Coal Tattoo

Gazette photo by Chip Ellis

Later this month, West Virginia will celebrate the 150th anniversary of its statehood, so after some initial discussion of the matter on Twitter the other day, The Charleston Gazette has launched a new project aimed at gathering 150 ideas for improving the state’s future. Here’s the story published online the other day:

As West Virginia turns 150 years old, there is much to celebrate about our rich culture and heritage: the rugged, beautiful hills, wild rivers and serene surroundings that help make the lifestyle slow and relaxing amid the 21st-century rush of the outside world; the unfailingly kind and gentle people whose hardworking nature has fueled the nation for generations; and the sometimes quirky but warm feeling of family.

Still, the Mountain State faces many challenges in household income, social well-being, premature death, childhood poverty, educational attainment and fatal drug overdoses. Long-important industries have faded and continue to shrink. Young people still leave in search of opportunity, and our elderly sometimes struggle to live out their later years in dignity.

So, amid the celebrations of our first 150 years, let’s spend some time planning for the future. What are your best ideas for West Virginia’s next 150 years?

Be bold. Be creative. Be succinct. Send your suggestions of 50 words or fewer by June 14. We’ll publish the best in honor of the 150th West Virginia Day.

You can send your ideas to us in a variety of ways:

Send your ideas by:

— Email to

Facebook, wvgazette

— Twitter, @wvgazette, #150ideas

— Postal mail to:  150 ideas , The Charleston Gazette,  1001 Virginia St. E.,  Charleston, WV 25301

Or if you prefer, and your ideas have something to do with coal,  just post your ideas in the comments section below …

Photo by David Kameras, UMWA

When the word came down from St. Louis earlier this week that a federal bankruptcy judge had approved Patriot Coal’s plan to dump its union contract and its retiree health-care plan, the reaction from the United Mine Workers was about what you would expect.

United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts said in a prepared statement that the ruling  was “wrong, unfair and fails to fully recognize the coming wave of human suffering that will be experienced by thousands of people throughout the coalfields.” Roberts continued:

As often happens under American bankruptcy law, the short-term interests of the company are valued more than the dedication and sacrifice of the workers, who actually produce the profits that make a company successful.

The comments from Patriot CEO Ben Hatfield were equally predictable:

This ruling represents a major step forward for Patriot, allowing our company to achieve savings that are critical to our reorganization and the preservation of more than 4,000 jobs.  The savings contemplated by this ruling, together with other cost reductions implemented across our company, will put Patriot on course to becoming a viable business.

And while we’ve still heard next to nothing from most state political leaders — and certainly not from the Friends of Coal crowd —  about this issue, there were strong reactions from some elected officials. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said, for example:

Miners who have given their lives to this industry are now facing terrifying uncertainties over their health care, pensions, and pocketbooks. I am deeply disappointed by this outcome and what it means for our miners directly impacted by this decision and all workers who have experienced the unfairness of our bankruptcy system.

If you take the time to read closely the 102-page decision by Judge Kathy Surratt-States, it’s not too hard to see what the UMWA and its supporters — and anybody who thinks working people should be treated fairly — are upset. Start with just the fact that it takes a dozen pages in the ruling just to try to run through the long and complicated history of the UMWA’s effort to secure, through a maze of various plans, contracts and legislation, the “cradle-to-grave” benefits mine workers so rightly prize.

Or look near the beginning the decision, where the judge describes the letters the court has received by retirees and widows who are scared to death about what this case might mean for their lives:

Many discuss the horrendous conditions of the coal mines when those individuals first began to work, and how hard it was to achieve the promises made pursuant to both the previous and the current CBAs. Some discuss how physically, mentally and emotionally grueling being a coal miner was, many of whom worked as coal miners for over 30 years – a sacrifice made with due consideration of the promised health care from cradle to grave. The Court has received numerous medication lists, lists of various coal mining-related diagnoses and personal accounts of the years of hard work, and, all the reasons why these sacrifices were worth it for the promise of health care for life and an earned pension.

Some letters discuss various injuries sustained while working in coal mines, limbs of self and relatives lost, and the lives lost of relatives and friends. None of these letters, or their comments have been lost on this Court.

It’s true that the UMWA has great health-care benefits, both for workers and retirees. And it’s popular, even among many folk who consider themselves progressive, to say things like, “I don’t have benefits that good, why can’t they suck it up and accept less.” But isn’t the real question why the rest of us don’t have health-care as good as the UMWA’s? Or, why most of us are stuck without decent pensions, instead forced to rely on a 401-K system that, as Frontline recently explained, really isn’t working?

It’s great that some political leaders like Rep. Nick J. Rahall are pushing the CARE Act, legislation aimed at preserving benefits for retired coal miners. But the Patriot ruling should make it clear again that — in the words of a leading case on the matter — “bankruptcy law is draconian to labor unions”  and changes are needed to make the system more fair to workers.  In effect, as the judge explains, all of the decades of fighting by the UMWA to improve the working conditions and living conditions of its members — to rise above the day of the company store, really — became irrelevant the day Patriot filed for bankruptcy:

The argument here is therefore that the gravity of the concessions sought by the unionized miners is in effect just a ‘catch-up’ to the cutbacks that the remainder of Debtors’ employees have endured for the past few years. But of course, the unionized workforce escaped those pay freezes, vacation limitations, unrestricted work-hours and the like in exchange for lower pay, promised pensions, health care coverage and retiree benefits. The question is not is this fair to the unionized miners; is this equitable to the unionized miners. Rather, the question presented is whether these overall changes are fair and equitable to all interested parties which necessarily includes an evaluation of the treatment of the unionized Under federal law, employees have the choice of whether or not to be unionized. Bankruptcy law is also federal law and Section 1113 takes no prisoners. So it was written by Congress.

Years of toil, perseverance and determination of miners past yielded the employment terms and conditions of miners today, but this does not matter where, as here, savings everywhere else have already been explored within reason and exhausted.

In effect, the bankruptcy law and the judge are endorsing a race to the bottom for workers in the coalfields:

This is not a union versus non-union evaluation; it is an evaluation of what is necessary for Debtors to emerge from bankruptcy as a viable company and whether or not the path chosen to implement what is necessary is fair and equitable. Given the grave disparity between union and non-union pay and benefits prebankruptcy, the limitations placed on non-union labor that have been in place for years, and acceptance of the reality of the savings needed, the Court concludes that the UMWA represented employees are not tasked to disproportionately shoulder the burden of Debtors’ bankruptcy.

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Yesterday’s release of a new report examining the ongoing decline in Central Appalachian coal production provided a perfect opportunity to advance the discussion of where the regional coal market is heading and what that means for the people of local coalfield communities. Certainly, that’s what the folks at Downstream Strategies were hoping that their report, “The Continuing Decline in Demand for Central Appalachian Coal: Market and Regulatory Influences,” would do.

