The election of Donald Trump as president and a new class of leaders on the state-level last November represent a defining moment for our great state and for the West Virginia coal industry.
This new leadership recognizes our natural resources as valuable assets, and they have pledged to aggressively advance policies designed to promote and foster full development of our energy industries.
After enduring years of a weak economy, flat growth, an abundance of newfound shale gas, subsidies for competitive fuels and — perhaps most importantly — a president who used every resource and federal agency to work against coal production, the new direction offered by President Trump, Gov. Jim Justice and our Legislature is a welcome and refreshing change.
Since November, we’ve already seen renewed confidence and interest in West Virginia coal from within the investment community. We also have experienced a modest uptick in pricing levels and growth in metallurgical coal operations.
The real question is whether these favorable trends can be sustained going forward and what steps we can take to maximize the opportunities in front of us.
It is our time to lead the way and to partner with our president and federal government to take the reins of our domestic energy assets and the policies that govern them.
As coal markets begin to blossom, we must be prepared to move quickly and offer the finest quality coal, produced by the best miners in the world, at the lowest price possible. A more competitive tax structure and a continued modernization of mining rules are just two macro-level policies we should pursue.
As a state, we must aggressively pursue homegrown coal consumption. We only consume roughly 30 percent of all the coal we mine in West Virginia. By increasing this total, we will provide security for our in-state coal operations, their output and a greater chance of reaping the benefits here at home.
The Legislature acted during the 2016 session to secure the percentage of West Virginia coal that is consumed within our borders by providing an incentive for utilities to upgrade in-state coal plants to continue consuming “local” coal in an environmentally clean fashion.
As the 83rd Legislature convened this week, we recommend that lawmakers and the executive branch take a serious look at how to grow the percentage of coal consumed within our state’s borders.
It’s also time that we reconsider initiatives that have been considered in the past.
It’s been 30 years since former Gov. Arch Moore called for the construction of state-owned, mine-mouth power facilities to burn more coal in West Virginia and export the power to areas of demand. Thirty-five years have passed since then-Gov. Jay Rockefeller created the Coal Development Authority to assist coal producers with marketing opportunities.
In early 2000, the Clean Coal Technology Council was signed into law by Gov. Bob Wise but never convened. Former Gov. Joe Manchin proposed coal-to-liquid plants be constructed to provide fuel for state vehicles.
And, as many realize, multiple coal-to-liquid plants have been proposed but never developed.
The time is right to revisit some of those initiatives to determine their feasibility.
Many also may recall the FutureGen project. This $2 billion dollar, state-of-the-art, zero-emission coal-fired power plant was held up as the coal plant of the future and incorporated coal sequestration technologies. While the project was approved to be built in the Midwest, it was scrapped by President Barack Obama before the first shovel of dirt was turned.
FutureGen could be the coal industry’s alternative to the shale gas cracker, as it relates to the investment, technology and jobs it would provide. Why not build it in West Virginia?
Certainly, there would be plenty of space along with the necessary infrastructure for this project on the Hobet site proposed by former Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin or possibly on one of the former power plant sites that were forced to close due to EPA regulations.
Given the new administration and its support for coal and energy development, programs like FutureGen, mine-mouth power plants and coal-to-liquids plants all should be seriously considered and reviewed for feasibility.
A coalition of experts on the technology, investment and policy sides of the equation should be formed, to include the coal industry, university researchers, our legislative and congressional representatives and others to develop the blueprint and path forward.
With the incoming political leadership in Washington and at the state level, coupled with a legislature that has demonstrated its interest in seeing coal remain a centerpiece of our state’s economy, we believe an all-out attempt to should be initiated to take advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to transform West Virginia into the nation’s capital for coal and energy.
Chris Hamilton is senior vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association.