'War on coal' label obscures battlefield realities

By Vicki Smith

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, Oct. 20 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

But what's happening now is more than a seasonal slump or even a response to new regulations.

It's a fundamental shift, and it's likely permanent, as even coal executives say. When St. Louis-based Patriot Coal filed for bankruptcy in July, it didn't mention a war. It said the industry is going through "a major correction," a convergence of "new realities in the market."

Environmental standards are growing tougher as Americans outside coal country demand clean air and water. Old, inefficient, coal-fired power plants are going offline or converting to natural gas, cutting into a traditional customer base. And that gas poses fierce, sustainable competition, thanks to advanced drilling technologies that make vast reserves more accessible than ever.

Even if the reviled regulations fell away, many experts say, coal's peak has passed.

Thin Appalachian seams won't magically thicken and become easier or cheaper to mine, as the West Virginia Center on Budget & Policy notes. Production in the East has been already falling for more than a decade, first surpassed by Western states like Wyoming in 1998.

Now, even those states are struggling as domestic demand dwindles. U.S. coal production plummeted 9.4 percent between the first and second quarters of 2012.

By the end of the year, coal is expected to account for less than 40 percent of all U.S. electricity production, the lowest level since the government began collecting data in 1949. By the end of the decade, it may be closer to 30 percent.

Operators are adjusting to survive.

On a single day in September, Virginia-based Alpha Natural Resources closed eight mines in four states, announcing that by early next year, some 1,200 jobs nationwide will be gone.

"That's 1,200 people not going to the grocery store," says Tracy Miller, a miner's wife in Keokee, Va.

Not going to Wal-Mart. Buying less gas. Postponing home improvements. Forgoing little luxuries like a dinner out.

Most of the first 400 cut were lucky; all but about 130 got transfers. Driving to a new job several hours away is hard, but it's better than no job at all. For those truly out of work, options are limited. Logging, maybe. More likely, something in the service sector.

"But if there's no coal mines," Miller says, "there's not going to be a Dollar Store, either."

Coal remains the economic pillar of many Appalachian communities, the foundation of a mono-economy that political leaders have for generations lacked either the will or the ability to diversify.

Without coal, families can't put food on the table or pay for the roofs over their heads.

The specter of losing it creates fear, frustration and anger.

"I've done a lot of praying, and my family's done a lot of praying. We've literally been scared to death," says Shana Lucas, whose husband Trent was among the lucky ones, transferred when the layoffs hit Wise, Va.

"I don't think people understand the lack of job opportunities here," she says. "Coal is the only thing we have here besides fast-food restaurants."

A miner can make $30 an hour, plus overtime — as opposed to the $8 an hour in the service industry.

"They have worked so, so hard, and they are losing everything they've worked for," Lucas says. "It's devastation to this place that we love and to the men that we look at as heroes."

Somebody must be to blame.

Obama is an easy target. He armed his opponents during a 2008 campaign interview that touched on global warming.

"If somebody wants to build a coal-powered plant, they can," he said. "It's just that it will bankrupt them because they are going to be charged a huge sum for all that greenhouse gas that's being emitted."

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