Coal Tattoo

As the GOP takes over, what now for the coalfields?

Shelley Moore Capito

West Virginia Republican Senate candidate Rep. Shelley Moore Capito speaks after winning the Senate seat, Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2014, at the Embassy Suites in Charleston W.Va. (AP Photo/Tyler Evert)

The election returns are in. Republicans have taken Sen. Jay Rockefeller’s Senate seat. They finally beat Rep. Nick J. Rahall, and a guy from Maryland defeated Nick “Not our problem” Casey. If that weren’t enough, Republicans have won control of the House of Delegates and pushed the state Senate to a 17-17 split.

So, the excuses begin, and here’s what Larry Puccio, chair of the state Democratic party, told the Gazette’s Phil Kabler last night:

We know the people of West Virginia, whether Democrat, Republican or independent, were not pleased with Barack Obama’s policies, and they came out and showed it today,” Puccio said. “I think they’ve hurt the people of West Virginia in doing so, but they sent a very powerful message.”

Puccio said he thought voters would make a distinction between their displeasure with the president and with Democrats in their local legislative races, but that proved not to be the case.

“I didn’t think, when it got down to the legislative level, it would resonate, but it clearly, obviously did,” he said.

But did it? Well, there’s no question that President Obama is terribly unpopular here. Exit polls from the nation and West Virginia showed that 58 percent of West Virginia voters strongly disapprove of the president’s job performance, compared to 42 percent of voters nationwide. At the same time, there’s a puzzling result that shows that 47 percent of West Virginia voters said President Obama didn’t factor into their vote in the U.S. Senate race, which is about the same as the 45 percent who gave the same response nationwide.

Still, here’s what Larry Puccio said in a press release today:

West Virginia was no exception in the tidal wave that swept the entire country on Election Day due to dissatisfaction with many of the President’s policies.

Those exit polls also have a bit of information about how well the Democratic strategy of trying to out-coal the Republicans turned out.  Twenty-three percent of those surveyed after voting said that someone in their households works in the coal industry, and of those, 73 percent voted for Rep. Capito over Secretary of State Tennant.

Natalie Tennant

State House West Virginia


Also, 57 percent of West Virginians said that they don’t think climate change is a serious problem. Rep. Capito got 83 percent of those votes. And while Secretary of State Tennant may have turned out the lights at the White House in a pandering campaign ad and 69 percent of West Virginians oppose the EPA’s carbon rules for coal-fired power plants, more than three-quarters of those voters went with Rep. Capito.

You have to wonder if the West Virginia Democrats can get a refund from whatever career campaign consultant told them that promising to fight the EPA was a winning strategy.

Meanwhile, the world’s scientists just told us that the worst is yet to come if we don’t do something about carbon dioxide emissions. And in a barely noticed story published the day before the election, the Huntington paper reported this:

West Virginia coal production is expected to drop about 10 percent by 2020, according to the new West Virginia Consensus Coal Production Forecast.

The state’s production is expected decline three to eight million tons each year of the forecast period due to plant retirements and increasing competition from natural gas, renewables and coals from other areas.

“The near-term consensus is that West Virginia will produce 101 to 102 million tons of coal in 2020, a decline of ten percent from 2013 production,” said Christine Risch, director of Resource and Energy Economics at Marshall University’s Center for Business and Economic Research. “Production declines through 2030 are projected to be slower, with 96.5 million tons forecast for that year.”

More evidence of the damage the Obama EPA is doing to our way of life? Not quite. If the Herald-Dispatch had quoted anything from the full report, readers would have learned that the forecast — like other government coal projections — doesn’t assume any action by EPA on carbon dioxide emissions.

And it was only in August when West Virginia University’s annual economic forecast had this to say about the decline of coal in the southern part of our state:

Various factors have played into the decline in the coal industry over the past two years. One of the main drivers has been a dramatic reduction in the price of natural gas as a result of the revolution in shale gas production following the widespread adoption of hydraulic fracturing techniques. This has caused utilities to switch to natural gas as a fuel for power generation (see the Utilities section below for more information). West Virginia’s coal mines are also seeing increased competition from mines in Illinois, which has seen a production increase of nearly 40 percent in the past two years despite a falloff in overall US coal demand.


Also, that WVU report said:

The divergent performance of the state’s northern and southern coal regions is tied closely to declining productivity of the state’s southern coal mines … Worker productivity, which is measured as short tons per worker hour, at the state’s southern mines has been declining since 2000, dropping by more than half to about 2 tons per worker-hour in 2014 from almost 5 tons per worker-hour in 2000, a decline of almost 6 percent per year on average. The decline was significantly faster than in the United States overall, which fell 1.9 percent per year on average. During the same time frame, productivity at West Virginia’s northern coal mines declined at a slower rate, falling from 4 tons per worker-hour to 3.3 tons per worker-hour, a drop of 1.3 percent on an average annual basis.

Campaign ads and sound bites are all fun and games. But hard times are coming in Southern West Virginia — for too many families, they’ve already started. Republicans (and most Democrats) promised that would all end, if we would just elect them and send them to dismantle EPA, then everything would get booming again. How are those families going to feel when that doesn’t happen?

Today, I asked West Virginia native Jeremy Richardson of the Union of Concerned Scientists to comment on the latest coal production forecasts, in the context of Tuesday’s election results:

What they talk about is that the regulations are almost an afterthought. We may have already gotten the easy-to-get and best coal in the southern part of the state, or as I like to say, “geology wins in the end.’ It doesn’t make any sense for us to focus solely on an industry that every projection you look at shows it’s going to be declining. You can talk about this as an issue that doesn’t have to be divisive. Why can’t we think about all of the other ways to stimulate economic growth in the southern part of the state. The people who just started out this SCORE initiative or task force need to think about what are the opportunities in Southern West Virginia? It can’t just turn into a way to promote and prop up the coal industry.We can talk about this in a way that’s about new opportunities. It’s the sensible thing to do.