Facing facts: Fighting the EPA won’t stop the decline of Southern West Virginia’s coal industry

August 1, 2014 by Ken Ward Jr.

Climate Change EPA Rally

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.


10 Responses to “Facing facts: Fighting the EPA won’t stop the decline of Southern West Virginia’s coal industry”

  1. pragmatic realist says:

    Denial, anger, bargaining and depression are the stages a human mind goes through in adapting to any loss, from misplaced car keys to death. Sometimes we move steadily from one to the next, and sometimes we go forward and back and experience the phases simultaneously. Our fear, anger and pain cause us to abandon logic and deny plain facts starting us in the fact. You can see it all in these reactions Mr. Ward has assembled here for us. The way of life, the economy, the culture and the society based on coal mining in this region is dying. Some day it will die. Many things will change. I don’t know how you will get many people to move into the final phase of acceptance.

  2. William says:

    The mines I work at we are mining coal at 39 dollars a ton and the seam is almost 20 feet thick the btu runs anywhere from 11500 thousand to 12700 thousand Ash is anywhere from 7 to 15 It’s all steam coal they are enough coal to mine here for the next 15 years but we can’t burn it in our power plants cause of the rules set forth by the EPA. Coal is burning cleaner at these power plants and release less toxins than they ever have but yet that still ain’t good enough The White House wants to do away with coal all together and that’s wrong cause wind and solar power just can’t keep the lights on it has been proven time and time again just look at Holland,Germany,and the other countries that have tried it it just won’t work As far as I know nobody wants a nuke plant around them so it needs to be gas and coal so the cost will be low but when one of the other has the major share the electric bill will be out of sight

  3. the curious says:

    Ken, I agree the statement with its use of “surpassing” and “by” (rather than simply stating that the IEA expects coal to be the leading or a leading energy source in 2035).

    I think it is important to note that coal demand is expected to increase fairly substantially by 2035 — expanding 17% globally.

    Here’s the quote straight from the executive summary you cite: ” In our central
    scenario, global coal demand increases by 17% to 2035, with two-thirds of the increase occurring by 2020. Coal use declines in OECD countries. By contrast, coal demand expands by one-third in non-OECD countries – predominantly in India, China and Southeast Asia – despite China reaching a plateau around 2025. India, Indonesia and China account for 90% of the growth in coal production. Export demand makes Australia the only OECD country to register substantial growth in output.”

    So, in summary renewables are expected to grower faster from a smaller base, while coal is expected to grow more slowly from a larger base, and the growth is expected in developing countries with flat/declining use in the OECD countries.

    In my opinion, the important subtext/discussion is what coal basins will this coal be coming from, and that where CAP’s relative fate does not look good. In the USA, the PRB, Illinois, and N. Appalachia will likely all fare better than CAP unless there is a very strong resurgence in the met coal markets.

  4. Steve says:

    Curious, the question should be for those who seem concerned about climate is this; What quality coal do we want developing countries burning?

  5. Bill Howley says:

    William, I don’t understand what you mean when you say that it is “proven” that renewable power doesn’t work in Germany. Take a look at this article http://blog.rmi.org/blog_2014_07_08_opposite_energy_policies_turned_fukushima_disaster_into_a_loss_for_japan_and_a_win_for_germany

    There is a myth going around the WV coal industry that Germany is turning back to coal. Not true –

    From the link above –

    “Before the March 2011 Fukushima disaster, both Germany and Japan were nearly 30% nuclear-pow­ered. In the next four months, Germany restored, and sped up by a year, the nuclear phaseout schedule originally agreed with industry in 2001–02. With the concurrence of all political parties, 41% of Germany’s nuclear power capacity—eight units of 17, including five similar to those at Fukushima and seven from the 1970s—got promptly shut down, with the rest to follow during 2015–22.

    In 2010, those eight units produced 22.8% of Germany’s electricity. Yet a comprehensive package of seven other laws passed at the same time coordinated efficiency, renewable, and other initiatives to ensure reliable and low-carbon energy supplies throughout and long after the phaseout. The German nuclear shutdown, though executed decisively, built on a longstanding deliberative policy evolution consistent with the nuclear construction halts or operating phaseouts adopted in seven other nearby countries both before and after Fukushima.

    Moreover, the Energiewende term and concept began before 1980, and Germany’s formal shift to renewables—now well over 70 billion watts installed—began in 1991, 20 years before Fukushima, then was reinforced in 2000 by feed-in tariffs. Those aren’t a subsidy but a way for customers to buy, and hence developers to finance and build, the renewables society chose, with a reasonable chance for sellers to earn a fair return on their investments. FITs’ values have plummeted in step with renewable costs, so developers now commonly opt to earn higher market prices instead.

    This integrated policy framework and the solid analysis behind it meant that the output lost when those eight reactors closed in 2011 was entirely replaced in the same year—59% by the 2011 growth of renewables, 6% by more-efficient use, and 36% by temporarily reduced electricity exports. Through 2012, Germany’s loss of 2010 nuclear output was 94% offset by renewable growth; through 2013, 108%. At this rate, renewable growth would replace Germany’s entire pre-Fukushima nuclear output by 2016.”


    “Contrary to widespread misreportage, closing those eight reactors did not cause more fossil fuel to be burned. Whenever renewable sources run in Germany, both law and econom­ics require them to displace costlier sources, so renewables always make fossil-fueled plants run less, though often in more complex patterns. The data confirm this: from 2010 through 2013, German nuclear output fell by 43.3 TWh, renewable output rose by 46.9 TWh, and the power sector burned almost exactly as much more coal and lignite as it burned less of the costlier gas and oil. German utilities bet against the energy transition and lost. Now they gripe that the renewables in which most of them long underinvested have made their thermal plants too costly to run.

    Despite those big utilities’ self-inflicted woes, Germany adopted a coherent and effective strategy of boosting efficiency and renewables and ensuring their full and fair competition. In contrast, Japan replaced its own, larger lost nuclear generation almost entirely by increasing its imports of costly fossil fuels. These opposite policies produced opposite results.”

    There is also reason to believe that EIA may be underestimating China’s development of renewable power.

    Also from the RMI article –

    “In 2012 and 2013, China made more electricity from wind than from the world’s most aggressive nuclear power program. In 2013, China added more solar power than its first developer, the United States, has installed in its whole history.”

  6. William says:

    Bill, go to this site forbes.com/sites/brighammcown

  7. david morrison says:

    I don’t see any “hyperlinks” given by Howley or the curious. Why?

  8. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    david morrison,

    Read Bill Howley’s comment more closely … he includes a link at the very beginning of this comment:

    William, I don’t understand what you mean when you say that it is “proven” that renewable power doesn’t work in Germany. Take a look at this article http://blog.rmi.org/blog_2014_07_08_opposite_energy_policies_turned_fukushima_disaster_into_a_loss_for_japan_and_a_win_for_germany

    The rest of what he quotes comes from the article you will find at that link.

    Thanks, Ken.

  9. the curious says:

    David Morrison, the quotation in my original comment is from the original document cited by Ken (as I described), here’s the link:

    Steve, I’m not sure I really understand your question, “the question should be for those who seem concerned about climate is this; What quality coal do we want developing countries burning?”

    Are you referencing conventional pollutants or GHG?

    With regard to conventional pollutants, I think this might have more to do with the combustion/boiler technology being used than the innate coal quality. For GHG, I think you’d pay the most attention to the thermal efficiency.

  10. Bill Howley says:

    William, I went to your Forbes link. It’s dead. Nothing there.

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