Coal Tattoo

An update on W.Va.’s coal economy

The good folks over at the West Virginia Center for Budget and Policy have produced a fine report called the State of Working West Virginia 2012, which includes a chapter that provides a detailed primer on the state of West Virginia’s coal economy.

In that chapter, called West Virginia’s Mineral Resource Economy: The Gas Boom and the Coal Bust, Sean O’Leary and Ted Boettner break down employment and tax statistics, provide context about the continued importance of the coal industry to the state and its people, and warn about trouble ahead, given the projected declines in our state’s coal output in coming years.

Here’s a general overview, with a few quotes I pulled from the report:

For more than a century, the coal industry has played a significant role in the state’s economy. It has been a large supplier of jobs and wages, an important part of the state’s tax base, and an iconic part of its culture. Today, however, the state’s coal economy is diminishing because of market competition from cheap and abundant natural gas and Western coal, and from the exhaustion of many of the state’s thicker coal seams. Future federal regulations of greenhouse gases and mercury could also play a role in reducing demand for Central Appalachian coal.

… Each year, the EIA releases its Annual Energy Outlook that includes coal production projections for supply regions and coal types throughout the country. West Virginia is located in the Northern and Central Appalachian Regions. Over the next decade, EIA projects that coal production in the Central Appalachian Region will decline by 62 percent, from 196.7 million tons in 2009 to just 74.8 million tons by 2020. For the Northern Appalachian Region, EIA projects an increase of 30 percent over this same period – from 127.5 million tons in 2009 to 165.7 million tons by 2020. The combined decline in coal production for the two regions is about 26 percent.


For folks who sometimes make it sound like coal isn’t that important anymore, or that a transition away from it would be easy, here’s something to be sure to keep in mind:

While West Virginia’s mining output was higher than all but seven states in 2011, it is more reliant on its mining industries for economic output (GDP) than all but two states. Over the last decade West Virginia’s economy has become even more reliant on mining, nearly doubling in size since the beginning of the 21st century.

And there’s this:

Despite the decline in coal employment over the last 60 years, coal-mining jobs remain one of the best jobs in the state. Jobs in the coal mining industry provide above average wages, good benefits, and are more unionized than other private industry sectors. Jobs in coal mining also provide an avenue for workers without a college degree to maintain a living wage with good benefits. In West Virginia, about three quarters of those employed in coal mining have a high school degree or less, while only 20 percent have some college experience and five percent have a bachelor’s degree or higher.

And for political leaders who keep blaming the industry’s problems on President Obama and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, while ignoring other factors and refusing to plan for the future coal decline, there’s this:

The projected decline in Central Appalachian steam coal is the result of a number of factors, including increased competition from other coal-producing regions (Powder River and Illinois Basin), cheap and abundant natural gas, the depletion of the most accessible coal reserves, and, to a far lesser extent, environmental regulations (greenhouse gases and mercury emissions). While some have suggested that future EPA regulations will be a major factor in the future decline of coal production, projections from EIA indicate that they will have little impact on future coal production in Central Appalachia. 

If these projections hold true, then the economic ramifications, especially in the southern coal fields where the state’s economy is far more dependent on coal mining, could negatively impact employment in the coal industry and severely damage the state’s economy in the near future.