Coal Tattoo

Missed warnings: Coal’s decline is no surprise

If you missed it in our Sunday paper, here’s how we started off a story about the many warnings West Virginia political leaders have had that a big decline on coal production was coming:

During last week’s gubernatorial debate, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin tried to offer an encouraging assessment of where West Virginia’s coal industry is headed in the wake of this year’s string of major layoffs.

“We certainly hope that, as the world economy picks back up, that the demand for coal will go back up, and a lot of these miners will go back to work,” Tomblin said.

In the presidential race, Republican candidate Mitt Romney has touted what experts say are greatly optimistic estimates of the life of the nation’s coal supply — if only regulators from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency would let it be mined and burned. Likewise, President Obama has promoted what he calls “clean coal” as part of an “all of the above” energy plan. Running for re-election, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., insists West Virginia coal can help America become “energy independent.”

Across West Virginia’s southern coal counties, such talk suggests that coal’s best days might be just around the corner, if regulators can be made to back off or new technology can capture dangerous emissions.

There’s just one problem: Analysts agree that much of the best coal in Southern West Virginia has already been mined. Thinner and lower quality seams are left, meaning production and productivity are dropping. Tough competition from inexpensive natural gas and other coal basins makes matters worse. New environmental restrictions only add to coal’s problems, and production is headed down regardless of air or water pollution restrictions.

Overall, production from Central Appalachia — meaning mostly Southern West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky — is projected to be cut in half by the end of this decade, according to the latest U.S. Department of Energy forecasts.

Analysts have been warning about the region’s ongoing coal decline – and the fact that West Virginia’s coal would someday run out — for years. A century ago, then-Gov. Henry Hatfield warned, “Our great storehouse of natural resources, given to us by nature, is rapidly disappearing.”

More recently, a 1995 report by the U.S. Bureau of Mines cautioned that, based on current production levels and known reserves, Boone County “will be able to sustain mining activities for no more than 20 years.”

As I mentioned in an earlier post this morning, you won’t read much about this in the coverage by political reporters of the coalfield portion of this year’s election campaigns.

In a somewhat related portion of my recent story for The Nation magazine, I tried to focus on some of the things that the “war on coal” focus leaves out of the discussion about our region’s future:

And while politicians on both sides fall all over themselves to declare their allegiance to coal, few of them talk about strategies to diversify coalfield economies or to provide a “just transition” for communities that have fueled the nation’s appetite for cheap energy and steel for generations.

A few local grassroots groups are trying to talk about such things. The West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, for example, has proposed a small increase in taxes on coal and natural gas, to be funneled into a Future Fund for educational and infrastructure projects to help build a new economy. Ted Boettner, executive director of the center, notes that other energy states—like Alaska, Montana and Wyoming—already have such a program. “The only feasible way to ensure that we will always benefit from our rich natural resources is to create a permanent trust fund,” Boettner explains.

The group Coal River Mountain Watch and the consulting firm Downstream Strategies have suggested that building wind energy farms on some Appalachian peaks is a better long-term goal than blowing up the mountains to get at the coal. “Given that coal production is projected to decline significantly in the coming decades, diversification of Central Appalachian economies is now more critical than ever,” says Downstream Strategies president Evan Hansen.

Citizen groups in Kentucky have floated similar ideas, and various organizations have joined in a coalition called the Appalachian Transition Initiative. They talk about the potential economic benefits of green energy and efficiency, local food and farming, and above all improving educational systems in a region where schools and families face growing challenges, from unemployment to drug abuse.

Few regional leaders will focus on these things, and national leadership hasn’t been much in evidence. From the presidential race to heated battles for statewide and local legislative offices, talk of Obama’s “war on coal” still sucks all the oxygen out of every room and dominates most campaign ads. No one wants to consider anything else, and they most certainly don’t want to hear talk about what might come next.

Interestingly, some truth about our region’s history with the coal industry made it into a story that my buddy Bill Lynch did about Create West Virginia’s statewide annual conference:

“West Virginia has a ‘tense’ relationship with business owners,” James said, broaching the subject delicately. “Barons of industry have exploited us over and over again. Some of these people didn’t even live here. They’ve made fortunes in the state and sent the wealth away.”

That kind of history, he believes, has left its mark on the state. Business owners are sometimes distrusted simply for being in business in the first place.

“It’s a cultural thing,” he said, then explained that most people in the state look toward established businesses, like the mining industry or state government.

If folks are interested, here are some links to some of the reports I quoted from in Sunday’s story: The U.S. Energy Information Administration’s 2012 Energy Outlook report on coal, the Decline of Central Appalachian Coal and the Need for Economic Diversification by Downstream Strategies, Hill & Associates report on Appalachian coal production forecasts, prepared for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Economic Assessment of the Coal Industry, a June 2010 report by the Appalachian Regional Commission, the analysis of EIA data and environmental rules by the West Virginia Center for Budget and Policy.

I ended Sunday’s story with this quote from Evan Hansen, who co-authored the Downstream Strategies report:

I’ve not seen a public acknowledgement that Central Appalachian coal production is declining by political leaders, nor have I seen any bold plans to address this decline.

But it’s worth checking out this quote from West Virginia Coal Association President Bill Raney, which isn’t the sort of thing that you hear in industry radio ads or see in political candidate TV ads:

There’s not any surprise in this. You’re talking about a declining reserve anyway. We mined the low-hanging fruit a long time ago.