"There's not any surprise in this," said Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association. "You're talking about a declining reserve anyway. We mined the low-hanging fruit a long time ago.
Three years ago, the Morgantown consultant group Downstream Strategies issued a landmark report that tried to summarize earlier EIA projects, put them in context, and draw more public and political attention to the coming coal decline.
"Given the numerous challenges working against any substantial recovery of the region's coal industry, and that production is projected to decline significantly in the coming decade, diversification of Central Appalachian economies is now more critical than ever," authors Rory McIlmoil and Evan Hansen said in their January 2010 report. "State and local leaders should support new economic development across the region, especially in rural areas set to be most impacted by a sharp decline in the region's coal economy."
But even the Downstream Strategies report was nothing new.
When the EPA performed a detailed study of mountaintop-removal mining in the late 1990s and early 2000s, coal production forecasts were among the factors examined.
The EPA, citing projections from the industry firm Hill and Associates, warned of regional production declines as high as 40 percent. Those declines were expected without any additional restrictions on mountaintop removal, and blamed "chiefly on a combination of depletion of reserves and competition with Western coal," according to a March 2002 EPA draft report.
More recently, a June 2010 report by the Appalachian Regional Commission outlined similar findings.
"Coal mining in Appalachia is likely to continue for several decades, although mine productivity is declining as thicker, more accessible coal beds are mined out and succeeded by thinner, and less-accessible coal seams," the ARC report said.
Last year, the West Virginia Center for Budget and Policy looked closely at the models Energy Department officials use to forecast future coal production trends. The center found that agency experts had modeled scenarios that include and exclude new federal limits on power plant emissions of toxic chemicals and possible future limits on greenhouse gases. And those scenarios showed similar reductions in Central Appalachian coal production, whether such EPA rules are put in place or not.
"The reality is that, even without greenhouse gas or mercury regulations, coal production in Central Appalachia is going to dramatically decline," said Sean O'Leary, an analyst with the center. "Repealing environmental regulations won't make the remaining coal seams in West Virginia any thicker or easier to mine, and it won't stop power plants from converting to natural gas."
The center has been promoting a proposal for a small increase in coal and natural gas taxes that would go into a "future fund." Some interest on the fund would be spent on economic development, education and infrastructure improvements. Other earnings would be saved, allowing the fund to grow over time to continue helping with diversification of the state's economy.
Ted Boettner, executive director of the center, said that the proposal has been well received by local officials around the state, but has not generally been embraced by statewide political leaders.
"There is a profound disconnect," Boettner said. "County commissioners are concerned about balancing their budgets with declining coal severance taxes and economic development authorities are concerned about diversifying their local economies. And most alarming is that the governor and many legislators are not putting the issue of coal decline and transition at the top of their legislative agenda."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.