Coal’s future: ‘All the good seams are gone’

September 6, 2012 by Ken Ward Jr.

Gazette photo by Chip Ellis

Over at The State Journal, the great Pam Kasey and Taylor Kuykendall have put together a package of three stories (see here, here and here) that puts some faces on the numbers that the fine folks from the West Virginia Center for Budget and Policy outlined in updating the state of West Virginia’s coal economy.

One story, headlined When the mining stops: What’s a miner to do? outlines the cold, hard truth about the situation facing many families. Quoting a Madison man who is the first in his family not to go into mining, Pam and Taylor wrote:

“The allure of the mines, as a young person, is that a 20-year-old without a college education, but is good mechanically, or electrically or is trainable, can go get an $80,000- or $90,000-a-year job versus going to college, racking up thousands of dollars in debt and getting a $30,000-a-year job,” Mitchell said.

Those starting salaries are more than twice the state average. And associated with those higher wages is a premium benefit package. A 2006 survey by Workforce West Virginia found workers in natural resources and mining were more likely to have retirement plans, medical insurance and sick leave.

Or as Pam Kasey summarized on Twitter:

The harsh reality is, it’s just hard for a high school graduate laid off from coal mining to replace a salary of $90K

In that story, The State Journal also is pretty clear that what’s happening in the industry — 1,300 layoffs at least, so far this year in West Virginia alone — is not nearly as simple as the anti-EPA, anti-Obama narrative pushed by the coal industry’s PR machine and most of the state’s political leaders:

They blame increasing regulation. However, MSHA data show the state had more mining jobs coming into 2012, in spite of new environmental scrutiny, than at any time in the past decade.

Unfortunately, the challenges for coal are multiple and not so easily reversed.

In the short-term, coal demand has faced what the industry has dubbed a “perfect storm,” a combination of a mild winter that ballooned coal stockpiles and natural gas that’s hovering near a decade low price.

Medium-term, Environmental Protection Agency rules about mercury and greenhouse gas emissions probably will reduce the share of electricity that is produced from coal. While mercury rules could be overturned, many people inside the industry and outside believe greenhouse gas regulations are unavoidable.

A longer-term problem is that the easy-to-reach Central Appalachian coal has been mined out.

Now there’s something that the mining industry and its political friends don’t really want to face: The best coal in Southern West Virginia has already been mined, productivity is dropping as a result, and these simple facts are driving much of the decline we’re seeing and the collapse that’s ahead, as Downstream Strategies clearly outlined in its must-read report from more than two years ago.

Perhaps the most important words of wisdom in the whole package of stories came from David Scott, a barber in Madison. As Pam and Taylor reported:

Like a lot of people in the coalfields, Scott said he is concerned about what four more years of the Obama administration might do to his coal-based community. Scott, however also reiterates a point many who depend on coal find even more threatening.

“We’ve just used up about all of our coal,” Scott said as a few customers shuffled into his shop. “All the good seams are gone.”

10 Responses to “Coal’s future: ‘All the good seams are gone’”

  1. Common Cents says:

    Three questions to add to this conversation:
    1. Where is your Union?
    2. Why not restructure the work schedule, (example: 35 hour work weeks, no overtime)to keep everyone in the Union employed with benefits?
    3. Do you know anyone with asthma, black-lung or cancer?

  2. I love a good union organization. Unfortunately, the history of some unions, whether they represent coal miners, steel workers or Teamsters, has more to do with dictatorships or autocratic authority, than true representation. My father was a proud coal miner who worked at Warden Mine, Douglas Hollow, PA., for many years until a mine cave-in injured his brother-in-law Dad discovered U.S. Steel Corp. had some openings at its Irvin Works facility near Dravosburg and changed professions. I think something like a 35-hour work week is an excellent idea. Union leaders should work with company management, not against them. Unions and management should be friendly adversaries realizing that one without the other would not work.

  3. Ted Boettner says:

    The WVCBP released a report in July 2012 on creating a work sharing program, which would allow coal companies (and others) to avoid layoffs by reducing the number of hours worked through the state’s unemployment insurance system. You can find it here:

  4. Steve says:

    It’s not that all good mine-able seems are gone. almost all early coal companies opened close to a major river so transportation was close and affordable. Those seems are gone. Today, travel to a prep plant and to a load out facility cut into profits. When the price of coal drops, transportation doesn’t. Each time a company has to handle each ton of coal at a facility the profit margin dwindles. A bigger problem may be the time it takes to get a permit to open a new under ground mine.

  5. Robert says:

    I noticed in the video that pretty much everyone interviewed kept returning to the same three or four narratives to explain why coal was basically a harmless fuel, and why if the industry was left alone everything would be just fine:

    1) God put the coal on the Earth for us to use.
    2) Human lifespans have increased over the last eighty years, therefore the environment can’t be in trouble.
    3) Government intervention in the “market” makes it impossible for WV coal to compete with other fuel sources.
    4) Everyone else is the world is mining coal, so why shouldn’t we.

