Coal Tattoo

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

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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.”