Noting the group’s previous report on this topic three years ago, lead author Rory McIlmoil said in a press release:

In 2010, we recommended that state and local leaders take immediate steps to help diversify coalfield economies. To a large extent, that has not happened. However, it is vital that public officials begin making the political and financial investments necessary to build the foundation for new economic development opportunities in coal-producing counties.

And indeed, the report did get some media coverage, from The State Journal here in West Virginia and from WFPL over in Kentucky. Other media, including the Daily Mail here in Charleston and the Lexington Herald-Leader, seemed content to just run The Associated Press dispatch. Over at West Virginia MetroNews, I got a message that said “Search Result for ‘downstream strategies’ (0 articles)” when I looked for their coverage.

Still, even the coverage the report did get seemed to me to miss one of the most interesting points.  What I can’t figure out is why no one else seems to have picked up on this part of the Downstream Strategies report (see page xiii):

In recent years, employment has grown—despite the continuing decline in production. In 2011, direct mining employment totaled 37,800 jobs. Even as coal production declines in the future across the region, coal mining jobs are projected to increase due to a decline in labor productivity.

Coal mining jobs are projected to increase? Could this trend give state and regional leaders some breathing room to come up with economic diversification plans? Isn’t this good news? Isn’t it at least news? Apparently not, at least not to a news media focused on the same tired, worn-out old narrative.  Take the piece Dylan Lovan put out on The Associated Press wire.  I guess it starts out fine, with a lead that reports:

Hard times are expected to continue in the Appalachian region that was once the heart of the nation’s coal production, according to a new report.

But it doesn’t take long for the focus to shift to something that seems more controversial:

The region is home to a long-simmering battle between the industry and environmentalists over a mining practice known as mountaintop removal. Government agencies including the Environmental Protection Agency under the Obama administration have taken aim at the mining method, which uses blasting and heavy machinery to scrape away layers of rock and earth, drastically altering the landscape.

And Dylan Lovan pretty much gave Kentucky Coal Association President Bill Bissett (left) the chance to say whatever he wanted — that EPA permit delays cost Kentucky 3,600 jobs or that lots of consultants think a huge uptick in Central Appalachian coal is just around the corner — apparently without pressing him for any sort of evidence of those claims:

“This action, along with other regulatory effects from the federal government, have created an unfair atmosphere in eastern Kentucky’s coal production,” Bissett said.

The federal government’s halting of about 40 mining permits in eastern Kentucky has led to the loss of about 3,600 jobs in the mines and in businesses that benefit from the region’s mining, Bissett said.

“We do recognize eastern Kentucky is facing significant hardships right now in coal production, but much like that market has decreased so quickly, there are analysts telling us it could uptick almost equally as quickly,” he said.


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Gazette photo by Kenny Kemp

” … While it is generally accepted that the CAPP coal industry faces a substantial and continued overall decline, it is difficult to know exactly what the future holds for the region’s coal industry, and even more difficult to know how individual coal-producing counties will be affected.”

That’s one of the conclusions from a brand new and very important report from the folks at the Morgantown-based consulting group Downstream Strategies. It called “The Continuing Decline in Demand for Central Appalachian Coal: Market and Regulatory Influences” and it’s just out this morning. You can read it here.

The most significant among a long list of key findings:

Central Appalachian coal production has declined significantly in recent years and will continue to decline — Central Appalachian coal production reached an all-time peak of 294 million tons in 1990 and peaked a second time at 291 million tons in 1997. Since then, production has declined by 55% in Tennessee, 44% in eastern Kentucky, 37% in Virginia, and 29% in southern West Virginia. As of 2011, regional coal production amounted to 185 million tons—17% of total United States coal production.

The federal Energy Information Administration projects that regional production will decline by 53% from 2011 through 2040, representing 98 million tons of annual production. Most importantly, 86% of this decline is projected to occur by 2020. This fact alone highlights the importance of identifying where the decline may have the greatest negative impact on local coal production, in order to understand which coal-producing communities face the greatest economic challenges in the coming years as a result of the decline.

But there’s also important finding:

Employment and tax trends will not necessarily follow production trends — In recent years, employment has grown—despite the continuing decline in production. In 2011, direct mining employment totaled 37,800 jobs. Even as coal production declines in the future across the region, coal mining jobs are projected to increase due to a decline in labor productivity. Employment and tax trends will not necessarily follow production trends.  However, as a result of the overall decline in coal production, the job and revenue benefits will not be spread evenly across all counties. Some coal-producing counties may experience significant declines in both jobs and revenues, while other counties may experience increases. The resulting expectation is that the benefits of coal production may become more concentrated in fewer counties.

This may seem like a new idea to many folks. But Coal Tattoo readers may recall that it’s a possibility raised before by the West Virginia Center for Budget and Policy, which reported last September:

The projected decline of Central Appalchian coal production is one of the biggest challenges facing the state in the near future. While there are many reasons for the decline, some are irreversible, as much of the easy to reach coal has been mined out. This has prompted a great deal of concern in the state, chiefly regarding the potential loss of coal mining jobs, as it is assumed that as coal production falls, so will employment.

But that may not necessarily be the case. Some numbers suggest that while there may be an initial decline in employment, the job numbers may bounce back, and actually increase in the future. The reason? Falling productivity.

As Ted points out in his post, and again in the 2012 SWWV when mining productivity falls, employment can actually go up, as it takes more miners to mine the same amount of coal. And coal mining productivity has been falling in West Virginia as easy to mine coal is mined out. In 2000 the state mined 10,000 tons per worker, while in 2010, productivity had fallen to 6,600 tons per worker.

More on that in a minute. But let’s first remember that Downstream Strategies produced an initial look at this same issue back in January 2010. It was called The Decline of Central Appalachian Coal and the Need for Economic Diversification and you can read it here. In a press release this morning, Downstream Strategies principal Evan Hansen said:

Since we released our 2010 report, the decline of the region’s coal industry has been publicly acknowledged by both industry leaders and state policymakers. Our new report illustrates how the industry’s many challenges will likely lead to even lower production levels in the future.

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It’s earnings time, and the latest report out in the coal industry is from Alpha Natural Resources, which reported this morning:

Alpha recorded a net loss of $111 million, or $0.50 per diluted share, during the first quarter of 2013, compared with a net loss of $29 million, or $0.13 per diluted share, during the first quarter of 2012. The year-over-year increase in Alpha’s net loss is primarily attributable to lower per ton realizations on metallurgical and Eastern thermal coal and lower shipment volumes of Eastern and Western thermal coal, partly offset by lower cost of coal sales per ton, and lower SG&A and DD&A expenses.

Excluding the items described in our “Reconciliation of Adjusted Net Loss to Net Loss,” the adjusted net loss was $104 million, or $0.47 per diluted share, compared with an adjusted net loss of $58 million, or $0.27 per diluted share, in the first quarter of 2012.