    Leaving aside the validity of these narratives, I’m left wondering how they became so widespread. This is especially true for the second and third narratives I discussed. To be blunt, I don’t know very many people who think about issues like this in such an abstract way. And no, I’m not saying the people in the video are too stupid to come up with these ideas on their own; rather, I’m merely pointing out the fact that most people don’t think in such a way. Thus, I find myself wondering if these people are not in fact being indoctrinated by people who may or may not have the best interests of these people and their communities in mind when dispensing information such as this.

    Having grown up in WV, I can’t help but empathize with these people. Yet, I also wonder when someone will finally stand up and say: “You know, basing the entire economy of a town, more less a state, on one industry may not be a good idea. In fact, it might be economic suicide.”

  6. Ken Ward Jr. says:


    Matt Wasson from Appalachian Voices has used Federal Reserve data to make a strong argument that a lack of approvals for new permits or lag times in getting them is not the problem for Appalachian coal:

    Some members of Congress have claimed that deregulation of coal mining is necessary to increase domestic coal production. But, according to Federal Reserve data released Nov. 17, the capacity of active and permitted coal mines is the highest it has been in 25 years. At the same time, the utilization of coal mine capacity thus far in 2011 is the lowest it has been in 25 years.
    “The idea of a ‘Permitorium’ on coal mine permitting that House Republicans are pushing out is completely and demonstrably false,” said Wasson. “So is the idea that coal production in the U.S. is constrained by permits in any way. It’s entirely constrained by demand for coal.”

    The supporting data is online here:

    I would love to see someone from the industry present an argument for why Matt is wrong … anybody?


  7. Jerry says:

    Robert: You have articulated a nagging thought I have had for years regarding the attitudes of WV coal miners toward their industry. In my opinion they have indeed been indoctrinated – driven by the need to find someone else to blame for the problems the industry faces. I can’t say I blame them – if I had a coal job making $90K or threabouts, I would probably have blinders on too.
    I suspect the companies mining the coal know full well what the economic outlook for their product is long-term. They want to mine it as long as they can make money, then leave when it’s not – knowing that the miners they leave out of work will be blaming the government, not them.

  8. Steve says:

    I find Dr. Wassons charts informative, especially the one that states “U.S. Mining jobs are at a 15 year high despite a recent decline in U.S. coal”. The last info. on the chart is 3rd. quarter 2011.
    The price of steam and met. coal is now much lower than it was in the third quarter of 2011. Some blends have lost as much as 50 to 75% value since this chart was created.
    To believe that even more regulation (greater scrutiny) will only create even more jobs isn’t very practical. It may work awhile for a company who’s production cost is very low and the selling price for a ton of coal is out of the roof.
    Charts and graphs can be used to show any viewpoint at any given period of time. Ross Perot was the master at this. I believe he could have used charts and graphs to convince people that a bicycle is more efficient in every way than an automobile, not practical but efficient.

  9. just the facts says:

    Most layoffs are ocurring not because of regulation or obama or epa, but coal prices. Gas is cheap and looking better long term to utilities.
    When it costs more to mine the coal in WV than what China will buy it for, you can’t mine, which is what is happening now.

  10. Mark says:

    “In the US, most experts still rely on decades-old coal reserves assessments that are commonly (though erroneously) interpreted as indicating the nation has a 250-year supply. This reliance on outdated and poorly digested data has lulled energy planners, policy makers, and the general public into a dangerous complacency. In terms of the energy it yields, domestic coal production peaked in the late 1990s (more coal is being mined today in raw tonnage, but the coal is of lower and steadily declining energy content). Recent US Geological Survey assessments of some of the most important mining regions show rapid depletion of accessible reserves. No one doubts that there is still an enormous amount of coal in the US, but the idea that the nation can increase total energy production from coal in the years ahead is highly doubtful.”
    — Richard Heinberg, “The End of Growth: Adapting to our new economic reality,” pp. 114-5

    Coal extraction peaked in Pennsylvania in 1920 and in Britain in 1913. The “low hanging fruit” of fossil fuels has been burned, that is why the industry is using mountaintop removal for coal, fracking for natural gas, deep water drilling, tar sands, etc. I’ve used solar energy for over two decades – it’s great but it’s not going to replace our current consumption. Relocalizing food production needs to be our top priority but at the rate we’re going the oil, coal and gas will be long gone before communities are resilient.

    Claims that we have several centuries of coal, 100 years of natural gas and oil in the US will soon overtake Saudi Arabia are — to be polite — delusional, without the slightest basis in physical reality. There’s certainly some left, enough to further pollute air and water, but the growth of energy consumption is over.

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