By CHRIS HAMILTON, SVP, WV Coal Association
I am troubled by the response from some of our legislative leaders and others who seem to passively accept that coal is an industry in decline and further espouse both a defeatist attitude and contempt toward one of the state’s leading industries and the thousands of men and women who comprise it.
This was the message delivered in an Associated Press story that made the rounds recently with the headline “Legislative leaders say coal rhetoric not helping.”
This attitude that additional gains in our economy must carry trade-offs or losses in other aspects of our economy are emblematic of the zero-sum mentality that has plagued West Virginia’s economic development efforts for decades.
For instance, we have heard for two decades now that the “greening of America” or increase in renewable energy sources will provide ample job opportunities to coal miners who have been laid off. Those jobs never materialized, but we are hearing similar refrains today as it relates to our growing gas industry and the potential of providing job opportunities for our state’s 5,000 furloughed miners. Jobs in West Virginia’s oil/gas industry are an incredible boon to our state, but that industry’s workforce never will be able to accommodate the thousands of miners whose jobs are in limbo.
Why do our leaders assume we can trade one coal mining job for one in another industry? And why does West Virginia only worry about the security of miners’ jobs when WARN notices are issued? Our miners are taken for granted every day by those who assume the lights will turn on when they flip the switch and don’t realize that coal is the reason they can afford their electric bills.
If green jobs are available, let’s have them, and as natural gas continues its path toward becoming a major economic force for our state, we applaud this progression. Let me be clear — the coal industry fully embraces this development, but progress in one sector of our economy should not mean a coal miner’s job shouldn’t be saved.
West Virginia is the energy state. We are a major energy exporter domestically and internationally. We should be able to sustain our current level of coal production and expand both our natural gas industries and renewable output. We should not be working to expand growth in one energy source and write off the other as a “shadow of what it once was.”
Yes, West Virginia’s coal output has fallen from record highs just a few years ago. However, we are still the second-highest coal-producing state in the nation. The U.S. Energy Information Administration confirms that coal is also the second-largest energy source worldwide, and global consumption is expected to grow for at least another 25 years. Regardless of what some in our state may think about coal’s future, global projections remain bullish on this inexpensive fossil fuel.
While we expect coal adversaries to try to accelerate our industry’s demise at the sound of any cyclical industry downturn, we do not expect our legislative leaders to join in that chorus. We expect them to be more innovative and eager to seek solutions to the obstacles that inhibit broad-spectrum development of our state energy resources.
The premise is simple: West Virginia has more coal reserves than most other states, and world usage is growing. Typically, this would sound all the marketing bells and whistles — “what a great scenario and opportunity for the energy state.”
The United States will continue to use coal. Nothing can replace 40 percent of U.S. electric generating capacity. The primary question before us is not whether coal will be used throughout our country and the world, but where it will come from and who will benefit from its production.
Several major coal-producing regions such as the Powder River and Illinois basins are on the increase, and foreign-sourced coal from countries like Indonesia, Columbia and even Russia is finding its way into the United States.
West Virginia should do far more than it has in the past to explore ways to foster and encourage greater coal production and combustion. It is not acceptable to simply dismiss West Virginia’s coal industry by wondering “whether coal is ever coming back.”
News flash: Coal never left West Virginia. It may not be booming right now, but it’s still making a dramatic contribution to our state coffers. It’s here, ready and waiting for leaders to step forward and make the most of it, not relegate it to second-class status.
We have a hard enough time battling with a federal government that wants to regulate us out of existence, as though promises and dreams will power America and produce steel. For any state political leader to write off the industry’s future is extremely short-sighted.
We have so many options and opportunities at the state level to boost the coal industry and help it maintain its viability in domestic and world markets. Let’s begin with a realistic evaluation of our coal reserves, markets and future opportunities and not merely opinion from unqualified voices.
West Virginia has a renewable energy portfolio, but no energy plan. Let’s develop an all-points, ambitious energy plan that focuses on extraction, transportation, environmental stewardship, research and consumption.
And what about those coal-to-liquids projects in southern West Virginia? Isn’t it time for bricks and mortar? Even if one of these projects were to come to fruition, it would create needed jobs and another market for West Virginia coal.
The state agencies and body of energy law that affect every ton of coal mined or unit of energy produced are in dire need of analysis to identify new pathways for growth and the expansion of state energy output.
Laws that serve only to add to the cost of doing business without adding to human protections, safety or environmental quality should be updated and revised. Additionally, leaders should dedicate the appropriate level of funding for these programs and provide support for an ongoing research program for all aspects of the plan.
It will take more than an occasional meeting or rally to move our energy agenda forward and for the “energy state” to realize its full potential. But if anyone needs a source of inspiration, just look in the face of any coal miner. We’ve been through tough times before, and we remain committed to doing what it takes to power and build America.
We’re confident in the future of the West Virginia coal industry and we welcome the opportunity to collaborate with our legislative leaders to map out a functional, sensible energy plan for West Virginia.
Chris Hamilton is senior vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association.