What is killing coal? Possible answers might include the Clean Power Plan, the increased use of cheap (and cleaner) natural gas, Democratic politicians, President Obama and environmental education about climate change. But it's none of those things — it's the geology. Simply put, as we move forward because of our exhaustion of resources, coal will become increasingly expensive to mine and extract, in Appalachia and the western states.
What is killing coal? Possible answers might include the Clean Power Plan, the increased use of cheap (and cleaner) natural gas, Democratic politicians, President Obama and environmental education about climate change.
In the 1970s, in response to the increased oil imports from the Middle East, J. Allen Overton, then-president of the American Mining Congress, stated "You and I know that America is the Saudi Arabia of coal… " in reference to the vast reserves of coal found within our nation's borders. This metaphor has continued to persist until today. Data for this statement comes from a 1974 baseline, complied by the Energy Information Administration (EIA), whom estimated that the United States had about 250 years left of recoverable coal reserves.
Fast forward to 2008, when the United States Geological Survey (USGS) released a statement that the largest coal reserves in the United States, the Powder River Basin (Montana-Wyoming), will be depleted in about 40 years at the current prices and mining rates. This is a vastly different estimate than the EIA's value of 250 years in the 1970s; in fact the EIA has upped the number of years to about 261 in their 2014 estimate. However, the USGS claims that the longer life span of the coalfields estimated by the EIA is derived from "greatly inflated" estimates of how much coal could actually reasonably be mined. As with any resource, the amount that can reasonably and economically be mined depends on supply and demand along with current technologies.
Whether or not you believe the USGS's estimation of the lifetime of coal, coal is on its way out, especially close to home. The hardest hit area is Appalachia, where coal jobs have dropped from 41,100 to about 24,100; in Kentucky the jobs have declined from 38,000 to 16,900. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the last time mining jobs were hit as hard as they were in 2015 was 1986. Across the nation within the last five years almost 50,000 jobs associated with coal have been lost (Haerer & Pratson, Energy Policy 2015).
But before you blame Obama, the trend in coal jobs has been in an overall decline for 30 years, through three Republican administrations. Additionally, in 2015 and 2016 Arch Coal, Patriot Coal, Walter Energy, Alpha Natural Resources and Peabody Energy (the largest U.S. miner) all filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
McDowell County, West Virginia, where I spend some time working on my summer research, has been hit particularly hard. Its population has dropped 10.3 percent from 2010 to today, to just under 20,000 people. In Kimball, West Virginia, a community that recently lost 13 mines, Wal-Mart pulled out in January 2016 taking another 140 jobs. As a result, in a county in which one-third live below the poverty line, residents now have to travel about an hour each way through the mountains for general merchandise that can't be found at the remaining two local stores.
As the primaries hit West Virginia on April 10, we heard promises from the Republican front-runner Donald Trump that he will reopen coalmines in Appalachia, that he will put miners back to work, and that mines will open. Trump — nor any candidate, Republican or Democrat — can bring back coal mining to the Appalachian region. It doesn't matter if he tries to roll back environmental regulations or ask for subsidies for coal mining to compete with other fossil fuels. Coal has declined drastically in the Appalachians and will to continue to do so. Coal isn't going to be the answer to bring Appalachia out of the economic downfall it finds itself in.
So, what is killing coal? It's not the War on Coal, it's not regulations, its not politics — it's the geology. Simply put, as we move forward because of our exhaustion of resources, coal will become increasingly expensive to mine and extract, in Appalachia and the western states. It's not going to go away overnight; coal still provides about 33 percent of our electricity generation in the U.S., but natural gas is right there at 33 percent as well, according to 2015 EIA data.
However, in the future we are going to see some serious shifts away from coal toward natural gas and even cleaner renewable energies. We cannot create new coal. In a region that once provided the United States with the coal it needed to keep the lights on, we need to turn our attention to assisting Appalachia. Not through empty promises of bringing coal jobs back and opening up mines, but through redevelopment and technological innovations.
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Mona Becker is chair of the Environmental Studies Department at McDaniel College and a member of the Westminster Common Council. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.