Government programs could help communities adapt to a future with less mining, say regional economic groups. In the past, the federal government has helped areas hit by international trade and a decline in tobacco farming.
Jason Bailey, director of the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, said similar efforts are just beginning in West Virginia. According to Bailey, the nation owes coal-dependent areas economic help.
"Central Appalachian coal, the work that has been done by generations of miners, helped to power the strongest economy in the world," said Bailey. "I don't think that's a responsibility that's been fulfilled yet."
The White House recently announced that part of eastern Kentucky would be declared a 'Promise Zone,' a federal initiative to help high-poverty communities through job creation. Mining industry officials say job declines can be reversed by loosening federal environmental rules.
But Bailey insisted that, even if the Environmental Protection Agency were to shut down immediately, easy-to-get coal has been mined out. He concluded that after more than a century of mining, Appalachian coal is too expensive to compete in the energy market.
"It's very unlikely that central Appalachian coal will regain the predominance that it once had," said Bailey. "The declining coal resource and the expense which it takes to mine the coal that's left is not going to change."
Bailey stressed that an effective transition to other jobs has to come from more than just training. Without community involvement, ex-miners could retrain for jobs that only exist elsewhere.
Bailey recalled the federal government's assistance of towns hit by military base closings following the Cold War.
"When they're closed or greatly cut back, there's resources and a process of community planning," said Bailey. "And a real, on-the-ground, practical look at what opportunities are there in the future. What are the assets?"
Bailey added that Kentucky has taken some first steps in that direction, with the Shaping Our Appalachian Region initiative. But to work, according to Bailey, any transition program takes money, and that's part of the federal responsibility.