CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Long-term forecasts for coal production in West Virginia and the rest of Central Appalachia continue to show major declines are underway -- and still to come -- for the region's mining industry.
And overall nationwide, coal's share of U.S. electrical generation is expected to continue to drop.
Last month, the U.S. Department of Energy's Energy Information Administration issued its latest projections.
"EIA expects the coal share of total electricity generation to rise from 37.6 percent in 2012 to 39 percent in 2013 and 39.6 percent in 2014, as natural gas prices rise relative to coal prices," the agency said. "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 EIA has also recently projected little change in U.S. coal production in 2013. And the long-term trend, especially for Appalachian coal, is not good.
"Coal remains the largest energy source for electricity generation throughout the projection period, but its share of total generation declined from 42 percent in 2011 to 35 percent in 2040," EIA said.
"Market concerns about [greenhouse gas] emissions continue to dampen the expansion of coal-fired capacity ... even under current laws and policies," the agency said. "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."
At the same time, the EIA said, "regionally, coal produced 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," the EIA said.
For many years, analysts have been warning that coal's best days in Southern West Virginia could someday end, and experts say the decline being observed now isn't likely to turn around.
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 forecasts.
Central Appalachian production isn't going to disappear anytime soon, at least not according to government forecasts. And a projected increase in Northern Appalachian production, including from Northern West Virginia, could offset some of the Central Appalachian decline. But for West Virginia's southern coal counties, the projected decline is significant and could have serious economic impacts.