Though energy experts have been predicting the death of the U.S. coal industry for years, West Virginia shows no signs of giving up. Revenue Secretary Dave Hardy announced on Wednesday that the state has reported a 19 percent increase in the state's coal production since Jan 1. This, combined with a 60 percent increase in natural gas prices over the last year, has spelled out surprisingly high earnings for West Virginia’s April energy revenue, with tax collections from coal and natural gas production exceeding budget estimates by almost $11 million.
While this is a promising statistic for a state that’s economy is still heavily dependent on coal, it’s a far cry from the numbers the state needs to get back on track with their earnings, which have taken a nosedive in the last 5 years. West Virginia Deputy Secretary Mark Muchow noted that the 28 million tons of coal mined in the first quarter of 2017 project about 84 million tons for the year--nothing close, he said, to the 140 million tons the state produced four or five years ago.
While President Trump has promised the triumphant return of the coal industry and has already made efforts to scale back environmental regulations that limit the coal companies’ methods of extraction and processing, this in no way guarantees a steady future for West Virginia or other coal-dependent Appalachian states.
Repealing industry regulations or offering tax benefits to big coal will not bring back the jobs that West Virginia so sorely needs (as of December 2016 the state’s unemployment rate was 1.2 percent higher than the national average). While these steps may bolster production, however, they hold no promise of jobs. Related: All Eyes On Saudi Arabia As OPEC Begins To Unravel
Methods such as mountaintop removal have made it possible to extract huge amounts of coal with very little manual labor. Mines that once required hundreds of workers now function with a dozen. According to the DOE’s 2017 U.S. Energy and Employment Report, “coal mining and support employment declined by 39 percent from March 2009 (93,439) to March 2016 (57,325) ...with a 24 percent decline in the last year alone”.
At this time last year, Peabody, the nation's largest coal company, followed the footsteps of many other coal giants over the last few years and filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, a considerable nail in the coal industry’s coffin. Coal simply can’t compete with the oil and natural gas boom, shifting the industry’s production to Montana and Wyoming where extracting coal is cheaper. As coal moves west and becomes increasingly mechanized, West Virginians are left with a saturated job market and flatlined economy that is in no way ready to offer a replacement for high-paying, low-skilled coal jobs.
This is all in addition to the stunning environmental damage from mountaintop removal and strip mining, which has depleted Appalachian coal seams, making the production of new mines nearly impossible. As coal leaves West Virginia, it leaves behind thousands with debilitating injuries sustained from back-breaking mine work, an environment polluted with coal byproducts linked with to epidemics of cancer, cardiovascular disease and birth defects, and no foreseeable employment options, President Trump’s promises notwithstanding.
By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com
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