West Virginia coal, oil and gas industry leaders sounded alarms about threats to the state’s fossil fuel industry during presentations Tuesday before state lawmakers on the Joint Standing Energy Committee during the Legislature’s interim session.
Gas and Oil Association of West Virginia Executive Director Charlie Burd, West Virginia Coal Association President Chris Hamilton and Metallurgical Coal Producers Association President Ben Beakes argued that their respective industries are vital to the state’s economy and merit the committee’s support.
Hamilton and Beakes reported that West Virginia’s coal market had rebounded after a dismal 2020 dogged by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Some of the toughest times that the metallurgical coal industry has ever faced was literally this quarter a year ago,” Beakes said, citing precipitous drops in domestic consumption and the average price of metallurgical coal, which is used to make steel.
But despite coal’s bounce back from last year’s harrowing economics, Hamilton decried the Biden administration’s emphasis on transitioning away from fossil fuels that are driving climate change.
Hamilton noted that the fate of American Electric Power-controlled coal-fired power plants in Marshall, Mason and Putnam counties is unclear, still pending as of Tuesday afternoon. The state Public Service Commission is deciding whether to grant two AEP subsidiaries’ request for West Virginia ratepayers to pick up a burden of nearly $22 million per year from Virginia and Kentucky customers to pay for environmental upgrades federally required to keep the plants operating past 2028 after those states’ utility regulators denied their requests. Kentucky and Virginia utility regulators said the proposals from Wheeling Power and Appalachian Power were uneconomic.
“We’re not prepared to give up on this industry,” Hamilton said. “We don’t want you to give up on this industry.”
Hamilton argued that the state’s current fleet for coal-fired generating plants could run “another 30, 40, maybe 50 years” given the right policy changes and support from the Legislature.
“We think we can continue to rely on our current energy coal assets for a half of a century at a minimum going forward, and maybe even longer,” Hamilton said.
West Virginia’s coal-fired fleet operating at current emissions levels would be at odds with scientists urging immediate and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions needed to avoid the most devastating, irreversible effects of climate change.
“This report must sound a death knell for coal and fossil fuels, before they destroy our planet,” U.N. Secretary General António Guterres said in an August statement accompanying a U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report that urged reaching net zero carbon emissions to reduce extreme rainfall and flooding in West Virginia and throughout the Eastern United States for generations to come.
American Electric Power and FirstEnergy have pledged to reduce their net carbon dioxide emissions to zero by 2050.
Hamilton expressed support for the “innovation, not elimination” motto that Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., has used toward energy policy, and called for greater government investment in research to develop carbon control technologies.
Carbon capture, use and storage technologies gather and compress carbon from emission sources for reuse or underground storage so it will not reenter the atmosphere.
Expensive and unproven on a commercial scale, the technology is seen by some clean energy supporters as critical in the struggle to slow climate change.
Burd lamented the cancellation last year of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which would have transported natural gas supplies from West Virginia to public utilities in Virginia and North Carolina, and the halting of a gas-fired plant project in Brooke County. Energy Solutions Consortium, the company behind the Brooke County project, said it was doomed by a mix of alleged coal industry interference and changing energy and financial markets.
Burd’s presentation highlighted economic benefits that West Virginia counties have reaped from oil and gas production, noting that Tyler and Doddridge counties each received more than $30 million in oil and gas property tax revenue in 2020, per state Department of Revenue data.