Coal is in Another Down Cycle - This Time, It’s Different

Feb 24, 2016

Virginia’s coal economy has endured boom and bust cycles for generations.   But this time may be different. Competition from cheaper fuels and climate concerns are creating a downward spiral for the industry. What some see as a ‘war on coal’ others see as a timely transition to new energy sources, but everyone is wondering what that future will look like.

In parts of southwestern Virginia, coal mining has been the main economic driver for a hundred years. But here, and in coal regions all over the country, people see the writing on the wall - coal jobs are disappearing. So they’re putting their heads together to draft a plan for the region’s economic future.

Harry Childress is President of the Virginia Coal Energy Alliance. He says, “We’re willing to work to do that and to help evolve this economy. We know coal’s going down we know it’s hurting, but we’re looking to do something that’s going to be beneficial, that’s going to provide some good jobs.” 

A coal train in Virginia.
Credit Creative Commons, Flickr user Will Fisher

  Childress says coal jobs around here typically pay $50,000 to $60,000 or more, much higher than most other jobs in the region. So he’s concerned about what might replace them.

“We’ve heard that, oh, good jobs are in renewable energy in far southwest Virginia.  I heard one of our local state senators make that comment the other day on the senate floor. He said, ‘Show me where these people can go and apply for renewable energy job’ and he said ‘I’ll fill the application for them.’ They’re not available. They’re not there.  Don’t tell us what’s going to be down the road. “

Most everyone agrees that right now, that road leads downhill. In an effort to apply the breaks, Virginia legislators voted last week to extend a tax credit for coal producers and power plants that burn it. Environmental groups are calling for its veto.

Governor Terry McAuliffe also opposes it, saying it’s too expensive and doesn’t address the issues facing the coalfields regions. But a bill introduced in Congress earlier this month aims to do both.  It would speed up an ongoing program to clean up of hundreds of abandoned mines all over the country.

In Virginia, supporters say it would create new jobs and make way, literally, for new development where the old mines once stood.

“I’m a native Wise County and I’ve worked in and around the coal fields my entire life.”

Gerald Collins owns a mining engineering company and is expert on abandoned mine land reclamation, which he says has transformed abandoned mines into level land - something in scarce supply in mountain regions.

“ I’m half a mile away in my office here from a 50 or 60 house subdivision that sits on an area that was mined in the 1970s and now there’s $200,000, $300,000, $400,000 dollar homes sitting on what used to be abandoned mine land. When it was mined it created level land and it did take 30 years to put a subdivision on it. But now, if you drive into it, you would never know it had been mined at one time.”

"We all recognize...that the people of southwest Virginia, central Appalachia are suffering greatly with job losses, high unemployment and we're trying to figure out a way to help fix that."

The Reclaim Act, as this ‘bipartisan’ bill is known, would speed up work like that by freeing up more money for remediating abandoned mine lands, money that’s been paid into fund by the coal companies since 1977.

The bill’s authors, from coal states like Kentucky, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and 22 others are hedging their bets. They’re laying the groundwork for an economic future less dependent on coal but, says co-sponsor Virginia Congressman, Morgan Griffith, he at least is still holding out hope coal will recover from this latest slide.

“Some folks think it’s just because of lower gas prices other folks like myself think it’s due largely to the regulations of the administration, but either way, we all recognize whether on one side or the other politically, you recognize that the people of southwest Virginia, central Appalachia are suffering greatly with job losses, high unemployment and we’re trying to figure out a way to help fix that.”

The reclaim act is an acronym for Revitalizing the Economy of Coal Communities by Leveraging Local Activities and Investing More. It’s said to have support from the White House, environmentalists, and some in the coal industry who see it as a way to diversify the economy in places were coal has, for so long, been the only game in town.

But questions remain about weather transitioning from coal mining, toward things like tourism; manufacturing and service industries could ever replace what will be lost.