Can West Virginia afford to get off coal — or can it afford not to?

Published 11/11 2013 10:18AM

Updated 02/17 2014 02:17PM



By Tom Kessler
Green Right Now

Coal is deeply woven into every aspect of West Virgina and its people. The fossil fuel is found in 53 of the state’s 55 counties and underground mines produced 97 million tons of coal in 2008. West Virginia’s coal industry provides about 30,000 jobs, including miners, mine contractors, coal preparation plant employees and mine supply companies, according to the state’s Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training.

But amid coal mining accidents and concerns about coal-related pollution, a more vigilant Environmental Protection Agency under the Obama Administration is beginning to put the brakes on the state’s history of widespread mining by slowing the permitting process.

Those actions have drawn the attention or pro-mining politicians. Last week, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee released a report outlining the adverse economic and employment impacts of the EPA’s “inability to approve or set discernable (sic) standards” for the approval of coal mining permits in Appalachia. The minority staff report was released by Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK), a ranking member of the committee and a leading opponent of global warming legislation.

The report accuses the Obama Administration of “using the Clean Water Act Section 404 permitting process to dismantle the coal industry in the Appalachian region” and predicts that West Virginia, as well as Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia and Alabama, will be hard hit by this “virtual moratorium on permitting.”

The Federation for American Coal, Energy and Security (FACES of Coal) has jumped into the debate to share its concerns.

“The EPA is making clear its intentions to destroy jobs and economic security in West Virginia and throughout Appalachia,” Bryan Brown, state coordinator of West Virginia FACES of Coal, said in a statement. “The Senate report acknowledges the job destruction and economic peril EPA’s actions are having on this region. We urge our elected leaders in Washington to continue their efforts to secure coal jobs and our economic future.”

The Senate report, gathered from information from the EPA along with interviews with permit applicants, found that the 190 coal mining operations tied up at EPA are expected to produce over 2 billion tons of coal (throughout the life of operations) and support roughly 17,806 new and existing jobs as well as 81 small businesses.

“In this region, coal mining jobs are some of the best paying jobs available. These jobs are critical to the survival of small businesses, and they support other industries and jobs across the state,” Brown said. “The report also verifies that EPA’s actions will cost the state of West Virginia $217 million annually in tax revenue. That is a state budget nightmare.”

But Environment Defense Fund and other groups say the pro-coal forces have it all wrong. In its own fact sheet, EDF concludes that “a nationwide cap on greenhouse gas emissions would jumpstart a new energy economy in West Virginia and accelerate the growth of good-paying, clean jobs.”

EDF notes that clean energy “already provides thousands of West Virginia workers with good jobs during hard times.” And Pew Charitable Trusts reports that as of 2007, 332 businesses had generated more than 3,000 West Virginia jobs in the clean energy economy. EDF says that venture capitalists have invested nearly $6 million in West Virginia's clean energy businesses.

University of Massachusetts researchers concluded that the American Clean Energy and Security Act, coupled with the clean energy provisions passed in the ARRA stimulus package that Congress passed in February 2009, will drive $150 billion of investment in clean energy nationwide. This investment will create more than 10,000 jobs for West Virginia's workers.

EDF sees a huge upside to West Virginia in a clean energy world, noting that the Department of Energy has identified significant, untapped opportunities for key industries in the state to prosper under a clean energy economy. DOE identified at least 1,162 ways for small and medium-sized industrial plants in West Virginia to earn savings from efficiency, with an average payback of only 1.6 years. Only 56% of these opportunities have been implemented.

A June 2009 report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says inaction on global warming will cause significant harm to the Appalachian region. Warming temperatures are predicted to increase the spread of tick-borne diseases such as Lyme disease. Early snow melt will lead to winter flooding, and high temperatures will induce summer drought.

All of this would be devastating to West Virginia, EDF says, reporting that:

  • West Virginia's 23,000 farms—which produce over $590 million annually for the state — will lose ground to droughts and agricultural pests. Heat stress will reduce milk output from dairy farms, according to the U.S. Climate Change Science Program.
  • West Virginia's forest industry—worth about $4 billion annually8—relies on tree species vulnerable to climate change. West Virginia's valuable spruce forests could disappear, an EPA report says.
  • National Wildlife Federation predicts  that global warming will damage the 29,604 jobs provided by West Virginia's $1.2 billion hunting, wildlife watching, and angling industries.

All of this points to one thing that both clean energy advocates and pro-coal forces could agree on: West Virginia will be one of the major crossroads where the future direction of the energy industry is settled.

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