United Mine Workers of America representative Chad Francis paused in his testimony before the West Virginia Senate Judiciary Committee to hear senators sing coal’s praises.
Sen. David Stover, R-Wyoming, recalled driving from Twin Falls Resort State Park as he prepared to turn right toward Pierpont three years ago when he had to stop to let a coal train pass. He couldn’t remember that having happened in the previous two years.
“It used to happen all the time,” Stover said.
Eventually, Stover found himself in a group of 10 on the Twin Falls side of the railroad crossing.
“We all got out and put our hands over our hearts,” Stover said. “I hope we can continue that.”
“I hope so, too, senator,” Francis said.
The senators already had signaled their support for the bill they were about to advance to the full Senate. The bill’s stated aim was to ensure none of the state’s remaining coal-fired plants close.
Francis told the senators that it would be “amazing” if the coal industry could maintain its current level of production in West Virginia for the next 20 years.
“This bill helps do that to some degree?” asked Sen. Michael J. Romano, D-Harrison.
“To some degree,” Francis replied. “We’ll take suggestions from any of y’all. We’re trying to keep these communities together, these miners working in West Virginia, and any suggestions from you gentlemen or gentleladies would be amazing.”
If there was a time for the West Virginia Legislature to enact transformative change to help the coal industry, it was during the legislative session that ended last weekend. It didn’t happen.
The number of coal employees statewide plummeted 50% from 1990 to 2019, and coal production declined 30% from 1970 to 2019, according to West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training data. Coal output sank 14.3% last year at the top 25 mines in central Appalachia, according to S&P Global Market Intelligence.
The new Republican supermajority in the state Legislature had the power and incentive to act to protect the coal industry against what the West Virginia Coal Association and other coal representatives have perceived to be a grave threat to the industry from a Biden administration that has embraced tougher environmental regulations and a transition away from coal.
With the prevalence of severe black lung on a long-term rise in central Appalachia amid a pandemic that raised the premium on breathing capacity, retired and active miners were particularly vulnerable.
And looming over the session was a case before the state Public Service Commission in which American Electric Power subsidiaries warned they might close early a Marshall County coal-fired plant that employs more 200 people. The county commission in a subsequent filing called the plant “an integral part of the industrial community.”
The bill the Senate Judiciary panel advanced March 27 as Francis looked on was a shell of its former self. The original version of Senate Bill 542 would have required in-state power producers to maintain 2019 coal consumption levels and file compliance plans every three years with the long-dormant state Public Energy Authority specifying how 2019 coal consumption levels would be maintained.
That was before Appalachian Power and FirstEnergy representatives testified the bill didn’t make economic sense.
John Scalzo, Appalachian Power’s vice president of regulatory and finance, estimated that maintaining a 90-day coal supply would require buying $145 million of coal and instituting a $15 million rate increase to ensure a return for the company.
“What is happening to the [coal] industry is not a winner or a loser, it’s an economics decision,” Appalachian Power President and Chief Operating Officer Chris Beam told the Senate Energy, Industry and Mining Committee. “What’s happening is these units are no longer economical. You cannot and should not force onto the customer an uneconomical solution.”
Most of the final version of the bill covers legislative findings backing coal but with no legal effect. The final is less than a fifth of the original version’s length.
“[The bill has] been butchered with not only a butcher’s knife, but with a hatchet, too,” Sen. Randy E. Smith, R-Tucker, Senate Energy, Industry and Mining Committee chairman, said before its passage last weekend.
While the Senate Energy panel dedicated a fourth of its meetings this session to SB 542 alone, other bills designed to help coal communities languished.
For the fourth straight year, a bill sponsored by Sen. Ron Stollings, D-Boone, that would set up a state black lung fund supported by an increased severance tax on natural resources, including coal, died in the Senate.
“We would love to see a positive black lung bill passed through this Legislature,” Francis had told the Senate Judiciary Committee.