But what I really wanted to point out was this:

In the eastern United States, inventories of NAPP thermal coal at utilities are approximately equal to the 5-year historical average providing a fairly balanced supply-demand landscape, and opportunities exist for producers to contract additional volumes with utility customers. However, despite the relatively healthy inventory levels, the ability of electrical generators to switch to other low cost coals, such as from the Illinois Basin, has created a somewhat stagnant pricing environment. Inventories of CAPP thermal coals have roughly doubled from their historical average in terms of days of burn to approximately 137 days as of the end of March 2013. This inventory situation has been driven by a reduction in utility consumption owing to a host of factors, including fuel switching in favor of gas due to the relatively high cost of CAPP thermal coal, coal-fired plant retirements which are disproportionately impacting the regions served by CAPP thermal coal, and encroachment of other lower cost coals, such as from the Illinois Basin. We believe a significant portion of the decreased consumption of CAPP thermal coal is a structural phenomenon, and Alpha has accordingly substantially reduced its production of CAPP thermal coal through its recent restructuring activities. Furthermore, at today’s seaborne thermal coal prices in the Atlantic, most eastern U.S. production is uneconomic, adding to the difficult supply/demand environment and general market weakness.

We published a story in this morning’s Gazette print edition that tries to detail the findings of an interesting new Duke University study about the potential impacts of low natural gas prices and tougher air quality rules on coal-fired power plants:

Coal-fired power plants around the country may face much greater financial risks than previously projected from a combination of low natural gas prices and stronger air quality rules, according to a new Duke University study.

The economic viability of as many as two-thirds of the nation’s existing coal plants could be threatened in the years ahead, according to Duke researchers who examined operating costs for hundreds of coal- and gas-fired plants nationwide.

“This is a much higher fraction of economic vulnerability than has previously been reported,” said Duke geologist and energy expert Lincoln Pratson, the lead author of the paper, published late last week in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.

The paper is apparently the first peer-reviewed study to look closely at issues that caused great controversy in coalfield communities and fueled an ultimately unsuccessful coal industry campaign to defeat President Obama’s re-election bid last year.

The study itself is online here and it includes some supplemental data files that some folks might want to play with. The study previously received media coverage from The Hill and from Brad Plummer on The Washington Post’s Wonkblog, which explained:

As a side note, the study also helps referee a contentious political debate. During the 2012 campaign, there were two big theories for what, exactly, was killing the U.S. coal industry. Many conservatives blamed the EPA’s air pollution rules, part of President Obama’s “war on coal.” Other analysts largely chalked it up to cheap natural gas — this was just the market at work.

This new study suggests that both are crucial factors, and tries to look at how, precisely, natural gas and the EPA will interact with each other in the years ahead.

Now, the Duke study did not address a lot of issues, and as our story and Brad’s post explained, it made a variety of assumptions that should be understood. One important thing for folks here in the Appalachian coalfields to remember is that some of the factors hurting the regional coal market, such as the mining out of the best and cheapest to each reserves, is not part of the Duke analysis. As Union of Concerned Scientists analyst Jeremy Richardson told me:

The way I look at it is that coal facing a sort of “death from a thousand cuts.” It’s not just one or two factors (the Duke paper considers the two dominant forces, natural gas prices and emissions regulations). But coal also faces additional pressures that were outside the scope of the analysis, as the authors note. These include regulations regarding cooling water usage and coal ash, and the eventual reduction in carbon emissions to address climate change.

Also, note that the analysis did not delve into the differences in coal producing regions within the U.S. Regardless of EPA regulations, Central Appalachian coal is already in the midst of steep decline, and EIA projects it will remain at reduced production levels to at least 2040. Factors driving this trend include geology (decreasing productivity because the easiest-to-mine seams are gone) and economics (it’s cheaper in many cases to ship coal from Wyoming).

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Telling the truth about coal-mining job losses

In response to a previous Coal Tattoo post, there’s been a little bit of discussion about the relative merits of making sure we use accurate data — as accurate and timely as possible — when we talk about what’s going on with our coal industry here in West Virginia and the rest of Appalachia.

Phil Smith, communications director for the United Mine Workers of America, makes a perfectly valid point when he writes:

Whatever the number is, I think everyone can agree that there are today thousands of miners in West Virginia who can no longer provide for their families the way they once were able to, who are no longer contributing to the economies of their local communities like they were, and who are no longer contributing to the tax bases of their communities and the state like they were. Whether its 2,000, 3,000 or 5,000 of them really isn’t the issue. It’s what comes after the jobs are lost that is.

Now, on the one hand, it absolutely does matter if the number is 2,000, 3,000 or 5,000 … especially if we have an actual count that was reported to the government by the coal companies themselves. But even the more accurate and timely figure for coal-mining jobs losses — 3,327 last year in West Virginia — is a lot of families. And on a personal level, it doesn’t matter whether it’s 2,000 or 5,000 if your family is one of the ones hit by a layoff.

But in their zealous pursuit of being “Friends of Coal,” some West Virginia political leaders are quick to jump on even the slightest hint of a coal-job loss, blame it on the Obama administration, and fire away with their anti-EPA rhetoric. We saw such an incident easily debunked today in the Gazette’s letters to the editor column by Rob Goodwin of Coal River Mountain Watch. He wrote:

Some West Virginia leaders appear to have slightly backed off on the divisive “War on Coal” or anti-EPA rhetoric, but the new attorney general, Patrick Morrisey, has continued with the dishonest claims perpetuating divisiveness. He falsely claims in a recent stern letter to President Obama that workers were laid off because of Environmental Protection Agency permit delays.

The Feb. 11 letterr signed by Morrisey asks for the nomination of a new EPA administrator more sympathetic to the coal industry.

His only example that actually alleges any real harm on West Virginians has a serious factual flaw. Morrisey sources a news release from Rockefeller, Manchin, Rahall and Tomblin, issued a week before the election, bashing the EPA, stating, “After the EPA delayed issuing a needed 402 permit, Consol issued a WARN Notice tonight notifying [145] workers that they would be laid off.”

Morrisey falsely claimed in his appeal to Obama that 150 coal miners were laid off because of this EPA permit delay; however, Consol Energy stated in its annual report filed with the SEC on Feb. 7 “Consol Energy was able, in this instance, to redeploy these [145] employees to work at another adjacent coal mine property for which a permit was already issued.”

Now, keep in mind that AG Morrisey’s letter is dated Feb. 11, and the SEC filing that Rob Goodwin refers to was filed four days earlier, on Feb. 7.

