CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Last week, Consol Energy said it will lay off 318 miners and close its Fola mine in Clay County. That's a painful loss in a rural region with few industrial jobs. Consol President Nicholas DeIuliis blamed the cutback on decreases in "expected utility demand."
Also last week, Alpha Natural Resources notified 100 miners at four West Virginia pits in Logan, Boone and Fayette counties that they'll be terminated. "It's all thermal coal, and all due to the thermal coal market," Alpha Vice President Ted Pile said.
A week earlier, Arch Coal announced 750 miner layoffs in West Virginia and Kentucky, including 122 jobs lost near Cowen, Webster County. Arch blamed an "unprecedented downturn in demand for coal-based electricity." The State Journal quoted despairing Cowen waitress Tiffany Williams:
"Everyone is going to move. They'll leave. The place will be even more run-down than it already is."
Three major layoffs in two weeks are sad evidence of decline in West Virginia's powerful coal industry. Two months earlier, Patriot Coal likewise announced cutbacks, and CEO Bennett Hatfield said: "Thermal coal markets remain weak as a result of the mild winter, coupled with low natural gas prices and reduced demand for electricity related to the economic downturn."
Communities in affected mining regions will suffer misery and hardship. Young people will move away in search of better futures elsewhere. Local businesses may fold. That's the grim toll of an industrial slump. The economy is a ruthless machine that doesn't care who suffers.
Much of coal's retreat can be blamed on an abundance of cheap natural gas loosed by horizontal drilling and "fracking" in the deep Marcellus Shale. Gas that cost $10 per million Btu during the Bush administration has dropped to $2.50. Coal can't compete with such low-cost fuel. Many plants are converting to gas.
A lot of the Marcellus gas boom centers in Northern West Virginia -- thus the Mountain State stands to reap jobs and prosperity from the very source that is killing jobs and prosperity in coal zones. The ruthless economy both punishes and rewards.
West Virginians are living through a significant industrial shift. Future generations may look back on today as the period when gas eclipsed coal.
Some politicians and coal executives blame federal pollution controls -- which they call a "war on coal" -- for the mining downturn. But that's merely a small part of the picture. Sen. Jay Rockefeller wisely told coal leaders to "accept reality" and try to solve their difficulty without accusing Washington.
We hope coal will gain a new future as a feedstock for many chemicals, not as fuel to be burned. But we can't foresee coming twists of the economy. Tumultuous trends often are difficult to discern while they're happening, but later become clear in retrospect.