The Times West Virginian

Opinion

May 16, 2013

Sound policy would give coal a chance, not erase challenges

It’s no secret that the region’s coal industry faces challenges from many sides.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration, through a report it began releasing last month, forecast that although total U.S. coal production is expected to rise after 2016, Appalachian coal will not.

“Appalachian coal production declines substantially from current levels, as coal produced from the extensively mined, higher-cost reserves of Central Appalachia is supplanted by lower-cost coal from other regions,” the EIA’s summary of a partial release of its Annual Energy Outlook 2013 states.

There is a bit of good news for part of West Virginia. The State Journal reported forecast figures show production of Northern Appalachian coal — the kind mined in northern West Virginia and northward — increasing, while the Central Appalachian coal mined in southern West Virginia and the surrounding region declining dramatically.

“An expected increase in production from the northern part of the Appalachian basin moderates the overall decline,” the forecast reads.

A battle between the industry and environmentalists over a mining practice known as mountaintop removal is a key issue in coal’s future in southern West Virgina and other areas such as eastern Kentucky. Rep. Nick Rahall on Tuesday introduced a measure to rein in the Environmental Protection Agency following an appellate court’s decision that held the EPA could revisit a permit issued earlier for the Spruce No. 1 mine in Logan County.

“In recent years, the EPA has taken direct aim at the Appalachian coalfields, using and abusing seemingly every regulatory tool in their arsenal to stymie, disrupt and prevent coal mining,” the West Virginia Democrat said.

Rahall called the decision by EPA to yank the Spruce permit “their most brazen assault on coal miners’ jobs.”

On the same day, a report from Morgantown-based Downstream Strategies said government data show that production in Central Appalachia is projected to fall from 185 million tons in 2011 to 128 million tons by 2020, a 31 percent drop.

The Associated Press reported that the document titled “The Continuing Decline in Demand for Central Appalachian Coal: Market and Regulatory Influences” said the region’s production is being squeezed by economics, government regulations and even its own geology.

The report details challenges the coal industry is facing:

• Much of the the easy-to-reach coal seams have been mined out, meaning it takes more workers to keep production levels up, resulting in higher costs.

• Electric utilities are retiring coal-fired plants or upgrading plants to burn cheaper natural gas.

• There is competition from high-producing western mines that can mine coal at a cheaper price. Central Appalachia’s production was passed by western states, namely Wyoming, in the 1990s.

• Tougher federal regulations are being enforced by the Obama administration.

Indeed, the challenges are significant.

It’s important to realize, though, that circumstances can change.

As recently as October of 2011, Bloomberg Businessweek magazine reported that “despite starting salaries of $70,000, mining companies face a recruiting crunch as young people in coal country opt to stay above ground,” though it conceded that “demand for miners could wane if the global economy relapses into recession, which would cut steel consumption and demand for electricity. Environmental Protection Agency regulations also could cut use of coal, limiting the need to hire more miners.”

Administrations and policies in the United States do change. Abundant, low-cost energy has always fueled economic growth, and the country’s enormous coal reserves — mined safely and responsibly and burned cleanly, with associated technology adequately supported and developed — must be a part of the total energy picture for decades to come.

Such policy won’t erase the challenges faced by the coal industry, but it would give it a chance to succeed. That’s all we ask.

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