The news this last week certainly hasn’t brought anything that was very comforting to West Virginia families who rely on the coal industry to pay their bills.
Last Friday, we had hundreds of layoffs announced by Murray Energy and Alpha Natural Resources. Then this week, researchers at West Virginia University released the latest forecast of doom and gloom for the state’s future coal production.
But as we explained in our Gazette story — and as we’ve explained in previous stories (here and here) — none of this should come as a surprise to anyone, and defeating the Obama administration’s new carbon emissions rules isn’t going to save our state’s coal industry, especially in the southern counties where much of the easy-to-mine coal is gone.
Last week’s layoffs produced the predictable chest-thumping from local political leaders about how bad EPA is and how hard they are fighting any effort to do anything about the dire threat posed by the climate crisis. Even when coalfield leaders manage to admit that there are other factors behind coal’s decline, they try desperately to downplay those realities.
Take Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, for example. His press release about the Murray and Alpha layoffs admitted this much:
We recognize market forces play a large role in these decisions …
But the governor and his staff were quick to pivot to their real message:
However, the market is also being forced to react to overreaching regulations from the EPA. For years, we have warned the EPA of the consequences of its irresponsible mandates. We will continue to oppose EPA policies that have devastating impacts on West Virginia miners, their families and our communities.
And, almost as an afterthought, the administration mentions it hopes to do a little bit to help laid off miners:
Why isn’t the governor’s message to his state something like this:
While we continue to urge the EPA to modify its carbon emissions rules in ways we believe will make those rules more fair, we know that nothing EPA can do is going to suddenly bring us another coal boom. Those days are over, and all of us must do everything we can to build a brighter economic future for our coalfield communities.
Really, though, it’s no wonder that the governor can’t do any better on this front, when the media analysis of these issues is as bad as the latest take on coal’s decline from Hoppy Kercheval over at MetroNews:
West Virginia should hope demand picks back up, but economic freefalls are hard to stop; skilled miners move on to other jobs, industry suppliers dry up, companies sell out. At this point, the best coal can hope for is to just not have any more bad news for awhile.
First, this notion that, well, this is just another downturn and demand for West Virginia coal is going to pick back up … well, here’s what that WVU report had to say on that issue:
Coal production in West Virginia is expected to rebound moderately between 2017 and 2020, rising to an annual average of nearly 105 million tons in 2020. Retirements of coal-fired generation will taper off and, while no measurable amount of capacity additions to the coal-fired fleet are likely, an expected increase in natural gas prices should allow coal to regain some share of electricity generation. For the remainder of the outlook period, statewide coal production is expected to fall, contracting to less than 96 million short tons in 2035.
It’s true that Northern West Virginia coal may have a more stable future, but the southern counties just aren’t going to see that.
If it’s not bad enough to keep promoting false hopes of another boom, there’s this idea that all we can do is hope for no more bad news.
There are plenty of things West Virginia residents and leaders can do.
For one thing, we could come together to work out a reasonable plan for complying with EPA’s carbon emissions rules — one that might help our state share in the clean energy jobs other communities are seeing — instead of just compiling a huge list of reasons not to act. As Kentucky may show us, it might not be nearly as hard to meet EPA’s proposal as coal industry officials would have us believe.
Next, state leaders could build on their creation of a Future Fund that would help diversify the economies in communities hard hit by the coal decline. And, they could come out strongly supportive of President Obama’s proposals to help coal communities — perhaps demanding even more money for such programs.
West Virginia leaders could stop cutting corporate taxes and increasing the cost of higher education. They could focus on and fix long-term infrastructure problems that hamper economic development.
And really, most of the things West Virginia could do to help its residents survive coal’s decline are things that would be good to do anyway — even if the industry somehow finds a more stable future.
What’s most important, though, is that West Virginia leaders could stop simply trying to point fingers and blame somebody else for problems that we’ve known for decades were coming and just couldn’t bring ourselves to fix.