The Bluefield area’s business community and coal industry packed the house July 23 at a meeting of the West Virginia Coal Forum for an in-depth discussion about the future of the state’s bedrock industry.
“Coal is not a four-letter word,” said Fred Tucker, retired United Mine Workers of America representative and co-chairman of the Coal Forum, an organization representing business and labor in the state’s coal industry.
With the Greater Bluefield Chamber of Commerce as a co-sponsor, the Coal Forum event sparked animated discussions about what the federal government is doing to the industry and where West Virginia’s coal future lies. This was the second event in the Coal Forum’s statewide series, “West Virginia Coal: 2015 and Beyond.”
“We must work together to overcome the adversity being thrown our way,” said Coal Forum co-chairman Chris Hamilton. “We must ask our friends and neighbors to get engaged to help save West Virginia jobs and our economy”.
That mantra – a key theme heard throughout the meeting – was shared by union members, coal officials, power company executives, grassroots activists and political leaders. House Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, and Senate President Bill Cole, R-Mercer, addressed the crowd and pledged their support of the coal industry.
“We need to capitalize on all sources and forms of energy but when we still have so much coal, so much opportunities in coal, we just can't turn our back on that."
“We will do what we can to stand up for coal against (federal) policies that seek to harm the industry,” Armstead said. “The West Virginia state seal is symbolic of what coal means to us. The seal has a farmer and a miner.”
Cole said he recognizes the potential for other energy resources in West Virginia, but also said none of those can replace coal.
"We are the Saudi Arabia of America with our abundance of coal, oil and gas, and we need to capitalize on that,” Cole said. “We need to capitalize on all sources and forms of energy but when we still have so much coal, so much opportunities in coal, we just can't turn our back on that."
Senator Cole says that it's important to remember that every coal job lost takes with it four to 12 support jobs.
"We should exhaust our political resources to make West Virginia coal healthy and stable instead of seeking replacement industries,” Cole said. “
Hamilton said counties throughout the coalfields are feeling the effects of the war on coal, referring to the importance of coal severance tax revenues to county budgets.
“We are experiencing counties laying off police protection and cutting vital services,” he said. “Everyone must do their part if we hope to maintain the benefits coal offers West Virginia.”
John Deskins, chief economist with the West Virginia University Bureau for Business & Economic Research, outlined his organization’s outlook for coal during the event.
"It's not an exaggeration to say that we have had a perfect storm to put downward pressure on coal production," Deskins said. "The regulatory climate is severe and negative. We also have a natural gas boom. International demand has declined in recent years.”
While coal production has declined 16 percent within the past seven years nationwide, it has declined a whopping 34 percent in West Virginia. Southern West Virginia's coalfields have been the hardest hit because of geologic challenges in that part of the state, coupled with all the other negative factors affecting coal mining
Deskins remarked several times how shocking it is the amount of change in the coal industry in just a seven-year time span. But while downward trends will continue over the next several years in the face of regulatory and market forces, Deskins said coal will be a major global force for decades.
“It makes sense to continue focusing on the environmental regulatory climate, because that’s the only issue affecting the coal industry that we can change, so it should get out focus,” Deskins said. “Coal is not going away.”
Those attending the Coal Forum also heard messages from U.S. Senators Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., and Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., as well as U.S. Reps. Evan Jenkins and David McKinley, both Republicans. (view video here)
The final portion of the Coal Forum event was a panel discussion involving Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, Mark Dempsey, an executive with American Electric Power, and Roger Horton, the head of grassroots organizations’ Citizens for Coal and United for Coal.
The panelists zeroed-in on the consequences of EPA's policies to state citizens ranging from the loss of thousands of jobs, the closure of coal mines and coal-fired state electric plants to higher utility bills and the financial crisis in many communities throughout the state.
The next Coal Forum event is Aug. 18 in Wheeling.