The Gazette and the State Journal both posted stories about the letter on Feb. 11, and I did mentioned that coverage in a Coal Tattoo news roundup, but none of that coverage mentioned the clear divergence between what Morrisey said and what the facts of the incident showed. So everyone can be clear, here’s the entire passage from CONSOL’s annual report:

Thus far, CONSOL Energy subsidiaries have been able to continue operating their existing mines. However, CONSOL Energy was affected by a delay in permitting in 2012 for a new coal mine in Mingo County, WV, which resulted in a Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (WARN) notice being issued for employees scheduled to begin work on the new mine. Since 2007, CONSOL Energy has undertaken permitting activities to permit a new surface mine with a post mine land use plan for a five mile stretch of connecting highway that is part of the King Coal Highway corridor. CONSOL of Kentucky entered into a Memorandum of Understanding in conjunction with the Federal Department of Highways Administration and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, to coordinate the design of the valley fills to serve as highway infrastructure. However, the EPA objected to CONSOL Energy’s water discharge permit on the grounds of their April 2010 Appalachian guidance, which resulted in CONSOL Energy’s issuance of a WARN notice on October 30, 2012 for 145 employees who were planned to work at the new coal mine. CONSOL Energy was able, in this instance, to redeploy these employees to work at another adjacent coal mine property for which a permit was already issued. However, there is no assurance that the permit for a new coal mine will be issued, or that CONSOL Energy would be able to re-deploy its employees under future similar circumstances.

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When will W.Va. plan for ‘after coal’?

Gazette photo by Kenny Kemp

As I write this, I’m also listening to a variety of state officials and lawmakers as they meet with the statehouse press corps in the AP’s annual “Legislative Look Ahead” event in preparation for this year’s legislative session. There’s a lot of hand-wringing about the state of the coal industry, with most of it focused on whether a downturn will mean problems for the state government budget.

What there’s very little talk about is exactly what West Virginia is going to do — and when we might actually start doing it — to enable the state to better deal with the ongoing decline of the Central Appalachian coal industry.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin continued to keep his head firmly lodged in the sand, insisting that better days for the coal industry are just around the corner. Tomblin’s budget officials focused on the importance of maintaining a state rainy day fund to keep government functioning during downturns in the natural “boom-bust” of an energy economy — as if West Virginia has no other options but to submit itself to that boom-bust cycle. And Republican legislative leaders took their chance to continue to pretend that the Obama administration’s environmental policies are the only thing causing coal’s decline.

Oddly enough, I took a trip down memory lane earlier in the week, thanks to a press release in which West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey announced he had hired State Journal managing editor (and former Huntington paper reporter) Beth Gorczyca Ryan as his communications director. The release noted:

Before joining The State Journal, Ryan was the special projects reporter for The Herald-Dispatch in Huntington for three years. While there, Ryan was the lead reporter on two award-winning series, “West Virginia After Coal,” which was honored by the Pew Center for Civic Journalism, and “Home for Good,” which looked at the outmigration of young people from West Virginia and the impact it has on the state.

Frankly, I’m ashamed to say I had forgotten about the “West Virginia After Coal” series. But I was able to find a few of the stories still online here (look for the September 2000 Herald-Dispatch stories), and reading them was kind of strange. Why? Because in many ways, these same stories could have been written today. For example, one story, headlined, “Peering into a murky future,” starts out:

John Bias always thought his future was underground. For generations, men in his family worked the mines of Boone County. It was hard work and good pay. For 11 months, Bias followed in their footsteps. Then last year he was laid off. Now 20 and unemployed, Bias sits in downtown Madison in Boone County hoping to find another job that pays as well. It ’s not easy. To Bias and others, Boone County and much of southern West Virginia seem unprepared for coal’s decreasing role in their economy. Little has been done, Bias says, to court new jobs. Little has been done to prepare young people for a life without mining. Now state and county leaders are realizing that needs to change. Soon.

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‘War on coal’: Industry predicts good times ahead?

We all remember how the mining industry waged a non-stop campaign against President Obama’s re-election, saying the administration was engaged in a “war on coal.”  At one point, a top National Mining Association official invoked a Muslim reference, claiming the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had unleashed a “regulatory jihad” against the industry.

So you would think that, now the President Obama has been re-elected and inaugurated for a second term, the world must be coming to an end, if not for the entire economy, at least for the coal industry, right?

Well, here’s what Hal Quinn, president of the National Mining Association, said yesterday at his group’s annual media briefing on their outlook for the future:

The outlook for U.S. coal and minerals mining in 2013 is positive due to clear improvements in key sectors of the U.S. economy and the global demand for mined products, particularly in developing economies … Coal is on track to become the world’s primary energy source—surpassing oil—by 2015, according to Wood McKenzie, two years ahead of the International Energy Agency’s current estimate. Here at home, coal’s contribution to meeting electricity demand will increase by nearly 45 million tons over 2012 levels, and total domestic consumption will rise by 50 million tons due to slight improvements in the U.S. economy; cooler weather; and natural gas prices that are expected to increase by 22 percent, according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA).

Quinn continued:

Demand for coal in Europe has increased—particularly in Germany and Britain—in response to higher gas prices. Demand for coal throughout Asia for electricity and steel production contributes to a robust U.S. coal export forecast of 111 million tons in 2013.

With these improved conditions for coal production and demand in 2013, NMA expects total U.S. coal production to come in at 1.016 billion tons in 2013—slightly more optimistic than EIA’s January short-term forecast.

Longer-term, NMA expects U.S. coal to benefit from recent and planned construction of higher efficiency coal-based power plants with higher output rates and lower emissions. The remaining coal fleet will, on average, be larger, more efficient and run at higher capacity—recovering at least 100 million tons of U.S. coal production lost to retirements of older plants.

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In his inaugural address this afternoon, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin offered no real surprises on coal policy, with the possible exception of his promise that he would see to it that West Virginia’s coal production heads the opposite direction from what just about every industry forecast projects. Here’s the key line:

I will continue to protect and increase the production of coal in West Virginia.

The governor has taken this rhetorical route before, pointing to small blips in natural gas prices as what he believes is evidence of a coming coal rebound in Central Appalachia. Maybe he’s right. But we certainly haven’t seen industry experts agreeing with him, and it seems more likely that coal’s challenges in West Virginia will continue. And if today’s speech is any sort of preview, Gov. Tomblin doesn’t plan to try to lead the state toward any sort of a reasonable discussion about dealing with those challenges.

That, of course, gets us to the other part of Gov. Tomblin’s coal soundbite, his pledge to continue to “protect” the coal industry — which he presumably was elaborating on when he said one of West Virginia’s biggest challenges is to get the federal government “off our backs”:

… I will continue to work to improve our job climate.  Unfortunately, for me that means, in many instances, fighting the federal government to get off our backs and out of our way. But it is a fight I will not concede, and I will never back down.

We’ve talked about this stuff before here on Coal Tattoo in The cognitive dissonance of coal politics in West Virginia. During last year’s State of the State address, Gov. Tomblin had this to say about the federal government:

This is not Washington D.C., where uncontrolled spending has led to uncertainty, a lack of confidence, and a fundamental breakdown in the operation of government. This is West Virginia, where we figured out in a realistic way to cut waste, balance the budget, reduce the tax burden, and commit to our citizens and our businesses, that this is a great place to work, live, and play.

