The Real Killer of Appalachian Coal

I continue to be disappointed by our local paper’s lack of research and continued reliance on tired Republican talking points when it comes to editorializing about the state of the Appalachian coal industry. They should do their readers a genuine service and dig for hard facts rather than pulling out the same tired anti-Obama, anti-EPA rhetoric they’ve run numerous times over the past few years with only minor changes in wording. And with the “new” EPA regulations being tossed out by the Supreme Court, who will they blame now?

It smacks of lazy journalism; it’s apparently easier to regurgitate worn out mantras than take a truly close look at what’s transpired in our coalfields since the 1980s. Those who point fingers at environmental regulations are merely ignoring reality about the market challenges confronting the Appalachian coal industry. Placing the blame on the EPA’s efforts may provide an attractive political argument and keep the Bluefield Daily Telegraph’s conservative, Obama-hating base happy, but it simply clouds the discussion and slows progress toward meaningful solutions.

The largest, easiest-to-access coal seams in Appalachia have already been mined, forcing coal companies to spend more resources to extract coal from lower-profit seams. Coal companies in the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming can extract more than 10 times as much coal per employee hour as coal companies operating in the Appalachian Basin.

As labor productivity in a mine declines, coal prices must rise in order to make the mine economically viable. Consequently, Appalachian coal is more expensive than coal from other parts of the United States. For example, the spot price for Northern Appalachian coal averaged almost $63 per ton for the week ending August 29, 2014. In contrast, the spot price was less than $12 per ton for Powder River Basin coal and $44 per ton for Illinois Basin coal.

Appalachian coal also faces competition from abroad. Coal imports for the first six months of 2014 increased 43 percent compared with the same time period last year. Imported coal has become particularly attractive to power plants along the East Coast due to congestion in the U.S. rail system, the high cost of transporting goods by rail, and falling global coal prices. The National Mining Association has noted that “U.S. power plants on or near Eastern or Gulf ports can access coal much more cheaply from … traditional offshore exporting countries than they can from the U.S. interior.”

Power plants in the eastern United States can buy Colombian coal for $75 to $82 per ton compared with $79 to $86 per ton for Central Appalachian coal. In addition to lower labor costs, Colombia has the advantage of being able to transport the coal by ship, which is cheaper and more efficient than rail. It is approximately $11 cheaper per ton to ship coal from Colombia to Florida power plants than it is to transport coal from Central Appalachia.

Employment in the nation’s coal mines has been falling for decades as production has shifted from underground mining to surface mining, which is more mechanized and less labor intensive. In Central Appalachia, the shift from underground mining to surface mining has had a tremendous impact on employment. Direct coal employment in the region fell from 70,000 miners in 1985 to 35,600 miners in 1997 — a 50 percent decline in only 12 years. This occurred even though Central Appalachian coal production was on the rise during that time.

it is disingenuous for the Bluefield Daily Telegraph (and the many conservative politicians they continually praise) to place all blame on the Environmental Protection Agency for the decline in Appalachian coal mining. It’s the easy, fast way to avoid talking about the real problems at hand, and their editorial board should hang their heads in shame and embarrassment for failing to provide the true facts to the communities they serve. Instead the Telegraph continues to recirculate the many lies and half-truths mouthed endlessly by Republican Party stalwarts who, deep down, know the truth about what’s going on in our coalfields.

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