CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Poland's coal industry is slumping because of weaker markets, The Wall Street Journal reports. Obviously, coal's decline stems from ruthless economic laws -- not from pollution controls, as some U.S. politicians contend. Safeguards of America's Environmental Protection Agency don't apply to Poland.
Here's a devastating line from a recent Associated Press analysis of U.S. coal:
"In early July, the average spot-market price for coal from the Wyoming Powder River Basin was $8.50 a ton, compared to $56.10 a ton for Central Appalachian coal."
Good grief. No wonder the Central Appalachian mines of Southern West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky are suffering layoffs -- and corporate stock prices of their owners are slumping -- and power plants are switching to cheap natural gas.
Central Appalachia has been mined for a century, so thick, easy-to-reach seams mostly are gone. What's left largely is thin, difficult, expensive coal. That's why the price is sky-high, too costly for many buyers.
West Virginia seems to be undergoing a major economic shift, as new Marcellus Shale gas grabs much of the fuel market away from coal.
"In April, the national share of electricity generated using natural gas matched coal's share, at 32 percent, for the first time since the U.S. Energy Information Agency began keeping such records in 1973," the AP report said.
The EIA projects that Central Appalachian coal production will sink from 186 million tons in 2010 to 132 million in 2015, then 92 million in 2018, then 72 million in 2024, but output will climb again to 88 million by 2035.
If these estimates are accurate, West Virginia's coal industry will be less than half its current magnitude. Hardship in coal counties will worsen. Places abandoned by coal corporations generally are desolate. However, we hope that use of coal as a chemical industry feedstock and source of carbon fibers will grow, opening a different future.
In the meantime, dog-eat-dog laws of economics are taking a toll. Alpha Natural Resources announced that it suffered a $2.2 billion loss in the second quarter of 2012. Last month, Patriot Coal filed for bankruptcy.
EIA analyst Alan Beamon told a Washington seminar a few weeks ago: "It's the market forces that are pushing [coal] out of the market. ... Gas plants are simply cheaper to operate today."
Mine owners and some Appalachian politicians blame federal pollution controls for the decline of coal. Although cleanup rules are a factor, they aren't the chief cause. Instead, it's simply the rules of the marketplace. It's difficult to sell Appalachian coal for $56.10 a ton when Wyoming coal costs only $8.50 and Marcellus gas also is dirt cheap.