Expert: Reserve Depletion, Not 'War on Coal,' is WV’s Problem

The State Journal
24 September 2012
By Pam Kasey

Southern West Virginia's share of the state's coal production was just 70 percent in 2010, down steadily from 76 percent in 2000.

Of total U.S. coal production, the share that comes from Central Appalachia — which includes southern West Virginia and states to the near south — has declined in almost a straight line, from 24 percent in 2000 to just 17 percent in 2010.

Is it evidence of the "war on coal" that Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, gubernatorial candidate Bill Maloney and many others frequently cite?

It's not the fundamental issue, says economic geologist Alan Stagg, president of Stagg Resource Consulting near Charleston.

"The administration we have now in my opinion is generally against coal," Stagg acknowledged. "The Environmental Protection Agency has far exceeded in my opinion its constitutional and legislative mandates. It basically is trying to make legislation and it's been reined in by the courts. I think those are all facts."

Regulation has increased over time, he said, which decreases productivity and increases costs.

When miners die, as happened, for example, in the 2006 Sago disaster and the 2010 Upper Big Branch explosion, the Mine Safety and Health Administration establishes new requirements that Stagg said increase the number of man-hours it takes to mine the same amount of coal.

Environmental regulations can have a similar effect.

But "West Virginia has more problems than just a ‘war on coal,'" he said. "It's about the physical properties of the coal that's left. The reserves are being depleted, and anybody that's spent any time looking at coal properties and reserves cannot tell you otherwise with a straight face."

Remaining southern West Virginia coal beds are thin, he said, meaning more rock has to be mined to get the coal — decreasing productivity and increasing cost.

More beds are split, with partings, he said, also decreasing productivity and increasing cost. Reserves are in relatively small, scattered blocks, in rugged terrain where it's difficult to achieve the efficiencies of a single mining complex where everything feeds into the same preparation plant.

"There's a lot of inherent, basically physical, attributes of the coal reserves that remain in southern West Virginia that cause these problems," he said.

Steam coal, used to produce electricity, also has been affected by competition from recently and persistently cheap natural gas, he said — but he doesn't believe higher natural gas prices and a return of the market for steam coal will help the coal industry in this part of the country.

"Southern West Virginia simply has its own set of problems having to do with the nature of its coal deposits," he said. "All these other things are just layered on top of that."

Stagg decried the use of "war on coal" rhetoric for political gain.

"What bothers me, in West Virginia, is this jumping on the bandwagon that ‘We will help stop the war on coal,' which gives the population the false impression that if we could just change the administration or rein in the EPA, we could bring our industry back," he said.

"It'll never come back like it was," he said. "And people don't make good decisions if they think it will — whether it's politicians, or legislators, or business people, or the average man or woman on the street. If I'm a coal miner in Boone County, I might think I'm going to ride this out — take my savings, hunker down like I've done before, like my daddy did before, until it comes back. That's not a good decision."

It's not about Democrats or Republicans, Obama or not Obama, he said.

"There are things that are. This is the way it is."