Win over EPA won’t save Southern W.Va. coal, experts say

This week, West Virginia leaders were painting a picture of the rosy future that could await the coal industry, were it not for the Obama administration. Sprinkled among comments criticizing proposed reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, the state’s elected officials made it sound like the good times could be just around the corner for the coalfields — if only the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency would get out of the way.

Speaking to a coal industry rally in Pittsburgh on Wednesday, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin cited projections he said showed “coal will be the world’s leading source of energy” in 2035.

Testifying at an EPA public hearing in Washington, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., noted that coal is expected to continue to provide at least 31 percent of U.S. power through 2030, and that coal use by other countries, primarily China and India, is growing.

“Coal isn’t going away around the world,” Manchin told EPA officials.

However, what Tomblin, Manchin and other coal industry supporters weren’t saying is that less and less of the coal that gets burned will come from the hills and hollows of Southern West Virginia. Experts agree that coal in the state’s southern counties remains in a long-term downward spiral, regardless of what the EPA does or doesn’t do about global warming.

Coal production in the state’s southern counties, and the rest of the Central Appalachian basin, has plummeted in the past 15 years. Current government forecasts project a steep decline will continue through the end of this decade before bottoming out. While tougher air-pollution rules have played a role, experts cite a variety of more important factors, with competition from cheap natural gas and a long-predicted depletion of the best and easiest-to-reach coal reserves chief among them.

Political leaders and coal industry officials can complain all they want about President Obama and the EPA, experts say, but even if they win that fight, it’s not going to stop the decline in Southern West Virginia’s coal industry.

“It just doesn’t look like coal there is going to boom in the future,” said Robert Milici, a researcher with the U.S. Geological Survey. “The best coal has been mined out. It’s pretty well gone.”

Production in the Central Appalachian basin, which consists mostly of Southern West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky, peaked at about 290 million tons in 1990 and again in 1997, according to federal government data. But even as national production continued to grow over the following decade, Central Appalachian output fell 20 percent, to about 235 million tons, by 2008.

Industry consultants, government forecasters and even some public officials had been warning for decades that, someday, this would happen. In 1995, for example, a report by the U.S. Bureau of Mines cautioned that, based on current production levels and known reserves, Boone County “will be able to sustain mining activities for no more than 20 years.”

In January 2010, the Morgantown consultant group Downstream Strategies issued a landmark report that tried to summarize earlier U.S. Department of Energy projections, put those numbers in context and draw more public and political attention to the problem the coal decline posed for Southern West Virginia. That Downstream Strategies report listed DOE Energy Information Administration projections that regional coal production would decline another 46 percent by 2020 and 58 percent by 2035, to just less than 100 million tons.

“Central Appalachian coal mining is in decline because the thickest, easiest-to-access seams have been mined out and because natural gas and renewables are getting cheaper,” Evan Hansen, co-author of the Downstream Strategies report, said this week. “This is a reality that we need to address head-on, whether or not [the] EPA issues new regulations on coal-fired power plants.”

In May, the EIA published its most recent projections. They estimate that regional production will drop from 127 million tons last year to less than 100 million tons by 2023, and then to about 86 million tons by 2037. That’s a reduction of roughly a third over a 24-year period and a drop of 70 percent since 1997, according to the EIA data.

“We show a pretty sharp decline, and then it flattens out, and we see some more decline later on,” Michael Mellish, a coal analyst with the EIA, said Thursday.

Mellish and other EIA officials noted that their forecast doesn’t account for any sort of federal mandate to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, because programs like the EPA’s proposed Clean Power Plan haven’t been finalized or taken effect.

EIA projections don’t show Central Appalachian coal disappearing anytime soon, and slight production increases expected for Northern Appalachia, including Northern West Virginia, could offset some of the Central Appalachian decline. However, for West Virginia’s southern coal counties, the projected decline could have serious economic impacts.

Ted Boettner, executive director of the West Virginia Center for Budget and Policy, has been trying to encourage state officials and citizens groups to understand the reasons behind coal’s decline and to put together a plan for diversifying the Southern West Virginia economy to blunt the effects. This week, Boettner said diversification efforts are even more important in the context of the EPA’s proposed greenhouse gas emission rules.

“While there is little doubt these rules could hurt coal mining in West Virginia, it is gravely important that our political leaders let working families know that coal mining will continue to decline, mostly because of declining coal reserves and competition with natural gas and other coal-producing regions out west,” Boettner said. “Focusing solely on EPA regulations denies this broader reality and prevents us from taking the necessary steps to building a stronger economic future.”

Boettner suggested that state leaders could push for more federal Abandoned Mine Lands money, which could be used to put former coal miners to work reclaiming former mine sites, come up with a “G.I. Bill for displaced coal miners,” and seek other federal investments to support economic transition.

“This country owes West Virginia and other coal-producing regions a great debt, for providing cheap power that has powered our industrial economy, and our leaders need to speak about the inevitability of what lies ahead,” Boettner said this week.

During Wednesday’s EPA public hearing in Washington, Union of Concerned Scientists senior energy analyst Jeremy Richardson testified in favor of the agency’s plan to curb greenhouse emissions from coal-fired power plants.

Richardson told the EPA that, as a scientist, he understands the “urgency to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to protect the planet’s climate.” But, the West Virginia native said, “as the brother, son and grandson of West Virginia coal miners, the question of how we go about tackling climate change is deeply personal to me.

“I want to emphasize the need for special consideration for the families and communities facing the negative consequences of the transition to a cleaner, low carbon energy system.” he said.

“Together with federal policymakers, states should help ensure that economic diversification and resources for worker transition are an important part of their plan,” Richardson said. “In doing so, together, we can not only establish a strong standard to protect the planet’s climate but also ensure that workers and communities have fresh economic opportunities, as market forces drive a shift away from coal.”

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at, 304-348-1702 or follow @kenwardjr on Twitter.

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