coal will become the worlds dominant fuel, with global burning of the fossil fuel rising by 1.2 billion tons over the next four years.
Thats the equivalent of adding the existing coal consumption of the U.S. and Russia combined. The agencys executive director, Maria van der Hoeven, said coal made up a greater share of the global energy mix every year. If no changes are made to current policies, coal will catch oil within a decade," van der Hoeven said.
The agency says Americas glut of cleaner, cheap natural gas is pushing out the use of coal in the United States. It considers that a good thing, saying that the rest of the world should learn from the American experience of how to reduce coal use and lower the carbon emissions blamed for global warming.
Europe, China and other regions should take note, van der Hoeven concluded.
The agency expects that coal demand will grow in every region of the world except the United States. There were an estimated 2,000 layoffs last year in the mountainous coal counties of Eastern Kentucky. The U.S. Energy Information Administration forecasts that coal production in that region will be half as much in 2018 as it was in 2010.
Some Eastern Kentucky counties already have unemployment rates of 13.5 to 17 percent and are bracing for an expected continued decline in coal jobs. The loss of tax revenue from coal production is creating million-dollar budget shortfalls for county governments struggling to pay their bills.
Coal-burning power plants are closing or switching to natural gas. Even the Big Sandy electric power plant, in the heart of Kentuckys coal country, plans to shut its coal-burning boilers rather than retrofit the plant to meet environmental regulations. The Sierra Club counts 54 coal plants that closed or announced plans to close in 2012, and 11 more in just the first month of this year, reacting to the nations natural gas boom and tighter environmental regulations.
That leaves 384 coal-burning power plants in the United States, according to the Sierra Club, down from 521 the group tallied at the beginning of 2010. Coal accounted for more than half of Americas power generation four years ago and is now down to about a third, similar to the amount that natural gas fuels.
At the same time, coal is on the rise globally. Even Europe, which touts green energy initiatives, is increasingly burning coal because its cheaper than available alternatives and because of a distaste for nuclear power in the wake of Japans 2011 Fukushima disaster. Most American coal exports are going to Europe.