1:12pm

Wed September 28, 2011
Environmental Watchdog

Examining Reasons Behind Appalachian Coal Decline

The Associated Press had a story out yesterday about declining Appalachian coal reserves, and whether those are more to blame for cuts in the coal industry than federal regulations. The story starts with Jerry Howard, an eastern Kentucky mine owner who closed his mine two years ago.

“Business owners like Howard, politicians and miners in the hilly coalfields of Central Appalachia blame the industry decline on tougher regulation from the Obama administration. They aren’t as ready to talk about something a change in administrations cannot fix. The region’s thick, easy-to-reach seams of coal are running out, forcing many operators to shift to cheaper and more destructive mining methods that draw heavier environmental regulation.

Coal here is getting harder and costlier to dig — and the region, which includes southern West Virginia, Virginia and Tennessee, is headed for a huge collapse in coal production.

The U.S. Department of Energy projects that in a little more than three years, the amount of coal mined here will be just half of what it was in 2008. That’s a significant loss of a signature Appalachian industry, and the jobs that come with it.

“The seams of coal that are left in this area are harder and harder to mine, and they’re thinner and thinner and thinner,” said Leonard Fleming, a retired Kentucky miner and union leader in Letcher County who worked in the industry for 32 years.”

The question of when the country will, or whether it has already, hit peak coal is up for debate. But as the seams get thinner and harder to mine, it makes it unfeasible to reach the coal underground, which results in more mountaintop removal operations.  Studies produced by the Energy Information Administration and West Virginia-based Downstream Strategies predict a steep decline in Appalachian coal production in the coming years.