CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Coal production in Southern West Virginia and the rest of central Appalachia will continue to plummet over the next 30 years, according to a new report that examines multiple stresses that are pressuring the region's mining industry.
The report, from the Morgantown-based environmental consulting firm Downstream Strategies, says current government estimates project production to drop by 53 percent between 2011 and 2040.
Downstream Strategies cites a familiar list of factors driving the decline: the mining out of the best and easiest-to-reach coal reserves, historically low natural gas prices, competition from other coal basins, and a series of federal rules aimed at reducing coal's environmental impacts.
In an interesting twist, the report says mining jobs and industry tax revenues may not follow the exact pattern as production.
More underground mining and a decline in coal industry labor productivity "may dampen the employment impact of the decline in production." These trends "may even result in an increase in coal-mining jobs," the report says.
But the report warns that the expected impacts -- whether in jobs losses or gains -- will not "be spread evenly" across all coalfield communities.
"Some coal-producing counties may experience significant declines in both jobs and revenues, while other counties may experience increases," the report says. "The resulting expectation is that the benefits of coal production may become more concentrated in fewer counties."
And, the report cautioned, "The possibility of increasing coal jobs with decreasing coal production should not prevent policymakers from laying the foundation for new economic opportunities in the communities most vulnerable to declines in coal production."
Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, said he could not really quibble with the report's basic outline of the state of the central Appalachian coal market, but wants to focus on keeping coal strong.
"I don't think I would argue at all about the challenges we have to maintain production levels," Raney said. "Our people are going to do everything possible to stay in the market. I hope we do have improved employment and I hope we do stay in the market."
Others who are closely following the coal industry in the region emphasized that the report's findings offer a renewed chance for Appalachian policymakers to focus not just on protecting coal, but diversifying the economy in coalfield communities.