CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Gradually, the mighty coal industry that ruled West Virginia (and many of its politicians) is fading to a lesser role in the state's economy. Easy-to-reach seams are being exhausted. Cheap natural gas makes coal too expensive. Coal stock prices are sinking, and some mines are being closed.
The U.S. Energy Information Agency says coal production in the entire Appalachian region -- once 500 million tons per year -- has dropped sharply and is expected to continue to fall as minable seams are exhausted. The central sector, Southern West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky, produced 290 million tons in 1997, but its output is projected to fall to 86 million by 2035.
The decline of coal was spotlighted Tuesday when Appalachian Power President Charles Patton told Gazette editors that existing coal-fired plants that have been outfitted to meet environmental standards are still worth operating, but some aged plants won't be worth upgrading and won't be replaced.
"Nobody is building any new coal," he said. "The economics just aren't there. Gas is just so cheap . . . . I don't think anybody is going to build a coal plant, given natural gas prices. It's just economics."
Government figures say that only 36 percent of America's electric power was generated by coal in the first quarter of this year -- despite the common claim that it's "almost half."
Currently, West Virginia taxpayers are helping fund a statewide Coal Forum that blames the retreat of coal on pollution controls by the Obama administration -- the alleged White House "war on coal." Mining advocates began public sessions Tuesday in Charleston, with others set for Beckley and Wheeling.
"We are totally over-regulated," state Sen. Art Kirkendoll, D-Logan, told the first assembly.
This is your tax dollars at work: staging rallies to blame the federal administration for a shift in the economy that only marginally involves rules against toxic pollution. That toxic pollution, by the way, ruins water, is now linked to birth defects and cancer and contributes to global warming.
Rep. Shelley Capito, R-W.Va., accuses the White House of pursuing a "radical anti-coal agenda" and holding the industry "hostage." Her Democratic challenger, Howard Swint, said her fierce language "demonstrates that a single industry can make a member of Congress a puppet if given enough money."
Republicans running against Gov. Tomblin and Sen. Manchin this fall will doubtlessly try to peddle the laughable idea that Democrats aren't protecting coal. Meanwhile, both Tomblin and Manchin help do the Republicans' work for them by whipping up emotions talking about this imaginary "war on coal."
The participants in the political sideshow fail to acknowledge the deeper truths about coal's steady decline. Someday, West Virginians may look back and see today as a transition period, when the same ruthless economic forces that led to the rise of coal, altered life again in the Mountain State.
The question is not "Are you for coal or against it?" The question is "What's next?"