CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia's coal industry is watching and waiting, worried about this week's expected release of Obama administration rules aimed at -- for the first time -- limiting greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants.
"It's not going to be pretty," said Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association. "I'm sure about that."
The rules, expected to be issued Friday by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, will cover only new coal-fired power plants. The EPA is expected to set carbon dioxide emissions limits that would basically prohibit such facilities, unless their developers include equipment to capture a significant portion of those emissions.
While industry backers complain that carbon capture and storage, or CCS, isn't far enough along to be required, other experts say part of the point of the EPA rules is to help the technology along.
"These rules will force the industry to invest in that technology and figure out how to do it," said physicist Jeremy Richardson, a West Virginia native from a mining family who is studying coal and climate change for the group Union of Concerned Scientists.
Richardson is among a growing group of scientists, activists, community organizers and business leaders pushing for West Virginia to have a more honest discussion about the coal industry's decline and the possibilities for its future and for diversifying the state economy.
While coal industry officials and their political supporters blame the industry's decline on Obama's EPA, most experts point to a much broader set of factors at play. In just the past two years, West Virginia has lost about 2,400 mining jobs, and longstanding projections estimate that Southern West Virginia production is in the midst of a steep decline that will continue for years.
Over the longer term, mechanization of underground and surface mining slashed job numbers dramatically. West Virginia coal employment peaked at more than 130,000 miners in 1940, according to the state Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training. During the second quarter of 2013, there were about 21,400 miners working in West Virginia, according to industry data reported to the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.
More recently, advances in natural gas drilling techniques and lower natural gas prices have many utilities switching their fuels. In Southern West Virginia, easy-to-mine seams are playing out. Competition from Wyoming and Illinois is stiff. Aging coal-fired power plants are inefficient and can't meet modern pollution standards.
Existing coal-fired power plants "are getting crushed based on economics, irrespective of the EPA rules," said James Van Nostrand, a West Virginia University energy law professor.
"Industry and coal-fired utilities will love to blame [the] EPA for their demise," Van Nostrand said last week, "but it is really the fact that these plants are dinosaurs, very inefficient and thus expensive and dirty."
Obama's EPA is preparing to finalize the first in a pair of greenhouse gas rules for power plants just as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is scheduled later this month to release its latest assessment of global warming. The new IPCC report is expected to confirm that most scientists recommend that the nation - and the world - needs to swiftly cut carbon dioxide emissions, reducing them dramatically to avoid the worst consequences of global warming.