On Friday, Crutchfield cited an unusually warm 2011-12 winter and record-low natural gas prices as central drivers in coal's predicament, saying that a "hostile U.S. regulatory environment" adds to those pressures.
"We've seen what the regulatory environment has held so far, and have sort of dialed that in," Crutchfield said. "The question is, is there more to come?"
Earlier this week, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin disputed reports that forecast a continued decline in Southern West Virginia coal production. The governor said natural gas prices are creeping back up, a trend that will lead utilities to switch back to coal.
Crutchfield said that might be the case for coal produced in Wyoming's Powder River Basin, Southern Illinois or Northern Appalachia, but mining costs in Central Appalachia are higher, making it tougher for mines there to compete unless gas prices jump more. One problem is that utilities in the southeastern United States can more easily switch to natural gas, Crutchfield said. The region also contains a large number of small and older coal-fired power plants that utilities would rather close than spend money to upgrade for new air pollution limits.
"Clearly, Central Appalachia is the one that is most challenging," Crutchfield said. "We're not hiding from that fact. We've been pretty open about it."
Crutchfield has been highly critical of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rules from the Obama administration, and has campaigned for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
When pressed by an analyst for details of what a Romney administration could do to help Central Appalachian coal, though, Crutchfield said turning the region's mining industry around won't be easy.
Crutchfield said he would like to see more "regulatory clarity" and for the EPA to focus more on ensuring any rules it issues are solid cost-benefit studies that show they're worth it.
He added, though, "One thing that I think is difficult is to reverse decisions that have been made over the course of the last several years.
"I do think that is challenging," he said. "Everybody likes to talk about it, but I think we're all pretty realistic in terms of how difficult that can be."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.