CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- After reaching record highs in the late 1990s, coal production levels in West Virginia have declined in recent years.
Production in the state reached historic highs of 181.9 million tons in 1997 and 180.8 million tons in 1998, according to the West Virginia Office of Miners' Health Safety and Training.
Production levels declined in recent years, dropping to 165.8 million tons in 2008, 144.0 million tons in 2009, 143.2 million tons in 2010 and 139.4 million tons in 2011.
Underground mines produced 65.5 percent of West Virginia's coal in 2011.
Still, coal remains the nation's major energy source.
"Due to its relatively low cost and abundance, coal is used to generate about half of the electricity consumed in the United States," according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. It remains the largest domestically produced source of energy.
Today, the U.S. has the "world's largest estimated recoverable reserves of coal and is a net exporter of coal. In 2011, our nation's coal mines produced more than a billion short tons of coal, and more than 90 percent of this coal was used by U.S. power plants to generate electricity," EIA reported.
Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, said many producers in the state today have continuing "concerns with federal government policies and the lack of permits being issued.
"It has created an atmosphere of uncertainty, forcing companies to operate in areas they hadn't planned to operate in, which forces them to mine coal at a higher cost."
Markets for domestic thermal and steam coal have declined, Raney said, from a combination of warmer weather, large stockpiles and economic recession.
"We are hopeful that the economy is turned around and that the demand for electricity will increase," Raney said.
But long-term projections are a concern, and experts say a decline seen now in Southern West Virginia isn't likely to turn around, as the best coal in Southern West Virginia has already been mined.
Overall, production from Central Appalachia, which includes mostly Southern West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky, is projected to be cut in half by the end of this decade, according to recent forecasts.
Environmental restrictions add to coal's problems, but analysts say production is headed down regardless of air or water pollution restrictions.
"One of the industry's strengths is the export market. We continue to have the best metallurgical coal in the world. And we have the best coal miners producing that," Raney said.
High quality metallurgical coal is critical to making steel. U.S. "met" coal is exported to countries throughout Europe and Asia.
"Everyone in the industry continues to do everything they can to keep people working. We are continuing to look for new miners and new employees, while the skilled, experienced miners who are out there remain important," Raney said.
Still, while Raney and other experts have previously told the Gazette that the best coal in West Virginia has already been mined, Raney says the market and permitting also play a big role in coal production levels.
"We are not producing as much coal today as we did in the past," Raney said. "In addition to being a function of the market, it is also a real function of permitting.
"Mining operations involve very long-term planning," Raney said. "When operations are interrupted by permits that might not be issued, causing you to operate in areas that were not planned, that puts you into higher costs of production. A lot of those interruptions come from the federal government.