Half-hysterical politicians and energy moguls accuse the Obama White House of waging a "war on coal" -- but Sen. Jay Rockefeller bravely pointed out that charge isn't true.
In a landmark Senate speech on West Virginia Day, he said the industry should "face reality": Coal is fading because easy-to-reach seams are being depleted, and because the Marcellus gas boom provides cheaper fuel. It's simple economics, dog-eat-dog laws of the marketplace. Federal EPA rules against coal pollution and mountain ravages -- blamed endlessly by some politicians and coal executives -- are merely a small factor in the decline of "black gold."
Rockefeller's stand took courage, because the Mountain State remains heavily dominated by the once-supreme industry. "The shift to a lower-carbon economy is not going away," he said bluntly -- adding that it's a "terrible disservice" to deceive West Virginia mining families into thinking the trend will vanish.
Sometimes we think the hyped-up corporate rage at Obama is mostly a Republican political attempt to taint the Democratic president.
Facts are facts. Coalfields of the great Central Appalachian Basin -- Southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky -- are dwindling. The basin produced 290 million tons in 1997, but the output is projected to drop to 86 million by 2035. Coal from western states is becoming cheaper, undercutting Appalachian coal -- and new Marcellus gas is cheaper still.
Appalachian Power's president said no electrical utilities are "going to build a coal plant, given natural gas prices. It's just economics." The share of U.S. electricity generated by coal has dropped below 40 percent and is forecast to fall to 30 percent by 2020.
Last week's layoff of 750 more Arch Coal miners in Appalachia because of declining markets -- after 500 previous layoffs -- is further sad evidence.
Business Week reported that coal stock values are falling rapidly, with Alpha shares losing 80 percent in the past year. "U.S. coal markets have been pretty doom-and-gloom lately," analyst James Rollyson told the magazine. "In fact, many of the coal equities act as if they are going out of business."
In a state Humanities Council lecture, West Virginia author Denise Giardina said it's clear that the coal industry is dying -- "a body on life-support." But coal needn't go out of business. Exports remain strong, and clean coal research offers hope of safer burning. Better still, coal has a future that doesn't involve burning at all.
We remember when experts protested that coal is "too valuable to burn" because it's a rich source of chemicals for many uses. The World Coal Association says: "Thousands of different products have coal or coal byproducts as components: soap, aspirin, solvents, dyes, plastics and fibers such as rayon and nylon." It says carbon filaments from coal are booming as lightweight reinforcement material.
As for burned coal, it's true that pollution is a partial factor in the economic shift. An Associated Press analysis said: "Power plants that burn coal produce more than 90 times as much sulfur dioxide, five times as much nitrogen oxide and twice as much carbon dioxide as those that run on natural gas."
But the chief driver of the economic change is simply money. Plant owners won't buy high-cost coal when low-cost gas is abundant. Newsweek editor Fareed Zakaria -- who spoke in Charleston at the 2002 Gazette-WVU Festival of Ideas -- wrote that the "golden age of gas" has arrived: "In a short time, its success has led to the drilling of 20,000 wells in America, the creation of hundreds of thousands of jobs and a guaranteed supply of gas for perhaps 100 years."
As we said, facts are facts. Coal is sinking and gas is rising. Instead of throwing huge sums into ads denouncing President Obama, the coal industry should follow Rockefeller's advice and adapt to reality.