PRESTONSBURG Bill Higginbotham, one of four speakers addressing the future of the coal industry at the annual Economic Development Summit at the Mountain Arts Center Tuesday, started by turning off the lights in the conference room. Higginbotham let those attending the summits panel discussion sit silently for a few heartbeats in the darkness and then switched the lights back on. How important is coal? Higginbotham said, then turned out the lights. Fun aint it? Higginbotham, the executive director of the Kentucky Coal Academy, joined two others Phil Osborne with Faces of Coal and Bill Bissett of the Kentucky Coal Operators Association for the panel Tuesday afternoon. The subject was one that has been debated, discussed and spotlighted in numerous public discussions since last year, when the Environmental Protection Agency brought down stricter regulations against the coal industry. The usual statistics were mentioned, including the fact that more than 90 percent of the states electricity is provided by coal mining, while just over half the nations power is produced by the industry. The Coal Academy was started in 2005 because we saw the general age of active coal miners at that time was about 53 years old, Higginbotham said. We knew we needed to generate coal miners, young miners who could continue the job. And its a job about which Higginbotham made what some might consider a strange observation Tuesday, saying, Coal mines are not dangerous. But his statement is one he says he and the staff at his academy, including the 16 junior feeder programs throughout the state, can back up considering the time now spent on improving mining safety through a number of techniques such as simulators and actual mine experience when students are not working in the classroom. Osborne focused more on the ongoing problems with the EPA, a government agency the Kentucky Coal Association has filed a lawsuit against alleging unfair standards. It was a topic Bissett also touched on, saying both his group and Osbornes continue to talk with EPA officials in attempts to come to a compromise on new regulations that have stalled more than 100 mining permits in Eastern Kentucky alone. Another standby point was raised by Osborne in regard to long-term goals of gaining independence from foreign oil supplies through the conversion of coal to gas and liquid. Kentucky mined 107 million tons of coal in the last year, with 75 percent of that amount excavated from hills in Eastern Kentucky. Of that percentage, half came from surface mines and half came from deep mines, according to Bissett. Bissett said he and others will continue to travel to parts of the state and beyond, hoping to explain to those detached from the actual production of coal, the day-to-day work that goes into it, to those he said had probably never touched a piece of coal in hopes of helping them see that coal is a primary source for not only the livelihood of Kentucky, but for an entire country that relies on the industry in the most basic of ways.