CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Coal production in West Virginia is likely to continue declining. But one of the Mountain State's major industries will continue to exist, according to the West Virginia Coal Association and a recent government report.
Last year, coal-fired power plants produced 42 percent of the nation's electricity.
Shortly after World War II, West Virginia coal production reached a high of 173.7 million tons, then dropped to 120 million tons or less between 1958 and 1962.
West Virginia coal production reached an all-time high of 181.9 million tons in 1997. But production dropped as the new century began, hitting a low of 139.4 million tons in 2011, according to the West Virginia Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training.
Coal production in the state dropped by 18.4 percent between 2008 and 2011.
Employment reached its all-time peak in West Virginia shortly after World War II -- 125,669 jobs in 1948. But mining jobs dropped to under 50,000 from 1960 though 1974, primarily because of widespread mechanization using continuous mining machines.
Longwall mining machines and an increase in surface mining then continued to increase productivity and cut jobs.
Between 1996 and 2005, coal employment dropped below 20,000, hitting a low of 14,282 in 2000.
By 2009, employment had risen to 27,892. This September, 21,141 miners were still working in West Virginia's mines.
Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, said, "We believe coal provides the bedrock of the nation's economy -- the lowest cost, most dependable form of energy available."
Chris Hamilton, senior vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association, said coal "production is off this year due to a number of factors that have converged concurrently."
Those factors include:
* An "unseasonably mild weather pattern" began last winter and continued into the spring. Last summer was not as hot as it sometimes is and relatively mild weather continued in the fall, reducing demand for electricity for air conditioning and heating.
* National and worldwide recessions also caused energy consumption to drop.
"China and India have had recent annual growth rates of 15 percent to 16 percent. Today, their growth rates are six percent to seven percent. At home, the growth rate is about one percent," Hamilton said.
* "New regulatory requirements that stifled new mining permits on the operational side. There have been closures of power plants on the consumptive side." Hamilton said.
* "The availability of low-cost natural gas, particularly from Marcellus Shale reserves in West Virginia and western Pennsylvania and Ithaca gas shale reserves in eastern Ohio and Kentucky."
Recent drops in natural gas prices are encouraging some companies to build power plants to generate electricity from gas.
Hamilton said, "I don't think you can point to any one of these factors as the cause. There is a cumulative effect. They came together and created the perfect storm."
Phil Smith, spokesman for United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts, said Thursday, "We are seeing a production decline in Central Appalachia that is likely to continue.
"But that does not mean there is not going to be coal mined. There is still plenty of coal in Central Appalachia and people are going to be mining it.
"That is especially true with metallurgical coal in the region. People absolutely aren't going to stop making steel. That is a very technical industry, based on the health of the world's economy.
"When we see a bounce back in the economy, we will see a bounce back in steelmaking. We are beginning to see that trend emerge.
"Most of our metallurgical coal is exported today, because there is not a whole lot of steel made in the country any more. The export market is definitely down. But it looks like it will remain stable in 2013, if nothing else," Smith said.
Hamilton said most experts believe coal production will stabilize in the near future.
"Production will be in the 110 million to 130 million ton range for the next couple of decades. The industry will be somewhat smaller, but much more efficient."
The coal industry has always experienced peaks and valleys in demand and production.
"But two added dimensions today are the assault from the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] and this administration, as well as the new abundance of natural gas."
Future coal production
Coal has a diminishing reserve base, Hamilton said. He said there are enough reserves to continue coal production for at least 200 years, but a report from the National Academy of Sciences five years ago said their best confirmable estimate was about half that, and there were "significant uncertainties in generating reliable estimates of the nation's coal resources and reserves."
Regardless, Hamilton said, "There is still plenty of coal under these hills. And the lion's share is mineable. How much will be mined is a question."
Coal seams that will be mined in future years will probably be deeper, thinner and further away from "our points of access," Hamilton said.