Statistics on coal’s future driven home in Appalachia

A billboard carries a message supporting the coal industry near Wheeling, W.Va., in January 2013. (Newscom/Reuters/Jason Cohn)
This article appears in the Laudato Si' in Coal Country feature series. View the full series.

No matter how straightforward academic interpretations of Pope Francis' fossil-fuel pronouncement in his environmental encyclical may seem, they quickly become soot-covered in real-world application: The effort, it's clear, won't be clean-cut.

The transition from coal that Francis urged in the encyclical "is happening right now in West Virginia," said Wheeling-Charleston Bishop Michael Bransfield. "It's not going to happen at the end of the century. So it's something we're confronted with right now."

In West Virginia, the No. 2 coal state behind Wyoming, production has declined 28 percent since 2008, and 40 percent in the south, where 5,200 jobs have been lost since 2011, according to the state's Center on Budget & Policy. The 116.9 million short tons mined in 2014 was the state's lowest total since 1983 and far from its peak in 1997 (181.9 million short tons), per the West Virginia Coal Association's 2015 Coal Facts report.

In Kentucky, coal state No. 3, production in 2014 fell to early 1960s levels, and in its east, coal production is 71 percent less than its peak in 1990, according to its state Coal Facts report for 2015.

A report from West Virginia University projected its state's coal production, after a modest rebound, will fall to fewer than 96 million short tons in 2035, and even further should the Clean Power Plan of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency survive legal challenges, largely led by a coalition of state attorneys general, including West Virginia's.

"There is no question West Virginia's coal industry is in the most challenging time in its history," Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, wrote in Coal Facts '15 report.

Mining's struggles, though, are not necessarily a reflection of the entire state. According to the West Virginia University College of Business and Economics Economic Outlook 2015 report, mining and logging account for a mere 5 percent of state employment, with the government hiring a workforce four times larger, and the industries of trade/transportation/utilities and education/health services together accounting for another third of total jobs. Wal-Mart is the single largest private employer.

While the state overall saw its recovery momentum slip in 2013, future job and population growth is expected to center in the north-central and northwestern parts of the state, whereas further declines are projected for the southern coalfields.

"I try to tell people West Virginia is so diverse that unless you're talking to the people of a certain region, you have absolutely no knowledge of what's going on there," Bransfield said.

States of US, global coal 

Nationally, coal remains the primary electricity source, dwarfing current output by renewables. But production fell 16 percent between 2008 and 2013, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, which projected coal's share of total U.S. energy production to fall from 26 percent in 2013 to 15 percent in 2040, even without factoring in the Clean Power Plan, which aims to cut emissions from power plants by 32 percent in 2030 from 2005 levels.

More: "EPA unveils Clean Power Plan, as faith groups quick to embrace" (Aug. 4, 2015)

STATE OF COAL_finalanswer.jpgIn July, the Sierra Club celebrated the 200th coal plant retirement through its Beyond Coal campaign, representing closure of roughly 40 percent of the nation's 523 coal plants in five years, and the elimination of the emissions equivalent of 39 million-plus vehicles.

While coal backers, especially in Appalachia, have claimed EPA and Obama administration regulations have fired coal's decline, others have pointed to market factors, in particular the rise of natural gas and renewables as viable energy alternatives. Fossil fuel divestment efforts on college campuses and cities nationwide have largely honed in on coal.

"The fact remains that King Coal is dying of natural causes: Market forces, technological advances, and public demands for clean air and climate action have combined to make alternative sources of energy more financially attractive," said Bloomberg Business CEO Michael Bloomberg, a climate advocate and major funder of Beyond Coal, in an August op-ed.

Globally, coal use has risen nearly every year since 1965 -- in Asia, more than 2,100 new coal-fired power plants are in the works -- though some finance firms predict a forecast more in line with U.S. trends on the horizon.

In August, Citigroup, in its second Energy Darwinism report, declared that "coal is the clear loser under a low carbon scenario," as the fuel source most affected by a price on carbon due to its high emissions. The financial giant said that for the world to have a chance at limiting global temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius -- a chief aim of the United Nations climate change talks set for Paris in December -- more than 80 percent of current coal reserves would need to remain unused, or at current coal prices, roughly $60 trillion in stranded assets.

