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.
In statewide and national political campaigns this fall, coalfield issues have boiled down to a dispute over Obama administration policies that mine operators argue are destroying their industry.
The number of miners working in Appalachia actually rose during the first three years of Obama's presidency, but a string of layoffs has come since the first of the year, and coal-mining employment in West Virginia dropped by about 1,300 jobs in the second quarter of 2012, according to Labor Department data.
Earlier this 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."
Over the past year, 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 last week 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."
Hansen, who co-authored the Downstream Strategies report, said Friday, "I've not seen a public acknowledgement that Central Appalachian coal production is declining by political leaders, nor have I seen any bold plans to address this decline."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.