No. 2: Appalachian coal’s future murky going into 2013 - Beckley, Bluefield & Lewisburg News, Weather, Sports

No. 2: Appalachian coal’s future murky going into 2013

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It's been a strange year to follow coal.

One company says they will never add another mountaintop removal project to their to-do list. Others want to build export terminals to meet demands overseas.

Folks who follow the industry also hear mixed messages. Coal demand is increasing globally. Coal's really not even doing that bad in the U.S. — unless you're talking about Central Appalachian coal.

West Virginia, in the heart of the Central Appalachian region, has seen a scary time for coal. While the role of politics in coal's decline has been amplified by an election year, the region also has seen a number of indicators that show coal's glory days in these mountains may wind down no matter who is charge.

One of those challenges is nearly completely out of anyone's control — geologically, the coal in West Virginia is becoming less appealing. Seams are getting thinner, deeper and more expensive to mine, but some believe technological advance may help overcome those challenges.

Ronald Martino, a professor of geology at Marshall University, told The State Journal that many seams over 1,000 feet deep are considered "too deep to mine," but some mining difficulties can and have been addressed.

"Underground mining can be impacted by poor roof conditions, coal seam irregularities and discontinuities like channel washouts, splits, rapid changes in quality," Martino said. "Engineering innovation in mining techniques often overcomes some of these challenges."

The hit started in the summer with the announcement of more than 2,000 jobs being shed in just two months. Chris Hamilton, vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association, said some of the decisions being made policy-wise will be difficult to turn around, even if President Barack Obama had not won re-election.

"It's hit a number of companies, there's been nobody saved from the situation we find ourselves in with a depressed market and continued lower pricing, as well as environmental regulation taking hold at the same time," Hamilton said. "We have a depressed market. We just came out of an unseasonably mild winter, so there's a lot of coal underground. We're also facing fierce competition with the limited markets of today. Coupled with that, we just have a whole barrage of environmental regulations that is becoming more and more mature and impacting operations on the ground."

Hamilton and other leaders insist that in addition to the typical challenges of coal — geological and weather-based — the federal government waged a "war on coal." The regulations, he said, are forcing companies under to pressure to further downsize.

"Killing the industry is probably a little strong, but it will shape and cause this industry to reconfigure itself dramatically," Hamilton said. "There's no question about that."

Ted Boettner, executive director of the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, said his concern is with a long-term decline of coal production forecast for the Appalachian region, it's time to plan for an alternative. The problem — he said — is that isn't happening.

"The most depressing part of all of this is the lack of proactive behavior on the state recognizing that coal has been declining and will continue to decline in southern West Virginia," Boettner said. "There's really no plan in place."