This is not Washington D.C., where the EPA and other governmental agencies engage in back-door policy making that threatens the very livelihood of so many of our fellow citizens. This is West Virginia, where we appreciate the need for reasonable, open environmental regulations but understand the fundamental need for jobs and for low cost, reliable energy developed right here in the United States of America.

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The U.S. Energy Information Administration’s new “Short-term Energy Outlook,” is getting some attention, in part because it had this to say about coal:

EIA expects the coal share of total electricity generation to rise from 37.6 percent in 2012 to 39.0 percent in 2013 and 39.6 percent in 2014, as natural gas prices rise relative to coal prices. Lower-than-projected natural gas prices along with the industry’s response to future environmental regulations could cause the coal share of total generation to fall below this forecast.

But it’s important to remember that the EIA has also recently projected little change in U.S. coal production in 2013. Also important is the longer-term trend, which the EIA recently updated with the early release of its Annual Energy Outlook 2013:

Coal remains the largest energy source for electricity generation throughout the projection period, but its share of total generation declines from 42 percent in 2011 to 35 percent in 2040. Market concerns about GHG emissions continue to dampen the expansion of coal-fired capacity in the AEO2013 Reference case, even under current laws and policies. Low projected fuel prices for new natural gas-fired plants also affect the relative economics of coal-fired capacity, as does the continued rise in construction costs for new coal-fired power plants. As retirements far outpace new additions, total coal-fired generating capacity falls from 318 gigawatts in 2011 to 278 gigawatts in 2040 in the AEO2013 Reference case.

And remember, as EIA has previously reported, it wasn’t so long ago that coal’s share of electricity generation could reliably be quoted as more than half.

The latest EIA figures also shouldn’t give any reason to think the coal market for Central Appalachia is really going to get any better:

Regionally, coal producers in both the Interior and Western regions see their shares of total U.S. coal production increase over the projection period, while Appalachia’s share declines. From 2011 to 2040, the Appalachian region’s share of total coal production (on a Btu basis) falls from 38 percent to 32 percent.

Coal decline: Don’t be confused by new IEA report

This undated image provided by Ambre Energy shows coal mining equipment at work in the Decker coal mine located near Decker, Mont.  (AP Photo/Ambre Energy)

There seems to be some confusion out there about the future of the coal industry, based on this week’s report from the International Energy Agency, which told us:

Coal’s share of the global energy mix continues to rise, and by 2017 coal will come close to surpassing oil as the world’s top energy source, the International Energy Agency (IEA) said today as it released its annual Medium-Term Coal Market Report (MCMR).

Some in the local media are saying this finding contradicts other reports about the decline of coal, citing specifically coverage of the IEA report by our friends over at National Public Radio. Indeed, NPR describing the IEA findings this way:

Despite a slowdown in U.S. consumption, coal is poised to replace oil as the world’s top energy source — possibly in the next five years, according to the International Energy Agency. The rise will be driven almost entirely by new energy demands in China and India, the IEA says.

That’s true as far as it goes. But perhaps NPR should have been more concerned about putting this IEA report in context than in touting the “findings” of one of its own journalistic efforts about the decline of coal in Texas. Because nowhere in the NPR account do they explain clearly what IEA says in the very first sentence of their press release: That this is a Medium-Term Coal Market Report. Readers of the Gazette and this blog know that just a month ago, IEA issued a longer-term examination of world energy markets that painted a different picture for coal — one in which coal production overall does continue to rise globally, but in which coal’s share of the total energy market continues to decline:

Fossil fuels remain the principal sources of energy worldwide, though renewables grow rapidly. Demand for oil, gas and coal grows in absolute terms through 2035, but their combined share of the global energy mix falls from 81% to 75% during that period. The unlocking of unconventional resources portends a very bright future for natural gas, which nearly overtakes coal in the primary energy supply mix by 2035 …

Coal remains the backbone of generation globally, particularly outside the OECD, but its share of the mix is eroded from two‐fifths to one‐third. In the OECD, coal‐based generation declines and is overtaken by gas and renewables by 2035.

In NPR’s defense, they weren’t the only media outlet that didn’t make clear the medium- and long-term trends from IEA. Others that didn’t included The Huffington Post, the New York Times, and the Guardian.

Here in Appalachia, the confusion generated by this kind 0f press coverage is important. When policymakers like Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin can pretend that a coal decline isn’t happening — or that if it is happening it’s all because of President Obama and the EPA — they can avoid the sort of long-term economic diversification that’s needed here. The truth is that coal production from Central Appalachian is on the decline, and is projected to continue that decline, for reasons that have more to do with depleted reserves of easy-to-mine coal and cheap natural gas than anything the EPA is doing. While coal production globally is expected to rise, it’s hard to find anyone who thinks that much of that increase will be fed by mines in Central Appalachia.

Of course, the media coverage that failed to explain the scope of this particular IEA analysis did make an important point about how the continued reliance on coal (absent any focus on CCS) could impact the global climate. The Guardian, for example, noted:

With the highest carbon emissions of any major fossil fuel, coal is a huge contributor to climate change, particularly when burned in old-fashioned, inefficient power stations.

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EIA projects little change in 2013 U.S. coal output

From today’s entry on the U.S. Energy Information Administration “Today in Energy” website:

EIA’s Short-Term Energy Outlook projects total U.S. coal production in 2013 to be close to its 2012 level in the November 2012 Short-Term Energy Outlook as coal stockpile drawdowns and lower exports offset a projected increase in domestic coal consumption.

The November 2012 Short-Term Energy Outlook forecasts a 7% decline in coal production in 2012 from 2011 as domestic consumption, primarily in the electric power sector, falls. Coal production for the first three quarters (January-September) of 2012 was 46 million short tons (MMst) below the same period in 2011. Appalachian and Western region coal production are expected to both decline by 8% in 2012, but the production decline in the Interior should be lower, at 3%, because of strong demand for Illinois Basin coal. However, Western region coal output is expected to reverse course in 2013 and grow 5% to 571 MMst, while Appalachian and Interior region coal production are expected to fall for a second straight year.


There’s a new report out today from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (thanks to the State Journal’s Taylor Kuykendall for tweeting his story about it) that confirms things we already knew about the future of Appalachian coal:

Retirements of older units, retrofits of existing units with pollution controls, and the construction of some new coal-fueled units are expected to significantly change the coal-fueled electricity generating fleet, making it capable of emitting lower levels of pollutants than the current fleet but reducing its future electricity generating capacity …

According to stakeholders and three long-term forecasts GAO reviewed, coal is generally expected to remain a key fuel source for U.S. electricity generation in the future, but coal’s share as a source of electricity may continue to decline. For example, in its forecast based on current policies, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) forecasts that the amount of electricity generated using coal is expected to remain relatively constant through 2035, but it forecasts that the share of coal-fueled electricity generation will decline from 42 percent in 2011 to 38 percent in 2035.