In the House, Delegate Evan Hansen, D-Monongalia, offered a bill that never made it out of committee. It would have created a coal community comeback plan for West Virginia crafted by an advisory committee composed of state lawmakers and economic development agency leaders, utility and union officials and representatives of workers laid off from coal-related jobs.
Hansen is eager for state leaders to open their arms to a potential influx of millions of dollars in federal economic development funding with President Joe Biden’s federal jobs and infrastructure proposal pending. But Hansen doesn’t think open arms are enough.
“It would be very beneficial for people in [Washington,] D.C. to know what we want. Things look a lot different from inside the Beltway than they do in Welch or Mullens, West Virginia,” Hansen said. “That’s what’s so powerful about having a locally written plan, to have local input into what’s most important because there’s so many things that need investments of money and new programs.”
‘We’ve closed everything’
Delegate Ed Evans, D-McDowell, brought Welch’s perspective onto the House floor when he introduced an amendment to SB 542 adding the coal community comeback plan from Hansen’s failed bill.
“I can’t buy a thing in Welch,” Evans said of the McDowell County seat. “We’ve closed Walmart. We’ve closed Magic Mart. We’ve closed everything. Y’all have no idea what my people go through.”
On the last day of the legislative session, after the House passed Evans’ amendment by a single vote, the Senate squashed it. The bill went back to the House, which approved it without the coal community comeback plan.
Five days later, the West Virginia Board of Education approved closing three McDowell County elementary schools in which enrollment dropped 17% from fall 2014 to fall 2019. McDowell’s overall population nosedived 65% from 1980 to 2019, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
“Mr. Speaker,” Evans said on the House floor, “we need a plan.”
The Legislature instead focused on limited accommodations for the coal industry.
“[I]t is past time for the state to recognize that there are thousands of West Virginia coal miners who have already lost their jobs,” UMWA spokesman Phil Smith said in a statement responding to the Legislature killing the coal community comeback plan amendment. “The impact on them, their families and their communities has been and continues to be devastating.”
The state’s history of sacrificing state revenue for the coal industry and bypassing opportunities to encourage economic development looms large as potential for federal investment in those communities rises in the short term and an economic transition deepens in the long run.
“With the failure of this [comeback plan] amendment, we haven’t seen any other state-level initiatives or solutions that are in place right now,” Smith said.
‘Paying the price’
Born and raised in Boone County, Brett Kuhn, 51, of Madison has seen the obvious signs of decline over the years. A Foodland grocery closed here. An IGA grocery shuttered there.
But as county commissioner, Kuhn knows the county’s budget better than most, so he’s privy to the numbers behind the problem.
“The lack of economic diversity,” Kuhn said. “That’s what we’re really paying the price for.”
Boone County’s funding from coal severance taxes was nearly $6 million 11 years ago but is down to about $500,000, Kuhn said.
Boone has eliminated landfill transfer stations for free garbage drop-offs and stopped supporting privately run parks and recreation initiatives.
The story is the same in Logan County, where county Commissioner Danny Godby has helped make the same painful decisions, cutting back support for community organizations.
The county’s quarterly coal severance tax revenues have fallen to $250,000 to $300,000 from $900,000 in 2017 and 2018, prompting the county to pull support from community service organizations such as youth sports teams and the Kiwanis and Lions clubs.
“You’re here to help youth, and the building blocks of your future are your youth,” Godby said. “If you don’t substantiate that in some way and help them out, it gets you to the point [where] what good are we if all we’re doing is just paying bills?”
Logan County administrator Rocky Adkins acknowledged that the coal industry still makes up the biggest slice of the county tax base but said the county is working to diversify its economy, eyeing tourism as a long-term alternative.
“But it can’t take the place of the value to the county in taxes that the coal industry does because it’s a reserve that’s here,” Adkins said. “It is something that’s in the ground, and it has value. So ... we’re trying to get ourselves in a position to attract some other industries, and we’re also going to be looking at any opportunities that are created by the new [presidential] administration.”
A $2 trillion Biden administration plan seeks to transform America’s energy framework to create millions of jobs, improve housing, transportation and broadband infrastructure and embrace energy efficiency measures.
