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Coal industry says stability is good news

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A new report foresees stabilization of West Virginia’s coal industry over the next 15 or so years, but then a period of production decline to below 80 million tons after 2030.

That’s actually not such bad news, say leaders of the West Virginia Coal Association.

That kind of prediction means coal remains a vital and competitive component of West Virginia’s economy years into the future, Coal Association vice president Chris Hamilton said at a forum Thursday at the state Culture Center.

“When the future of coal predicts less than a hundred million tons, there are those who see that as a further decline or erosion,” Hamilton said.

“While that may be factually correct, I think when you’re looking at an industry that’s a $20 billion industry, even in a smaller capacity as we are today, it’s still a very significant part of our state’s industrial base, our economy, our job base. We’ve lost half of our coal mining jobs, but they still stand strong at 12,000. I think we’d be very excited to welcome a business or industry that would bring 12,000 direct jobs to our state.”

Hamilton was speaking during a session of the West Virginia Coal Forum, an organization representing business and labor in the coal industry. Thursday’s session at the coal industry was one of several such events around West Virginia, including in Wheeling and Morgantown.

Some of the remarks, including Hamilton’s, brushed on the report released Wednesday by the West Virginia University Bureau of Business and Economic Research.

The researchers estimate that coal production will reach about 89 million tons this year and remain in the upper 80 million ton range into the early 2020s. Production will fall below 80 million tons by 2030, the report forecast.

Hamilton continued to say that kind of stability is not necessarily bad news.

“Is the glass half full or empty?” Hamilton asked. “Well, it’s half empty when you’re going through the transition that we have over the past few years. But when you step back and look at it, and when you look at it 10 years from now, it may not be what it once was but it’s still going to be a major piece of the economy here in our state and our industrial job base.”

Another big theme of the Coal Forum was the decreased pressure of federal regulation under the Trump administration — particularly relating to the Clean Power Plan and the Paris climate accord.

Forum presenters from the coal industry said there’s been some relief from their perspective, but they said the result has been a steady market rather than a miracle rebound. They said their aim is to sustain.

“We’ve been on defense and fighting regulatory provisions or new legislation over the past five or six years,” Hamilton said.

“Today everything has changed. It’s changed dramatically, gone from night to day. We have an opportunity here to implement some infrastructure and perhaps put some things in place to grow and develop this resource.”

Utilities plan their investments to last years into the future, but coal will remain a major part of the energy mix, said another forum presenter, Jeri Matheny, spokeswoman for Appalachian Power.

Matheny noted that her own company has made headlines over statements that it won’t be building any new coal-burning power plants. But she said the reasons are multifaceted.

“People see that as shocking because we’re right in the middle of coal country, but the reality is that shouldn’t be a surprise, and it’s not bad news because we are heavily invested in coal in West Virginia, and that’s not going to change,” Matheny said.

But changing demand for power is affecting decisions by companies like Appalachian Power too, Matheny said.

“Demand is not going up. For decades, demand for electricity is not going up. It’s not any more. A lot of that is energy efficiency. People’s usage is changing,” she said.

She added that the mix of the utility’s energy sources is likely to expand.

“We do plan to introduce small amounts of wind power. We do hope to introduce solar some day, maybe even some battery technology, but we’ll still be a coal-fired utility in many ways; we’ll depend on coal for a long time.”

Appalachian Power’s decisions will often depend on price.

“Usually coal wins in that argument, but sometimes nowadays natural gas can win because natural gas prices are so low. And, wind can win in that argument as well,” Matheny said.

Additional presenters included Fred Tucker of the United Mine Workers, who is co-chairman of the Coal Forum, Senate President Mitch Carmichael, Gov. Jim Justice, Bill Raney and Jason Bostic of the Coal Association, Richard Wolfe of Virginia Carbonite and Jeffrey Keffer of Longview Power.

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