CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Coal will remain a "key fuel source," but the industry's share of power generation will continue to decline and Appalachian producers could be especially hard hit, according to a new report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
GAO officials confirmed what the industry and coalfield residents have already seen:
Utilities are closing older, less efficient and higher polluting power plants where upgrading emissions control equipment is not economical.
And a collection of other market forces -- including cheap and increasingly abundant gas and competition from other coal basins -- will drive Appalachia's share of the U.S. coal market further downward.
In 2010, Appalachia accounted for 31 percent of the nation's coal. By 2035, the region's share of production will drop to 24 percent, the GAO said, citing U.S. Energy Information Administration forecasts.
"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," the GAO report said.
"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," the report said. "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."
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., requested the GAO report and his office was provided a copy on Oct. 29. GAO officials released the document Tuesday.
In a statement issued Tuesday, Rockefeller said, "GAO did a thorough examination into what coal's future looks like, and the report reaffirms that coal will clearly continue to have an enormous role in our energy future, but it faces some serious near term challenges.