The report explains:

Two broad trends—recent environmental regulations and changing market conditions—are affecting power companies’ decisions related to coal-fueled electricity generating units.

Regarding environmental regulations, the GAO says:

For example, the units companies plan to retire emitted an average of twice as much sulfur dioxide per unit of fuel used in 2011 as units that companies do not plan to retire …

… Regarding retrofits, the coal-fueled generating fleet may also become less polluting in the future as power companies install controls on many remaining units. Regarding new coal-fueled units, these are likely to be less polluting as they must incorporate advanced technologies to reduce emissions of regulated pollutants. Coal-fueled capacity may decline in the future as less capacity is expected to be built than is expected to retire.

As far as other market factors, the GAO reported:

… Important market drivers have been weighing on the viability of coal-fueled electricity generating units. Key among these has been the recent decrease in the price of natural gas, which has made it more attractive for power companies to build new gas-fueled electricity generating units and to utilize existing units more. In addition, slow expected growth in demand for electricity in some areas has decreased the need for new generating units. Power companies may weigh the costs of any needed investments compared with the benefits of continuing to generate electricity at a particular unit. When the costs outweigh the benefits, a power company may decide to retire a unit rather than continue to operate the unit or install new pollution control equipment.

More specific to Appalachia, the GAO report says:

The changes in coal use may also result in shifts between major coal-producing areas in the United States …  coal production from Appalachia declines, and production from the Western and Interior regions increases through 2035  … According to EIA, in 2010, 31 percent of coal was produced in Appalachia, 14 percent was produced in the Interior region of the United States, and 55 percent was produced in the West … EIA’s reference scenario projects that these production figures will change by 2035, with 24 percent of coal produced in Appalachia, 16 percent produced in the Interior region, and 60 percent produced in the Western region.

Within Appalachia, EIA expects declines to come from the central region, which includes southern West Virginia, Virginia, eastern Kentucky, and northern Tennessee. This expected shift in coal production from the eastern United States to the West represents an industry trend ongoing since the early 1990s that is influenced by each region’s unique set of complex geological, mining, and transportation characteristics. For example, some stakeholders told us that demand for western coal has increased primarily because it is low in sulfur content, and the region’s coal reserves can be mined relatively inexpensively compared with Appalachian and Interior coal reserves, which are often more deeply underground and costlier to access. Available information suggests that these benefits have made western coal economically competitive with coal from the Appalachian and Interior regions, despite western coal’s lower heating value and higher cost to transport to some coal-fueled generating units.

Coal decline: “It’s a geological fact of life”

The Washington Post has a good story this morning which looks at another of the important factors that is central to the ongoing coal decline, one that isn’t mentioned so much by industry public relations campaigns or Republican presidential candidates:

It’s become common to blame the flagging fortunes of coal mining companies on low natural gas prices that have convinced many U.S. utilities and industries to slash their use of coal.

But there’s another reason for the woes of mining firms: The cost of mining coal has been going up.

Although it’s commonly said that the United States is the Saudi Arabia of coal with more than 200 years worth of reserves, digging up those coal reserves and delivering them to customers has been getting more expensive.

That’s because of rising costs of transportation, explosives, wages — and geology. In most areas, companies first dig coal from areas that are easiest to access and that have the thickest, richest seams. Over time, however, it becomes more expensive to mine — and more difficult to do so profitably.

That’s particularly true in central Appalachia, where the political fight over the reasons for the coal industry’s woes have been most intense.

The story continues:

… Some of the higher costs of mining have nothing to do with regulations, many analysts say.

“The issues aren’t mine inspectors and environmentalists. It’s a geological fact of life in central Appalachia,” said Tom Sanzillo, a former senior official in the New York State comptroller’s office and now a financial consultant. “You mine for 100 years and you take a lot of coal. It’s the cost of production. That’s the reality of it.”

Marie Shmaruk, a director at Standard & Poor’s who analyzes metals and mining companies, agreed. “We have been relatively negative on central Appalachia for quite some time because it’s an expensive area to mine,” she said. “It’s been mined out and has thinning coal seams. We’ve been mining there forever.”

Shmaruk said that “central Appalachia is being squeezed the most. At natural gas prices today, the coal in a lot of those mines is not really competitive. And you’re seeing a lot of the utilities in that area have moved to natural gas.”

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In this April 2010 photo, a coal miner drives a scoop while working in the Tech Leasing and Rebuild Inc. Mine #1 in Buchanan County, Va. Once, coal miners were literally at war with their employers. (AP Photo/Bristol Herald Courier, David Crigger)

If you missed it yesterday, you really should take the time to read the epic story that Vicki Smith put together about the so-called “war on coal,” about the history of the industry, about its future — and what is driving that future — and, most importantly, about the people who are caught in the middle. Here’s how she started out:

Drive through the coalfields of Central Appalachia, and signs of the siege are everywhere.

Highway billboards announce entry to “Obama’s No Job Zone,” while decals on truck windows show a spiky-haired boy peeing on the president’s name.

“Stop the War on Coal,” yard signs demand. “Fire Obama.”

Only a few generations ago, coal miners were literally at war with their employers, spilling and shedding blood on West Virginia’s Blair Mountain in a historic battle for union representation and fair treatment.

Today, their descendants are allies in a carefully choreographed rhetorical war playing out across Eastern Kentucky, Southwestern Virginia and all of West Virginia. It’s fueled by a single, unrelenting message that they now face a common enemy — the federal government — that has decided that coal is no longer king — or even noble.

Blame the president, the script goes. Blame the Environmental Protection Agency. And now that it’s election season, blame all incumbent politicians – even those who have spent their careers in a delicate dance, trying to make mines safer while allowing their operators to prosper.

Then, Vicki really nailed it with these two paragraphs:

The war on coal is a sound bite and a headline, perpetuated by pundits, power companies and public relations consultants who have crafted a neat label for a complex set of realities, one that compels people to choose sides.

It’s easier to call the geologic, market and environmental forces reshaping coal — cheap natural gas, harder-to-mine coal seams, slowing economies — some kind of political or cultural “war” than to acknowledge the world is changing, and leaving some people behind.

Let’s read that last sentence  again, especially you politicians:

It’s easier to call the geologic, market and environmental forces reshaping coal — cheap natural gas, harder-to-mine coal seams, slowing economies — some kind of political or cultural “war” than to acknowledge the world is changing, and leaving some people behind.

Further down in the story, Vicki gives us some voices of the people being left behind:

On a single day in September, Virginia-based Alpha Natural Resources closed eight mines in four states, announcing that, by early next year, about 1,200 jobs nationwide will be gone.

“That’s 1,200 people not going to the grocery store,” said Tracy Miller, a miner’s wife in Keokee, Va.

Not going to Walmart. Buying less gas. Postponing home improvements. Forgoing little luxuries like a dinner out.

