After election, coal's challenges will remain
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A month ago, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney stood before a crowd of supporters in the coalfields of southwestern Virginia and said he would save the mining industry.
"I don't believe in putting our coal under the ground forever," Romney said after Alpha Natural Resources CEO Kevin Crutchfield introduced him at the Abingdon, Va., rally promoted by the coal giant. "I believe we should take advantage of it, put American workers back to work, use an American resource that is abundant and cheap and can be burned in clean way."
With the election just days away, some coal company officials and their political supporters continue to suggest the solution to the industry's problems is a fairly easy one: Defeat President Obama on Tuesday, and coal's troubles are over.
But a variety of experts, along with some of mining's biggest advocates, say that challenges facing the Appalachian coal industry are much broader and complicated than one election can solve.
By now, the issues facing the industry are a well-known list: Competition from cheap natural gas and other coal basins, the mining out of the best and easiest-to-reach reserves, and added pressures from the nation's increased efforts to clean up pollution and, eventually, fight global warming.
"Thinking that all of these things will simply go away if Gov. Romney wins is delusional and does a disservice to the industry and those who work in it," said Phil Smith, a spokesman for the United Mine Workers union.
After backing Obama in 2008, the UMW has not endorsed anyone in this year's presidential race, saying that no candidate "has yet demonstrated that he will be on the side of UMW members and their families as president."
But Smith said the union sees a variety of long-term challenges for coal, many of which aren't part of the industry's "war on coal" talking points, such as threats to health-care benefits for retired miners, hurdles for workers seeking to unionize, and continued health and safety problems like deadly black lung disease.
Few political leaders or candidates in the region are talking about these or other enduring coalfield problems. In national, state and local races, the focus is on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and whether candidates are for or against EPA rules on coal.
At least one major figure, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., has said that it's long past time "to be honest about what those challenges are, rather than talk in sound bites for political purposes."
Still, even Rockefeller talks mostly about finding ways to reduce coal's greenhouse emissions, and less about government forecasts that show Central Appalachian coal production dropping drastically over the next decade, with or without action on global warming.
"I hope that when we get the election behind us, people on all sides of this issue commit to finding common ground, and renew the focus on technology," said Rockefeller, whose current term runs through 2014. "I continue to work on solutions for bringing public and private investments together and firmly believe that with everyone on board, we can fully realize the potential of clean coal technology."
In the presidential race, both Obama and Romney pitch the idea that coal's best days might be just around the corner. Romney says it's because he would halt tougher new environmental rules. Obama counters that he would invest more money in cleaning up coal's pollution.
Central Appalachian production isn't going to disappear anytime soon, at least not according to government forecasts. And a projected increase in Northern Appalachian production, including from Northern West Virginia, could offset some of the Central Appalachian decline. But for West Virginia's southern coal counties, the projected decline is significant and could have serious economic impacts.
On Friday, Alpha's Crutchfield cautioned industry analysts not to be so sure that a Romney victory would easily turn Central Appalachian coal's fortunes around.
"If there were to be an administration change, you've got to be honest with yourself in terms of what can be done," Crutchfield said in a conference call announcing his company's quarterly financial results.
"One thing that I think is difficult is to reverse decisions that have been made over the course of the last several years," Crutchfield said. "I do think that is challenging.
"Everybody likes to talk about it, but I think we're all pretty realistic in terms of how difficult that can be."
In West Virginia, coal isn't nearly the employer or the economic engine it once was. The industry's share of gross state product dropped from 23 percent in 1975 to about 8 percent in 2002, before going back up to nearly 14 percent in 2010, according to U.S. Department of Commerce data. But in coal-producing counties, high-paying mining jobs are often the only real option for many residents.
Some analysts, though, caution that putting the impact of the coal industry's decline in context is more complex than it seems.
Last week, the West Virginia Center for Budget and Policy reported that coal mining and natural gas extraction, two of West Virginia's largest industries, accounted for 5.5 percent of the state's total personal income in 2011. By comparison, the federal Medicaid program made up 4.4 percent, Medicare 6.6 percent and Social Security 9.5 percent.
"While Romney and Ryan may scale back some of the EPA's proposed regulations on air pollution and greenhouse gases, their plans to cut Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid will have a far greater impact on the livelihood of working families in West Virginia than any of Obama's proposed EPA regulations," said Ted Boettner, the center's executive director.
Boettner's group has been pushing for a small increase in coal and natural gas taxes for a dedicated fund that would pay for educational program, economic development efforts, and infrastructure improvements to help diversify the coalfield economy.
Earlier this year, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin refused to support that proposal for a "Future Fund," and last week the governor rejected a call from environmental groups that he appoint a nonpartisan commission to step up work on economic diversification efforts.
Tomblin has disputed the forecasts that show a decline in Southern West Virginia coal production will continue, saying that natural gas prices are headed back up, a trend the governor says will bring the coal industry back.
"All of us want a vibrant, diverse economy, and our energy and natural resources will be a major part of that," said Tomblin spokeswoman Amy Shuler Goodwin. "Diversifying our economy does not mean abandoning a significant part of our current economy."
But others who are following the issue say that a commission of the kind that Tomblin rejected is exactly the sort of thing that West Virginia needs.
Jeremy Richardson is a West Virginia native, the son and brother of coal miners, who is working now as a fellow with the Union of Concerned Scientists. He's studying the factors that are at work in the decline of West Virginia's coal industry and hoping to find ways the state could diversify.
"It's absolutely simplistic to say that once we get this election over we're going to save the coal industry," Richardson said in an interview. "We're in the middle of a steep decline and it's not going to come back.
"The conversation we need to have is not how do we protect the coal industry," he said. "It's how do we diversify our economy so it's not just based on one thing."
In Kentucky, the Center for Rural Strategies in Whitesburg is trying to encourage more open and inclusive discussions about how the region can respond to the coal industry's decline.
Dee Davis, the group's president, said it's an uphill battle, especially given the election-year rhetoric about environmental restrictions on coal.
"No matter the political hollering in Washington, Frankfort and Charleston, the theatrics are not going to change the mathematics," Davis said. "We are in desperate need of a real conversation about the future of Appalachia.
"And I think most people around here were told that this day would come, that coal would decline and that we had better be ready to do what's next," Davis said. "The next president could help us get to where we need to go, or he could punt."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at email@example.com or 304-348-1702.