Several new reports predict that the Central Appalachia coal field -- mostly southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky -- will continue to fade, inflicting painful harm on blue-collar families and local economies.
The Wall Street Journal outlined the decline in a string of reports on "The future of coal." A Jan. 7 segment said the coal industry "is booming in the open-pit mines of Wyoming and under the plains of Illinois and Indiana" while "coal production plunges in the green hills of Appalachia."
The business newspaper said that "two counties in Wyoming account for 40 percent of U.S. coal production." However, "coal companies say Appalachian coal has become too expensive to mine." It quoted Peabody Energy chief Greg Boyce:
"It all comes down to geology. You've got a district [in the East] that's been mined for 100, 120 years" and inexpensive, easy-to-reach seams are depleted.
A Washington Post analysis asked:
"Why have Kentucky and West Virginia lost 38,000 coal jobs since 1983? For one, coal mining has become increasingly automated in recent decades, particularly as companies have shifted to techniques such as mountaintop-removal mining, which are less labor-intensive."
Coal executives replace miners with ever-better machines, wiping out jobs and leaving families helpless. The Post added that "companies file for bankruptcy and try to shed pension and health obligations for retirees."
Regarding the West Virginia-Kentucky field, the Appalachian Transition Initiative says:
"Coal employment has declined from approximately 475,000 jobs at the end of World War II to only around 38,000 today. From 1973 to 2003, the region lost 62 percent of its coal jobs. Even in a significant coal producer like Harlan County, Ky., coal now makes up only 1,200 jobs in a county of 30,000 people. For Central Appalachia as a whole, coal mining is only 2 percent of direct employment."
Cheap Marcellus Shale gas and low-sulfur Wyoming coal are grabbing energy markets, especially for power generation. While federal forecasts have varied, the Post reports that the U.S. Energy Information Agency predicts "that coal production in eastern Kentucky and West Virginia will soon be just half of what it was in 2008, plunging from 234 million tons down to 112 million tons in 2015."
Despite all these negative market factors, most West Virginia politicians still blame coal's problems on federal pollution controls. That's misleading.As we've said before, Mountain State leaders should launch intelligent planning on how to adapt to the historic change that is transforming the coalfields.