Most of the first 400 cut were lucky; all but about 130 got transfers. Driving to a new job several hours away is hard, but it’s better than no job at all. For those truly out of work, options are limited. Logging, maybe. More likely, something in the service sector.

“But if there’s no coal mines,” Miller said, “there’s not going to be a dollar store, either.”

Coal remains the economic pillar of many Appalachian communities, the foundation of a mono-economy that political leaders have for generations lacked either the will or the ability to diversify.

Without coal, families can’t put food on the table or pay for the roofs over their heads.

The specter of losing it creates fear, frustration and anger.

“I’ve done a lot of praying, and my family’s done a lot of praying. We’ve literally been scared to death,” said Shana Lucas, whose husband, Trent, was among the lucky ones, transferred when the layoffs hit Wise, Va.

“I don’t think people understand the lack of job opportunities here,” she said. “Coal is the only thing we have here besides fast-food restaurants.”

A miner can make $30 an hour, plus overtime — as opposed to the $8 an hour in the service industry.

“They have worked so, so hard, and they are losing everything they’ve worked for,” Lucas said. “It’s devastation to this place that we love and to the men that we look at as heroes.”

In a Saturday Oct. 13, 2012 photo, Amanda McCracken, of Big Stone Gap, stands with her children, Kaylee, 6, and Pryston, 8, at Saturday’s United for Coal demonstration in support of her husband and their father, who is a coal miner.   (AP Photo/Bristol Herald Courier, Allie Robinson)

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Coal up in August, but long-term decline continues

The U.S. Energy Information Administration has some new data out today:

In August 2012, coal produced 39% of U.S. electricity, up from a low of 32% in April 2012, when the natural gas share of generation equaled that of coal. Increased demand for electric power in the summer months—to run air conditioners—created more room in the market, and generation from both fuels increased between April and July.

But before you get too excited, the EIA added:

The August coal share of generation is still notably lower than the 50% annual average over the 1990-2010 period.

Really, this again emphasizes the point we’ve made before on this blog, and the comments by coal industry analyst Alan Stagg in a recent piece by Pam Kasey at The State Journal:

“If you look at production for Central Appalachia, it keeps coming down,” Stagg said — from 24 percent of U.S. coal production in 2000 to just 17 percent in 2010.

“Northern Appalachian production keeps coming down,” he said. That’s the region that includes northern West Virginia.

“All of Appalachia keeps coming down,” he said.

Stagg is irked when those who are in a position to educate the public and help plan for the decline of Appalachian coal use its decline instead for political gain.

While politicians, coal associations and other cheerleaders of the industry say regulations need to be rolled back in order to bring back Appalachian coal production, he said, “my point is, some of this stuff is structural and it’s not going to come back.

“That’s not to say the coal industry is down the toilet or the U.S. economy is not coming back, but that the Appalachian coal production curve isn’t going to turn and start ramping back up again to the glory days.”


Coal decline: About that ‘elephant in the room’

There’s another story make the rounds that shows again why making the future of the Appalachian coalfields all about fighting the “war on coal” is a bad strategy. It’s from the folks at SNL Financial, and here’s how it starts:

Calling the uncertain future of Central Appalachian coal mining the “elephant in the room,” industry consultant Alan Stagg said he expects mining in the high-cost region to cease in the next 10 to 20 years.

Speaking at Platts Coal Marketing Days on Sept. 21, Stagg said producers in Central Appalachia need to accept that difficult physical mining conditions, combined with inescapable regulatory restrictions, will soon erase profitability.

“This is the elephant in the room. No one wants to acknowledge that reserve depletion is profound,” said Stagg, president and CEO of Stagg Resource Consultants Inc. “Mining conditions are difficult, and the cost to produce is high. That is a physical fact. It’s not pleasant. Nobody wants to acknowledge it. That is a fact, and companies that ignore that fact will not do so well.”

UPDATED: Pam Kasey over at The State Journal, has an interesting update to this story, reporting:

The State Journal contacted Stagg, president and CEO of Stagg Resource Consultants in Cross Lanes and a sought-after expert on the topic, after noting several recent media references (here and here, for example) in which he is said to have forecast a near-term end to Central Appalachian coal.

“I have seen that in one or two publications or sources and it misquotes what I said in the Platts conference,” Stagg said.

That was last month’s Platts Coal Marketing Days in Pittsburgh. During his Sept. 21 talk there, Stagg said he recalls responding to a reporter’s question about whether he sees Central Appalachian coal running out with something along the lines of “of course it’s going to run out some day — there’s a finite amount of coal — but I don’t see that happening in 10 or 20 years.”

An SNL Financial reporter wrote, “… industry consultant Alan Stagg said he expects mining in the high-cost region to cease in the next 10 to 20 years” — a statement that would rightly generate serious attention, if Stagg had said it.

But the reporter who asked the question, Platts’ Steve Hooks, wrote, “Stagg said he believes there will still be ‘some production’ from (Central Appalachia) in 10 to 20 years from now.”

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Missed warnings: Coal’s decline is no surprise

If you missed it in our Sunday paper, here’s how we started off a story about the many warnings West Virginia political leaders have had that a big decline on coal production was coming:

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.

Analysts have been warning about the region’s ongoing coal decline – and the fact that West Virginia’s coal would someday run out — for years. A century ago, then-Gov. Henry Hatfield warned, “Our great storehouse of natural resources, given to us by nature, is rapidly disappearing.”

More recently, a 1995 report by the U.S. Bureau of Mines cautioned that, based on current production levels and known reserves, Boone County “will be able to sustain mining activities for no more than 20 years.”

As I mentioned in an earlier post this morning, you won’t read much about this in the coverage by political reporters of the coalfield portion of this year’s election campaigns.

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Coal is changing, so when will W.Va. catch up?

In their announcement earlier this week of a “strategic repositioning plan,” Alpha Natural Resources officials spoke some real truths about what’s happening with the coal industry in general and the Appalachian region’s coalfields in particular.

Kevin Crutchfield, Alpha’s CEO, said for example:

With fundamental changes taking place in our business, we’re taking decisive actions that set the table for Alpha to compete successfully as a leader in the global coal markets for years to come.

And Paul Vining, Alpha’s president, added:

The focus and shape of our company need to change to reflect our new business environment.

What also struck me was what was missing from Alpha’s announcement: No mention of the “war on coal”. No verbal attacks on EPA or the Obama administration. The only hint of anything like that was this:

Alpha’s rationalization efforts focus on thermal coal operations that have a cost, customer or transportation advantage. Operations that have competitive cost positions and more stable customer demand — such as supplying baseload power plants and generating units that will survive a stricter regulatory regime — will supply the majority of the company’s U.S. thermal coal output.

