CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Another national report confirms that West Virginia's economy is undergoing a historic transition: Mined-out mid-Appalachian coal operations are fading, while the new Marcellus gas industry booms. Easy-to-reach coal seams mostly are gone, and remaining Appalachian coal is too expensive to compete with the flood of low-cost natural gas.
A long analysis by Bloomberg News recalled that coal generated half of America's electricity in 2005, but the ratio dropped to "a record low of 37 percent last year." And worse lies ahead: "In the next three years, America will close a record number of coal-fired power plants, enough electricity to power 18.4 million households."
The study added: "Pain is being felt from Appalachia to Wyoming as the United States reduces its dependency on coal to almost the lowest level in 63 years. ... As many as 5,400 direct U.S. jobs could be lost by 2015. ... Another 30,000 more may disappear in the coalfields and ripple through the businesses that support them, from local diners to the companies that help replace worn tires on mining equipment. ...
"The number of West Virginia miners or workers connected to mining who applied for unemployment benefits rose to almost 6,000 in 2012, from 2,045 in 2011. ... No region is more affected than Appalachia, where West Virginia, the second-largest U.S. producer accounted for 25 percent of the nation's 91,611 coal jobs in 2011 ... Nationwide, industry payrolls plunged 46 percent from 1985 to that year."
The analysis described the Heart of God Soup Kitchen at Danville, Boone County, where church volunteers feed hungry miner families. "In the past three months, the meals have doubled because all the men have lost their jobs," manager Linda Meeker said. The number of Mountain State families receiving food stamps has climbed one-quarter since 2008, to 346,833.
Richmond energy consultant Douglas Blackburn Jr. lamented: "We're going to lose a lot of miners."
However, coal's decline is offset by rising jobs from horizontal drilling and pressure fracturing in the Marcellus shale strata. The report quotes an American Petroleum Institute study estimating that "about 3.5 million new jobs will be created by 2035 as the United States exploits its shale reserves."
It adds that gas sends only 117 pounds of carbon dioxide into the sky per million BTUs of heat produced, compared to 205.7 pounds from coal burning. Thus coal spews nearly twice as much global warming pollution.
All this is further evidence that West Virginia's economy is in the midst of a profound shift -- coal down and gas up. And it is further evidence that people who care about West Virginia's future -- from the governor to the Legislature and down -- should encourage young people to dream of and prepare for new kinds of jobs. Things change.