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Coal production on the decline in West Virginia

WHEELING, W.Va. — Blaming both the Obama administration’s Environmental Protection Agency as well as increasing competition from foreign miners, the president of the West Virginia Coal Association said production is steadily declining, particularly in the southern coalfields.

Statistics provided by the U.S. Energy Information Administration show Mountain State miners produced 115.93 million tons of coal in 2013, the most recent year for which statistics are available. Just two years earlier in 2011, the state yielded 134.67 million tons of the carbon-rich mineral.

“The federal government has taken its toll on coal,” Bill Rainey, president of the coal association, said. “The worst part is the atmosphere of uncertainty they have created. You just can’t be sure what the EPA is going to do next.”

Via its Mercury and Air Toxics Standards and the Clean Power Plan, which are designed to reduce mercury and CO2 emissions from power plants, the EPA continues pressing forward to mitigate pollution. However, Rainey and other coal and electricity industry leaders believe these federal policies will cost thousands of jobs in coal-producing states, as well as put a strain on power plants that may lead to blackouts.

As overall coal production in the Mountain State declines, the difference is most significant in the southern coalfields. The EIA shows 235 southern West Virginia coal mines produced 92.8 million tons of the mineral in 2011. However, these numbers fell to 186 mines grinding out 70.4 million tons in 2013, reflecting approximately a 25 percent decline in just two years.

Meanwhile, production in the northern half of the state increased over the two-year period. In 2011, 38 northern West Virginia mines produced 41.85 million tons of coal. By 2013, 33 mines in this region extracted 45.53 million tons of coal.

Although Rainey blames environmental regulation for much of the struggles facing his industry, he also acknowledges that new competition is also a problem.

“Australia has a transportation advantage to some of the markets,” he said of coal destined for India, China and other Asian markets. “And natural gas is cheap. Some power producers want to move more toward that.”

Rainey also cited a drop in domestic demand for coal, particularly in West Virginia, due to the virtual demise of the steel industry. Since 2005, most of the the Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel Corp. and Weirton Steel Corp. operations have closed.

“Look at all the closed down steel mills up there … They were one of our major customers,” he said. “All of these factors come together to hurt demand for coal.”

Coal production is also declining nationally, EIA data show. St. Louis-based Peabody Energy is the largest individual producer, as the firm yielded 183.28 million tons in 2013. However, this is down from 202.24 million two years earlier. St. Louis-based Arch Coal is also down, as the company ground out 130.24 million tons in 2013, down from 160.28 in 2011.

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