Don’t get me wrong. Alpha and the rest of the coal industry are still going to do their best to defeat President Obama’s re-election.  The New York Times noted recently:

Some of the mightiest players in the oil, gas and coal industries are financing an aggressive effort to defeat him, or at least press him to adopt policies that are friendlier to fossil fuels … With nearly two months before Election Day on Nov. 6, estimated spending on television ads promoting coal and more oil and gas drilling or criticizing clean energy has exceeded $153 million this year, according to an analysis by The New York Times of 138 ads on energy issues broadcast this year by the presidential campaigns, political parties, energy companies, trade associations and third-party spenders.

Just yesterday, we had reports out of Florida about another fundraiser for Republican candidate Mitt Romney co-hosted by billionaire coal operator Chris Cline.

But if you read the Alpha announcement carefully, it’s a clear statement — aimed mostly at investors, not the folks of the coalfields where Alpha operates — that the company understands fundamental changes are occurring in the energy business, and is adapting its company to deal with those changes. Steam coal, especially from Appalachia, is losing a big hunk of its market. Met coal may provide some cushion, but it’s far from clear how much. Alpha even acknowledges this is going to bring hard times for the places where it mines coal:

We must have a nimble operating model, superior cost management and an overhead structure that matches our streamlined operational footprint. We recognize these changes will impact our people, suppliers and communities in some areas where we operate. Alpha is committed to acting transparently and responsibly throughout the transition, with respectful consideration of our people and all other stakeholders.

This is in great contrast to Governor Romney’s campaign rhetoric, which is promoting the incredibly questionable notion that we have almost unlimited supplies of coal, and that if you’ll just help him get President Obama out of the White House, the good times will be rolling again in the coalfields.

And it’s certainly in contrast to the show put on today in the U.S. House of Representatives by the Republican leadership, which on its last legislative day before the general election decided to have “Stop the War on Coal Act” day, recycling bills that have already passed the House, but are going nowhere in the Senate and face a veto threat from the White House. West Virginia Reps. Shelley Moore Capito and David McKinley, both R-W.Va., were both in the thick of it.

The spectacle brought a remarkable editorial from the Roanoke Times:

The Enemies of Coal were everywhere this week after Bristol-based Alpha Natural Resources announced that it will close eight mines, including three in Virginia. About 1,200 workers will be affected, although most in the commonwealth will be reassigned to other mines.

Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-9th District, lobbed a predictable news release into the ether accusing a “group of government bureaucrats” of trying to force the coal industry out of business. Senate Republican candidate George Allen and GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney chimed in with similar screeds against President Barack Obama, the Environmental Protection Agency and, of course, their election opponents.

In truth, we are all enemies of coal, not because we wish harm on families who depend on mining for their livelihoods, but because our expectations have changed.

We still want cheap electricity. That part hasn’t changed. But we also want streams and rivers free of mercury. We want a planet that will not be suffocated by greenhouse gases before our grandchildren become grandparents.

In the past, we had to make trade-offs between two conflicting desires. But as study after study documented the terrible cost to our environment and our health from coal’s filthy byproducts, technology and the market changed, too, and offered us a cleaner and cheaper alternative in the form of natural gas.

Alpha executives acknowledged the role of competition from natural gas in their decision this week, along with the cost of environmental and health regulations. Electric utilities are building new natural gas power stations. Even Appalachian Power Co., its ties to coal seemingly forged in the Mesozoic Era, is converting some of its aging plants to natural gas.

More broadly, Alpha is reorganizing after its purchase of Massey Energy and focusing on metallurgical coal. The newly constituted company stands to benefit from pent-up demand from China, where infrastructure investments continue at a pace that simply doesn’t exist here, in part because economic reforms have been frozen by partisan bickering in Washington, D.C.

The economy has changed. Alpha has changed. We have changed. Yet Republican politicians continue to shake their fists at the future. If that is all the party has to offer, then it’s time for a leadership change as well.

And over at The New York Times, the brilliant editorial writer Robert B. Semple Jr. reminds us that this wasn’t always the way Republicans handled environmental issues, in a blog post about the death of Russell Train, a lifelong Republican who served as President Nixon’s first Council on Environmental Quality Chairman and as EPA administrator:

Within hours of Mr. Train’s death, Republican leaders in the House brought to the floor a bill called “Stop the War on Coal Act, “ which seeks to weaken and in some cases overturn laws and rules protecting the very things that Mr. Train stood for – clean air, clean water, a stable climate and fair effective regulation of the big polluters, including but not exclusively the fossil fuel industry.

… In recent years, much to his surprise as an old Republican loyalist, but perfectly in keeping with his values, Mr. Train found himself working behind the scenes to defend the Obama administration and especially its embattled E.P.A. chief, Lisa Jackson, in her efforts to regulate greenhouse gas emissions linked to climate change. He was also a strong supporter of President Obama’s most important environmental achievement so far, the agreement with Detroit to double automobile efficiency and greatly reduce greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles by 2025.

One suspects, however, that his final years would have been much happier had he been spared the sight of his own party trashing much of what he worked for.

Of course, here in West Virginia, it’s not just the Republicans who want to dismantle basic environmental protections and prevent the Obama EPA from working to reduce mountaintop removal pollution, protect public health and save the global climate.

Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, for example, wanted in on the action. And Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., wanted to be sure that residents of his districtwho face increased risks of birth defects and cancer because they live near mountaintop removal mining — know that he authored portions of the Republican-championed “Stop the War on Coal Act.”

Having crafted essential components of this pro-jobs bill, I am pleased that the House has spoken so strongly today in support of our coal miners and their families. The true soldiers in this war are our coal miners who simply want to do their jobs and earn an honest living to provide for their families. I have been proud to stand in the trenches and fight with our miners and I was proud to stand with them in passing this legislation today.

There was one West Virginia political leader who was willing to distance himself from all of this. Yesterday, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., issued a statement announcing that he was introducing new legislation aimed at trying once again to jump-start carbon capture and storage technology — the only thing that could save the coal industry in a carbon-constrained world. I asked Sen. Rockefeller’s office what the senator thought of today’s doings over in the House, and this is what the senator had to say:

I’ve opposed much of this legislation in the past because it undermines important environmental and health protections without moving coal forward.

This is yet another effort by House Republicans to score political points by pushing bills they know won’t become law instead of working to find actual solutions. It’s time to stop the games and start looking toward the future, diversifying our economy in West Virginia, and laying out a path for truly clean coal technology.

Now, you may not think there’s any such thing as “clean coal,” especially is you live near a mountaintop removal mine. And you may not think that CCS is ever going to really work, be safe, or become cost effective.  But at least Sen. Rockefeller is no longer falling for the overly simple and false promise of thinking that a win over the Obama administration’s coal policies is going to mean smooth sailing for Southern West Virginia or the rest of the Appalachian coalfields.

Plans like the one Alpha announced earlier this week show that coal companies are changing. Those changes might help those companies remain profitable, protecting their shareholders from damage as the industry declines. But those plans aren’t going to protect every coal miner’s job. They aren’t going to improve our educational system or diversify our economy. West Virginians can’t count on the coal industry to do those things. Can we count on ourselves?