A supporter of coal-fired power plants sits in the stands at Highmark Stadium during a rally to support American energy and jobs in the coal and related industries in downtown Pittsburgh, Wednesday, July 30, 2014. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
It’s been a long week for folks at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — and a longer week for West Virginia coal miners. Our state’s mining communities were already hurting, and many folks spent part of their week on the road, since the EPA wouldn’t bother to come to the coalfields to hear what miners and their families had to say about the agency’s climate change rules.
One reader said that the front page of today’s Gazette was like a “punch to the face.” Of course, another reader commented, “Thank you, Gazette, for being Big Coal’s mouthpiece.”
The page featured one story that described the events in Pittsburgh, where EPA held one of its public hearings. A second story recounted the terrible news that Alpha Natural Resources had warned 1,100 workers at 11 of its surface mines in Southern West Virginia that they might be out of a job come mid-October. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin was right when he said that news from Alpha was “heartbreaking and frustrating for our miners, their families and the communities in which they live.”
But the most important story on the page was the one headlined, “Win over EPA won’t save Southern West Virginia coal, experts say.” That story reported:
This week, West Virginia leaders were painting a picture of the rosy future that could await the coal industry, were it not for the Obama administration. Sprinkled among comments criticizing proposed reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, the state’s elected officials made it sound like the good times could be just around the corner for the coalfields — if only the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency would get out of the way.
Speaking to a coal industry rally in Pittsburgh on Wednesday, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin cited projections he said showed “coal will be the world’s leading source of energy” in 2035.
Testifying at an EPA public hearing in Washington, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., noted that coal is expected to continue to provide at least 31 percent of U.S. power through 2030, and that coal use by other countries, primarily China and India, is growing.
“Coal isn’t going away around the world,” Manchin told EPA officials.
However, what Tomblin, Manchin and other coal industry supporters weren’t saying is that less and less of the coal that gets burned will come from the hills and hollows of Southern West Virginia. Experts agree that coal in the state’s southern counties remains in a long-term downward spiral, regardless of what the EPA does or doesn’t do about global warming.
Coal production in the state’s southern counties, and the rest of the Central Appalachian basin, has plummeted in the past 15 years. Current government forecasts project a steep decline will continue through the end of this decade before bottoming out. While tougher air-pollution rules have played a role, experts cite a variety of more important factors, with competition from cheap natural gas and a long-predicted depletion of the best and easiest-to-reach coal reserves chief among them.
Political leaders and coal industry officials can complain all they want about President Obama and the EPA, experts say, but even if they win that fight, it’s not going to stop the decline in Southern West Virginia’s coal industry.
“It just doesn’t look like coal there is going to boom in the future,” said Robert Milici, a researcher with the U.S. Geological Survey. “The best coal has been mined out. It’s pretty well gone.”
We’ve written this story before, most prominently in a piece that ran during the “war on coal” run-up to the November 2012 presidential election:
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.
These facts are starting to make it into the narrative just a little bit. Heck, in his press release about the Alpha layoff notices, Gov. Tomblin even commented that, “we recognize market trends can play a part in these potential closures”. But the governor was quick to pivot back to his real talking points, saying:
… However these actions also show the real-world impact of the regulatory environment in which industry must operate. Today’s announcement, in part related to power plant closures as a result of past EPA regulations, is why we remain concerned about the EPA’s current proposals regarding CO2.
For years, we have tried to warn the EPA of the consequences of its irresponsible mandates and today, our fears have unfortunately become our reality. I again urge the EPA to reconsider its proposed plan and realize the real impact these new rules have on West Virginia miners, their families and our communities.”
Rep. Nick J. Rahall, whose district will be hard hit by the Alpha actions, did the same thing in his statement:
The announcement is further evidence of the toll that market forces, including the low cost and abundance of natural gas, have taken on coal jobs. But it is also incredibly frustrating to have an agency like the EPA being so purposefully blind to the effects of its policies on the economy and the lives of hard-working families. I stand firm with our coal miners and will continue, at every opportunity, to help advance legislation in the House to block job-killing regulations. I hope the Senate will follow suit.
But it’s pretty had to get any of these public officials to talk to their constituents about the real problem of what to do even if they beat the EPA rules and coal continues to decline anyway in our state’s southern counties. I asked Chris Stadelman, the governor’s communications director about this serious problem, and the statement did not even really acknowledge the issue:
Governor Tomblin’s plan for the entire state is to grow jobs with a highly trained work force, world-class education system and competitive tax structure, and all of those initiatives will help southern West Virginia as well. At the same time, special outreach efforts such as job retraining assistance and Reconnecting McDowell are being used to provide additional assistance to the southern part of the state to ensure future generations have the resources and skills they need to succeed. The governor’s goal has been, and continues to be, improving the quality of life for all West Virginians.
Still, public officials seem to have no problem saying things that seem aimed at convincing West Virginians that coal would be booming again, if only President Obama and his EPA would leave us alone. Take the speech that Gov. Tomblin delivered at this week’s big coal industry rally in Pittsburgh. The original, as delivered, version of this speech contained this line:
According to the Energy Information Agency, coal will be the world’s leading source of energy, surpassing oil by 2035.
Turns out that was a mistake, and the speech should have referenced the International Energy Agency and that organization’s World Energy Outlook 2013. The thing is, here’s the section that was being cited:
The power sector adjusts to a new life with wind and solar Renewables account for nearly half of the increase in global power generation to 2035, with variable sources – wind and solar photovoltaics – making up 45% of the expansion in renewables. China sees the biggest absolute increase in generation from renewable sources, more than the increase in the European Union, the United States and Japan combined. In some markets, the rising share of variable renewables creates challenges in the power sector, raising fundamental questions about current market design and its ability to ensure adequate investment and long-term reliability of supply. The increase in generation from renewables takes its share in the global power mix above 30%, drawing ahead of natural gas in the next few years and all but reaching coal as the leading fuel for power generation in 2035. The current rate of construction of nuclear power plants has been slowed by reviews of safety regulations, but output from nuclear eventually increases by two-thirds, led by China, Korea, India and Russia. Widespread deployment of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology would be a way to accelerate the anticipated decline in the CO2 emissions intensity of the power sector, but in our projections only around 1% of global fossil fuel-fired power plants are equipped with CCS by 2035.
That’s right, this was a report that said the power section was adjusting “to a new life” with wind and solar increasing their market share, and coal declining. It wasn’t, as the governor’s original speech said, any sort of indication that coal in West Virginia would rise again if our political leaders win their fight with EPA. The governor’s office has updated the text of the speech, so it now says:
According to the International Energy Agency, coal will be the world’s leading source of energy, surpassing natural gas and renewable sources by 2035.
The sourcing is right, but the context still isn’t. I don’t want to make too much of this. It was just a mistake, and anyone who writes a lot of words quickly should understand that sort of thing happens. But perhaps there’s a lesson to be learned, that not everything West Virginia leaders believe is true — and tell us is true time and again — is really based in reality. Or, as Sen. Robert C. Byrd advised us not so long ago:
… The time has come to have an open and honest dialogue about coal’s future in West Virginia.