Coal billionaire Jim Justice is a noble philanthropist who rescued The Greenbrier resort and was this newspaper's 2009 West Virginian of the Year. But not even he can prevent the relentless downturn of mining in Central Appalachia. He promises to resolve several debt suits pending against his old coal firms, and added:
"Our economy is really struggling, utilities are converting to natural gas, and you may be witnessing the death of the coal industry."
The decline evidently caused another 160 miner layoffs in Boone County by Alpha Natural Resources, which inflicted more suffering on the coal-dependent zone. This sad community loss follows several similar setbacks in coal fields of southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky.
Last month, Downstream Strategies of Morgantown released another somber analysis predicting that Central Appalachian coal production will drop by half before 2040 -- chiefly because of "exhaustion of the thickest, most accessible coal seams." It was the latest of numerous studies reaching similar conclusions.
Central Appalachia produced 290 million tons per year in the late 1990s, the U.S. Energy Information Administration says -- but output dropped to 185 million in 2011, and is projected to be 128 million by 2020. Last year, two massive Wyoming strip mines provided 20 percent of U.S. tonnage, while all of Central Appalachia produced just 17 percent.
After World War II, West Virginia peaked at 125,000 miners, but the arrival of ever-better machines gradually wiped out the livelihood of more than 100,000 families. Today, those machines continue producing, but miner jobs slipped below 20,000 for several years, and now hover above that figure.
Some former coal boom zones have become almost ghost towns. In 1950, McDowell County had 100,000 people, but now it's down to 22,000. Poverty and drug addiction are rampant. Neighboring southern coal counties suffered similar hurt.
Appalachia's coal decline has four causes: Steady depletion of thick, easy-to-reach seams, leaving only expensive coal available; cheap natural gas prices that undercut coal sales, especially to power plants; cheaper coal from Wyoming, where seams are up to 60 feet thick and require few miners to extract; stronger pollution controls that punish coal, which emits twice as much carbon dioxide when burned, compared to gas.
West Virginia politicians focus solely on the fourth cause, accusing the Environmental Protection Agency of a "war on coal" -- but pollution is just one aspect of the picture.
The latest Coal Age magazine contains a commentary by National Mining Association official Luke Popovich saying "war on coal" allegations "never resonated with much conviction among ordinary Americans. For them, the EPA keeps the air and water clean, their kids safe."Instead of railing against pollution restrictions, this state's leaders should analyze the economic change that is sweeping West Virginia, and begin intelligent planning for a different future.