Market value shrank from $50 billion in 2012 to $18 billion today among the coal companies Citigroup tracks; it predicted that mine closures, liquidation and bankruptcy, while limited to date, could accelerate, attributing such movement in part to politically driven shifts in investor appetites. Among those: "The Church of England has endorsed recent comments from the Papacy about reducing greenhouse gas emissions, all of which is leading to continued pressure on the coal industry."

German physicist Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, said at a July climate summit in Paris that the next 20-30 years must see "an induced implosion of the carbon economy" in order to curb warming below 2 degrees.

"In the end, it is a moral decision. Do you want to be part of the generation that screwed up the planet for the next 1,000 years? I don't think we should make that decision," said Schellnhuber, who a month earlier also spoke at a Vatican press conference introducing the pope's encyclical.

'It's a way of life'

The statistics on coal's forlorn future are driven home in West Virginia's south, Kentucky's east, and other parts of America rich in the carbon-packed mineral. West Virginia has seen its mining workforce drop from 130,000 in 1950 to less than 20,000 in 2013. In Pike County, Kentucky's historical coal leader, mining jobs decreased by 20 percent from 2012 to 2013, per the 2014 Kentucky Coal Facts report, as they did in nearby Perry County; Harlan County saw employment slashed by 35 percent in just one year.

Both Pike and Perry Counties were stops on the August coalfields tour of Lexington, Ky., Bishop John Stowe, which was chaperoned by Glenmary Home Missioner Fr. John Rausch.

"I didn't realize the coal industry was this critical," said Rausch, a 40-year veteran of Appalachian ministry, much of it centered on the environment and defending the rights of miners.

Recently, he has heard that more and more people are leaving Appalachia, hoping to apply their mining skills in the Dakotas or Wyoming. "The darnedest thing is, nobody wants to move away from this area. The land is part of their culture and part of their feelings," he said.

Despite the bleak outlook and inherent dangers involved in the work, strong support survives for coal and mining in the region. Everywhere she goes in eastern Kentucky, Franciscan Sr. Robbie Pentecost, who has lived in the region for 20 years, sees the signs: "Friends of Coal."

"They're on license plates; they're on signs of businesses like Wendy's and McDonald's. They're just everywhere," said Pentecost, who recently wrapped up a decade working with the Christian Appalachian Project.

"It's a way of life," said Rausch. "I think that's something that we don't recognize or understand. Coal country has a lot of uniquenesses to it."

One comes in its approach to religion, which leans more depressing than optimistic; at funerals, the priest recalls more tears and wailing for the great loss, and less hope for reuniting in another life. An air of fatalism and despair is tangible across central Appalachia; Jesuit Fr. Brian O'Donnell, too, has sensed "a spiritual problem" in West Virginia as people come to grips that an older way of life may be coming to an end.

"There is this psychological, spiritual aspect of this, that you have this life way, and it's hard to let that go," said the executive secretary for the Catholic Conference of West Virginia.

"That's kind of a hegemony of discussions that at least half the state just start with the proposition, 'Coal is great, let's continue it.' But the reality, as I've indicated, is much other -- I mean, that's not going to work."

Her own enthusiasm for the encyclical aside, Pentecost has a hard time seeing how it might take root in such a climate. For one, she's not certain how many even know of the 5-month-old document. But in an area long swayed by coal company talking points (or fearful of challenging them), and one where "Catholic" is sometimes seen as a negative term, it's rocky ground for planting.

"They don't have a sense of what's possible, and so they think coal is the only thing and decide to stay with what you know," she said.

More: "On climate, polls begin to show hints of 'Francis effect'" (Nov. 7, 2015)

Still, Pentecost sees hope in the excitement among the area's more prominent Christian faiths for Francis, seeing a possible encyclical entry point through such "legitimizers."

Likewise, she's inspired that her new bishop has indicated a desire to engage the community through "Laudato Si', on Care for Our Common Home." While it didn't come up in conversations with miners during his coalfield tour, Stowe preached about the encyclical the weekend following its release in several rural parishes. He focused primarily on its scriptural aspects, that the responsibility to live in right relationship with creation extends back to Genesis and was embodied in St. Francis of Assisi.

"Those things are deeply Catholic; it's not just a political fad, or it's not just giving an opinion about whether or not there's a climate change and whether or not the human beings have a role in it," he said. People responded favorably to that message, Stowe added, though they still held apprehension for what it said about coal.

[Brian Roewe is an NCR staff writer. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @BrianRoewe.]

Editor's Note: This is Part Two of a four-part series on the papal encyclical in coal country. Part One is available here. Part Three can be found here. Part Four can be found here.

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