Coal Tattoo

Photo by Vivian Stockman, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition

West Virginia’s political leaders continue to say very, very little about the major news latest week that one of the region’s largest coal producers is moving away from — and eventually abandoning altogether — the use of mountaintop removal and all other types of surface coal mining.

As noted previously, we finally did get a comment from Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va.:

There is a lot of change happening in the coal industry, and it’s important that we all work through these issues together and focus on investing in clean coal for the future. I’ve made it clear to Patriot that I have very real concerns about protecting miners’ health and pension benefits, and I hope this is a step in that direction. They need to stand by the promises they’ve made to their miners.

And a bit later, we got this comment from Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin:

The Governor hopes this decision the company has made will help them recover financially and continue to produce and employ in the West Virginia coal industry.

Oddly enough, one of the most substantive comment so far came from Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., who issued this statement:

Our sympathy goes out to the miners impacted by this decision as they face an uncertain future in a sluggish economy. We are concerned for both the miners who may be laid off over time and for the families in surface mining communities. Like many other companies in the industry, Patriot is being forced to make some painful choices. Faced with a difficult situation, Patriot is making an effort to ensure its long term health for its employees while being sensitive to the environment.

Rep. McKinley is right that coal companies are being forced to make some painful choices — painful especially for their employees and the communities where they live. But even his statement didn’t really focus on what’s really happening here, are at least part of what’s happening: When forced to comply with the law, coal companies find that the costs of mountaintop removal are so high that they can’t do that type of mining and make the sort of profit their want.

Pat Parenteau, who teaches environmental policy at the Vermont Law School, explained it in our follow-up story in the Sunday Gazette-Mail:

When the law finally catches up with industries like the coal industry, and it starts to be reflected on their balance sheets, that’s when you see changes in corporate thinking.

Professor Parenteau reminded me of the study last year, published by the journal American Economic Review, detailing some of the “externalized” damages caused by the coal industry.

Heck, even Patriot CEO Ben Hatfield pointed to these sorts of overriding economics, first in his company’s prepared statement, which he read in federal court last week:

Patriot Coal has concluded that the continuation or expansion of surface mining, particularly large scale surface mining of the type common in central Appalachia, is not in its long term interests. Today’s proposed settlement commits Patriot Coal to phase out and permanently exit large scale surface mining and transition our business primarily toward underground mining and related small scale surface mining.

… and again in an interview with me after the court hearing:

It’s a matter of industry’s natural need to reduce risks. I think it recognizes the reality in our industry that large-scale surface mines have a lot of risks associated with them both in terms of market and regulatory risks.

Now, maybe industry officials like Bill Raney are right, and Patriot’s situation is so different from other coal producers that it’s wrong to suggest Patriot’s phase-out of surface mining could be the start of a trend. As Bill told me:

It’s one company trying to restructure itself. This doesn’t change anything. I don’t think you can apply this universally across the industry or across the state.

But the real reason that we don’t hear much from political leaders about this Patriot settlement is that other factors — such as the low price of natural gas and the mining out of Southern West Virginia’s best and easiest-to-get coal reserves — are also at play here. As mining engineer John Morgan told me:

There are only a limited number of large-scale surface mine-able reserves left and it’s not attractive economically. There are still opportunities for limited-scale surface mining. There will still be surface mining, but it won’t be large and it won’t be with draglines.

If coalfield elected officials were to admit these things — I mean really admit them — then they would need to also admit the need to take some action, to come up with a plan for dealing with the economic implications of a major coal decline. So far, our leaders just aren’t able to do that.