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Environmental Regulations Not Necessarily the Cause of Coal’s Decline

War on ______.  Fill in the blank.  Politics is full of buzz words, zingers, and one-liners to garner the attention of people and bring notoriety to a cause.  War on Women, War on the Poor, War on Businesses.  Most recently, critics of the Obama Administration have coined the term “War on Coal” to characterize proposed and enacted EPA regulations that some say will (and is) crippling the coal industry in the United States.

Big Coal’s arch-nemesis, at least according to them, is the EPA.

But are environmental regulations really the biggest cause of concern for coal?  There is no doubt that the industry has suffered recently.  Several coal companies, especially in West Virginia, have had to close down plants and lay off workers extensively.

A recent editorial in the Charleston Gazette has proposed a different reason why coal is in decline: natural gas.

Statistician Jeff Green of Workforce West Virginia says natural gas employment is rising and coal employment is declining as market factors take effect. His office is to release an updated report on the trend later this month.

These economic changes inflict suffering on West Virginia coal communities. For example, Consol Energy laid off 465 workers in Clay County during the past year — blaming the shutdown on an environmental lawsuit. Such a loss in a rural region is devastating.

West Virginia politicians and the mining industry rarely mention economic factors crimping Appalachian coal output, but blame the decline solely on federal pollution controls. A delegation of top Democrats went to Washington this month for a White House showdown with the new chief of the Environmental Protection Agency.

The National Center for Policy Analysis produced these statistics in regard to coal’s forced submission to natural gas:

  • Over the last decade, net coal-fired electricity generation decreased 10 percent, while natural gas-fired generation increased 50 percent.

  • Proven gas reserves have increased 80 percent since 1990.

  • Oil and gas extraction employment has increased by 27.5 percent since 2008, whereas total nonfarm employment is down 3.4 percent.

  • Natural gas production increased from 0.38 trillion cubic feet in 2000 to 4.8 trillion cubic feet in 2010.

The right, and more importantly Big Coal, like to shy away from this consideration.  In a recent article from the Daily Caller, the idea that industry regulations are the biggest problem is the main focus.  Page 2 of the article briefly mentions the natural gas industry, but fails to  go further into detail.

…Meanwhile, as the coal industry bargains with the Obama administration over what should be done to tackle global warming while preserving an entire industry, reports indicate coal plants across the country are slated for shut down in the coming years.

Reuters compiled a list of 207 coal plants that are slated to shut down in the next decade or so, in part due to stricter environmental regulations. However, the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity found that 285 coal-fired generators will be shut down, at least in part, because of EPA rules.

Environmental regulations certainly have an impact on the coal industry, but finger-pointing solely directed at the EPA isn’t completely appropriate.  Especially since the gas boom has all but slowed down.

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