The U.S. Energy Information Administration's "Annual Coal Report" published in 2010 estimates the country had 486.1 billion tons of coal reserves left at the end of 2009.
The states with the most reserves are: Montana, 119 billion tons; Illinois, 104 billion tons; Wyoming, 62 billion tons; and West Virginia, 32 billion tons.
"We have many decades of mining left," Hamilton said. "Most experts believe that once the economy picks up and the price of natural gas increases, the decline in coal should taper off and stabilize.
"New opportunities exist, primarily in the export market," Hamilton said.
"Coal is a key domestic fuel source and an important contributor to the U.S. economy," according to a federal General Accountability Office report released on Oct. 29.
"Most coal produced in the United States is used to generate electricity. In 2011, 1,387 coal-fueled electricity generating units produced about 42 percent of the nation's electricity."
The report, "Electricity: Significant Changes Are Expected in Coal-Fueled Generation, but Coal Is Likely to Remain a Key Fuel Source," was prepared at the request of Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va.
"The future U.S. use of coal may be determined by several key factors, including the price of natural gas and environmental regulations."
The Energy Information Administration "assessed several scenarios of future fuel prices," the report states, "and forecasts that coal's share of U.S. electricity generation will fall to 30 percent in 2035 if natural gas prices are low or 40 percent if natural gas prices are high."
Health and environmental problems are also cited in the GAO report.
Coal-fired power plants "are among the largest emitters of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, which have been linked to respiratory illnesses and acid rain. ...
"Compared with natural gas-fueled units, coal-fueled units produced, on average, over twice as much carbon dioxide per unit of electricity as natural gas units in 2010."
The GAO report also mentions other toxic pollutants from burning coal, including mercury often ingested by fish later eaten by humans.
"Mercury can harm fetuses and cause neurological disorders in children, resulting in, among other things, impaired cognitive disabilities.
"Other toxic metals emitted from power plants, such as arsenic, chromium and nickel can cause cancer," the report states.
Geographical distribution of coal production
Hamilton said competition from the western coalfields will remain strong, especially because states like Wyoming have coal seams, near the earth's surface, up to 100 feet thick.
"We need real technology and ingenuity. We have the best miners here in West Virginia."
The energy content of coal mined in West Virginia is also higher, ranging between 12,000 and 13,000 BTUs (British Thermal Units) per ton, compared to only 6,000 to 7,000 BTUs per ton in states like Wyoming.
Western states produced very little coal before the 1970s, when Wyoming opened its first mine, Hamilton said. By 2010, Wyoming was producing 443 million tons of coal a year. West Virginia and Kentucky, which ranked second and third, produced 136 million tons and 104 tons, respectively.
The country as a whole produced nearly 1.1 billion tons of coal in 2010.
Today, coal provides West Virginia's state government with a major source of income: the severance tax.
"Coal severance taxes have doubled over the past five years," Hamilton said. "They reached about half a billion last year."
West Virginia has two distinct coal regions.
The state's northern counties produce primarily steam coal used to generate electric power. The southern coal counties produce some of the highest quality metallurgical coal mined in the world, in addition to steam coal.
"China and India are both major importers of met and steam coal," Hamilton said. "Met coal may double in price during the next six or seven years. Europe and Africa also import our coal.
"The West Virginia coal market and industry should stabilize over the next few years."
Hamilton said the coal industry employs about 5,000 workers at preparation plants and maintenance facilities today, in addition to 22,000 working miners.
Last year, underground mines produced 91.4 million tons of coal, nearly 66 percent of West Virginia's total production, while surface mines produced 48.1 million tons.
Last year, West Virginia's largest coal producing counties were: Boone; 20.9 million; Marion, 17.1 million; Logan, 14.2 million; Marion, 11.6 million; Monongalia, 10.5 million; Mingo, 9.8 million; Kanawha, 9.6 million; and Raleigh, 9.1 million tons.
The GAO report points out that 31 percent of all coal mined in the U.S. came from Appalachia in 2010, while 14 percent was mined in the "interior region," including Illinois and Indiana. Western states produced the remaining 55 percent of the nation's coal.
The Energy Information Administration expects to see declining coal production in "southern West Virginia, Virginia, eastern Kentucky and northern Tennessee."
Reach Paul J. Nyden at pjny...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5164.