Last week, at a meeting of the state’s tobacco commission, Del. Kathy Byron, R-Bedford County, said that one reason Southwest Virginia is losing population is “very bad anti-coal policies.”

On the one hand, this is an innocent observation that gets repeated so often it just becomes political background noise. On the other hand, this is the kind of simplification of complex problems that makes it harder to talk about solutions. That’s the hand we’ll focus on today.

Of course, there’s a semantic issue involved. What one side considers “very bad anti-coal policies” others consider saving the planet from being broiled by record levels of carbon in the atmosphere. In any case, those anti-coal policies — whether you consider them “very bad” or “very good” – have, without question, had a detrimental effect on the economy of coal-producing regions. But —here’s the key point — that alone does not explain why the coal counties of Southwest Virginia are losing population. Nor do those “very bad anti-coal policies” fully explain the decline of coal, either. Politicians might like to simplify things down to a bumper sticker slogan, but reality is more complicated than ideology.

Buchanan and Russell counties first started losing population in the 1960s. Dickenson, Tazewell and Wise counties first started losing population in the 1950s. Lee County first started losing population in the 1940s; Scott County in the 1920s. All have seen their populations fluctuate over the years, but the general trend line points downward.

When Barack Obama was president, he certainly wasn’t driving around with one of those “Friends of Coal” stickers on his limo. His environmental policies — what Byron would surely call “very bad anti-coal policies” — certainly accelerated both coal’s decline and outmigration from the coalfields. (One speaker at the Virginia Chamber of Commerce’s recent energy conference in Roanoke referred to them as “the former coalfields.”) But the fact that outmigration from those counties began as far back as the ’60s, ’50s and even the ’40s and ’20s means those “very bad anti-coal policies” alone aren’t to blame because we sure didn’t have those policies back then.

Fast forward to the present day: No one would accuse President Trump of “very bad anti-coal policies.” He is, of course, enthusiastically pro-fossil fuels, and his administration is busily overturning Obama’s policies at every turn. And yet what’s happening? Coal-fired plants are closing at a faster rate under Trump than they were under Obama. How can this be? Because the “war on coal” is now being waged by the free market — something Republicans like Byron once championed. Other forms of energy are simply becoming cheaper — natural gas as it becomes more available, wind and solar as the price of renewables drops. Accordingly, utilities and other companies that burn lots of fuel are phasing out coal and going with something else. For Byron or any other politician to complain about “very bad anti-coal policies” is to complain about something in the past. Those policies are now being repealed and replaced — to borrow a phrase — yet the free market is inexorably choosing other forms of energy anyway. In 2015, coal accounted for 35% of the nation’s energy; it’s projected to drop to 25% this year — despite a pro-coal administration.

To blame “very bad anti-coal policies” for population decline in the coalfields is to misunderstand the magnitude of the economic — and demographic — problem that part of Virginia faces. What’s happening in the coal counties is essentially what happened in places such as Martinsville and Danville when the domestic textile industry collapsed two decades ago: A traditional employer has disappeared.

One key difference: Those textile jobs moved overseas; but coal is simply disappearing just as typewriters and eight-track tapes have. China may be shoveling more coal, but all things are relative. China reports that its coal consumption is up by just 1%, while coal’s share of the country’s energy mix is declining, edged out by gas, nuclear and renewables. Great Britain just went 18 days without burning any coal, the longest coal-less period since the industrial revolution began. Those countries aren’t governed by our supposedly “very bad anti-coal policies,” but by the same force we are — the free market.

Furthermore, most rural localities across Virginia are losing population; “very bad anti-coal policies” aren’t causing that. The decline of coal exacerbates the problem of outmigration in Southwest Virginia, but even the miraculous return of coal would not change the region’s population loss. Even if everyone who moved out of the coal countries in the past decade suddenly moved back, those counties would still lose population. That’s because there are only two ways a community loses population — either people move out or deaths outnumber births. Across rural Virginia — not just the coalfields, but all of rural Virginia — both things are happening. To get back to where populations were in 2010, most rural communities need for (a.) everyone who left to move back and (b.) a baby boom. The Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia has estimated how big that baby boom would need to be — bigger than the post-war baby boom the nation saw after World War II. Realistically, neither of these things is going to happen. This has forced localities to start seeking more creative ways to try to reverse their population declines. That’s why the tobacco commission has just adopted a program to pay off student loans for people in certain in-demand fields — such as teachers and health care professionals — who agree to live in the rural localities it serves. Perhaps those young graduates will stay, marry and start families. That’s the hope. That’s not a full solution, of course, but it’s hard to build a new economy and recruit new employers if you don’t have teachers and doctors.

So, to politicians everywhere, don’t blame “very bad anti-coal policies” for population decline in Southwest Virginia because even “very good pro-coal policies” won’t change the fundamental dynamics. It’s a lot more complicated than that, and the legislators from Southwest Virginia understand that, even if others don’t.

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