“When you see an area as economically depressed as we are right now, we need the state and federal government to step up right now more than ever to help us out,” Kuhn said.
‘People are going to be hurt’
Aiding coal communities is the idea behind the Colorado Office of Just Transition, an office approved by the Colorado General Assembly and Gov. Jared Polis in 2019 to develop and implement a statewide plan to help workers and communities diversify their economies as they brace for coal-fired power plant closures.
“What we’re trying to do is to build up mechanisms by which we empower the communities and the workers both to drive the vision of the future they want and to help them get there,” Just Transition Director Wade Buchanan said.
The office released a plan Dec. 31 to help coal communities and workers make a prosperous transition away from coal.
The 20-page document pledges the office will establish state action teams to work with communities in 11 counties that have lost 50 or more jobs from a coal mine or plant closure.
The plan notes that a state economic development office waived local matching fund requirements for a job growth incentive program for companies locating in coal transition communities and committed at least $500,000 for grants to attract new businesses to those communities or help grow existing businesses there.
“That sounds like that’d be a phenomenal program,” Kuhn said. “Especially for Southern West Virginia.”
The challenge is great in Colorado. The state’s Office of Just Transition estimated that the value of new commercial property needed to replace all the property taxes paid by Colorado’s coal facilities would be nearly $3.2 billion.
“If this [transition] is coming, people are going to be hurt,” Buchanan said.
Buchanan knows the challenge is greater here.
“My job is probably a heck of a lot easier [doing this] in Colorado than whoever who would do it in West Virginia,” Buchanan said.
Wyoming, the only state to produce more coal in 2019 than West Virginia, has taken a different tack. Gov. Mark Gordon signed a bill into law Wednesday establishing a “rebuttable presumption” against the retirement of an electric generation facility, eight days after signing a bill setting aside $1.2 million for suing other states that impede Wyoming’s ability to export coal.
In West Virginia, there have been 10 conventional steam coal plants retired since 2005, and only nine remain in the state, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration data.
The West Virginia Legislature so far has doubled down on encouraging private investment in coal. The state Department of Revenue estimated in 2019 that a steam coal severance tax reduction from 5% to 3% enacted that year would cost the state $64.1 million annually starting in fiscal year 2021.
Since Just Transition was formed with a budget of slightly more than $150,000, the West Virginia Legislature could afford to fund 400 such offices with the amount of money it’s been projected to lose in annual general revenue from lowering the coal severance tax rate.
“Our organization needs support from decision-makers in this state,” said Brandon Dennison, CEO of Coalfield Development, a Wayne County-based nonprofit dedicated to rebuilding the central Appalachian economy. “We need our leaders to get more forward-thinking and proactive when it comes to diversifying our economy and creating new jobs.”
The group recently marked its 10th anniversary, saying it had created 250 jobs and trained more than 1,200 people. Coalfield Development has collaborated with the Just Transition Fund, a Virginia-based philanthropic initiative providing grants and direct transition support to communities looking to transition from coal.
“[L]egislation like [West Virginia’s proposed] coal community comeback plan provides support that helps that planning process be more successful and inclusive by starting planning even before closures happen and including local workers and the people most affected by the changing economy as critical stakeholders,” said Heidi Binko, executive director of the Just Transition Fund.
Watching coal pass by
Three years after Sen. Stover watched the coal train pass by, the West Virginia Legislature finds itself doing much the same, stuck at its own crossroad as the market shifts from coal and communities fall further behind. But the Legislature, powered by a Republican supermajority for at least another year, is free to trudge on in any direction.
It’s a geography where Colorado and Wyoming couldn’t be further apart.
“I don’t want to see our region stuck in a defensive posture forever,” Dennison said. “I want to see our economy get on offense again. Continuing to depend on one industry for our economic survival is not how we get on offense.”
“We want to do our part. We’re trying to live within our means,” Kuhn said. “But at the same time, we’ve got to have more help.”