Coal mining in America is older than the nation itself.
The first documented mining of coal in North America was in 1748, when 50 tons were dug from a mountainside in the Pennsylvania wilderness. And while those first miners were certainly making a great profit, it’s doubtful that they could have foreseen just what the future entailed for the rich black mineral that has become such an integral part of the national economy.
Yet while coal currently supplies half of the nation’s electricity, there is an increasing amount of scrutiny of the industry and its practices. Environmentally conscious lawmakers want stricter regulations. Coal companies want to find ways to “clean” up the industry. Ordinary citizens are looking for alternative ways to supply power to their households.
A great rift exists between those who want to continue to keep coal such a huge part of the region’s economy and people who want to move toward green energy. And with the dispute over mountaintop removal practices, carbon emissions and mine safety becoming increasingly intense at all levels of government, the long-term future of coal is clouded.
“West Virginia’s economy is very dependent on being an energy exporter,” said Dave Sypolt, a West Virginia state senator who serves on the Senate’s Energy, Industry and Mining Committee. “It would be absolutely devastating if coal exportation were to cease to exist. I’m certainly not a proponent of destroying the environment, but we need a careful, prudent and balanced approach to transforming our energy practices.”
Sypolt sees alternatives in renewable energy resources. But unfortunately, he said, it’s not going to be an overnight transformation.
“Solar, wind and hydroelectric are all viable sources of energy,” he said. “But unfortunately we’re not at the point where we can supply that sort of thing. Until we develop those technologies efficiently, we’re going to continue to depend on coal as a major energy source.”
A move toward green energy laws in the U.S. Congress is affecting the region as well. Green-minded lobbyists and lawmakers want cap-and-trade laws, which would severely reduce the amount of coal burning allowed at power plants. Many in the industry say it would cause electricity costs to skyrocket and effectively destroy coal mining and any economy that depends on it.
“Cap-and-trade legislation as considered by Congress would dramatically reduce coal mining,” said Carol Raulston, spokesperson for the West Virginia Coal Mining Association. “It would dramatically reduce coal use in electricity generation costing jobs and raising electricity rates.”
An analysis conducted by Charles River Associates International for West Virginia House Bill 2454, which failed in the Senate, forecast a dramatic change in coal industry practices should cap-and-trade regulations be passed.
“Based on Charles River’s information, U.S. coal production would decline by approximately one-third to more than two-thirds of expected production and use by 2030,” Raulston said. “We’d expect coal production and use in 2030 to be less than 25 percent of today’s totals.”
Raulston also said 120,000 coal mining jobs would be eliminated and the average cost of electricity would more than double the first three years after cap-and-trade was passed.
Peter Huber, senior fellow and energy consultant at the Manhattan Institute, believes the nation’s dependence on coal will continue.
“Greens’ have been predicting the end of coal for half a century or so, and consumption kept rising year after year,” Huber said. “I don’t think that’s about to change.”
On the other side of the argument is the concern with irreparable harm to the environment.
Jim Sconyers, chairman of Sierra Club West Virginia, said that the way coal is mined is devastating to the region.
“Every time we burn coal, it’s part of a mountain coming,” Sconyers said. “Do we really want to continue doing this …?”
Sconyers pointed to a recent report, co-sponsored by Downstream Strategies and the West Virginia Center on Budget & Policy, which said West Virginia loses nearly $100 million a year because of coal. Damage to the infrastructure was one of the biggest components of the deficit.
“We looked strictly at the budget, at revenue coming in and costs going out,” said Ted Boettner, executive director of the nonpartisan Center on Budget & Policy. “This is one of the first attempts to look at all the costs and benefits together.
“When you examine any industry, there are going to be costs,” Boettner said. “That’s not unique to coal. What is unique is just how much money the state is actually projected to lose on coal.”
Sconyers believes the dependence on coal in West Virginia reflects a blind allegiance to the old way of doing things.
“Our legislators and government offi cials are guilty of not having a vision,” Sconyers said. “It costs us way too much to keep going at this current rate. Just looking around at places close by like right across the river in Ohio or in Garrett County, Md., they’re doing incredible things with solar and wind power.
“The people who own the wind farms are just trying to make money,” Sconyers added. “And they’re prospering. But too many people in this state have blinders on and continue to see West Virginia as one big coalbed.”
Some in the energy industry have started to expand into the renewable energy sector. A Dominion spokesman said that, while West Virginia is rich with natural gas reserves, there’s a definite need to diversify.
“We certainly see West Virginia as a huge player on the national energy scene,” Dominion’s Chet Wade said, “not only now, but in the long-term. Because there’s no one magic solution, we’ve undertaken the task of trying to identify just what all we can do. In our case, we’re looking into natural gas, biomass, wind farms and carbon capture and sequestration.”
Carbon capture and storage, known in the industry as CCS, is currently being tested at a few places throughout the nation, including Mountaineer Power Plant in Jackson County. The process involves capturing some carbon emissions as coal is burned and injecting a near-liquid form of the gas deep into the ground.
“CCS is unlikely to be commercially available for the next 10-15 years,” Raulston said. “We know the various parts of CCS technology work at capturing carbon, and DOE has been conducting tests for years on safe storage.”
Clearly, though, Raulston said, “the first handful of operations will be very costly as the technology develops.”
Sconyers is worried about a diff erent cost.
“(CCS) is people flailing around in desperation trying to keep the industry alive,” Sconyers said. “If we were successful with it, it would still only capture about one to three percent of our carbon emissions. And who knows what the potential dangers are of putting this stuff in the ground.”
One West Virginia resident who is trying to make a diff erence by supplying clean energy is Matt Sherald of Power in my Back Yard or PIMBY. Sherald, of Thomas, installs solar paneling and constructs wind turbines for residential use.
“I think alternative and renewable energy is a no-brainer,” Sherald said. “Every day sunshine falls on this planet and the wind blows. Any time you don’t try to convert it to energy, it’s a waste. Sunshine and wind don’t have any carbon emissions, they don’t foul our streams or mess with our air quality.”
Sherald said he gets “busier every year.”
“Overall, there’s a growing trend,” Sherald said. “I’d say it’s still growing slowly in West Virginia, but it’s growing.”
Sypolt believes that Americans have become wasteful. And a change in government policies is no more important than a change in personal habits.
“When we look at the big picture, it’s easy to recognize that Americans are very wasteful,” Sypolt said. “That’s what we’ve evolved into the last few generations.
“But we’re at the cusp of a new age, and we need to take a good hard look at how we behave as a society.”
Information from: The Exponent Telegram,