Expert: Central Appalachian coal still will be mined for decades - Business, Government Legal News from throughout WV

Expert: Central Appalachian coal still will be mined for decades

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Rumors of the death of Central Appalachian coal are somewhat exaggerated.

That part of the country — which includes southern West Virginia and states adjacent and south and has been a prolific producer of some of the world's best coal for more than a century — will be mining coal for decades to come, according to economic geologist Alan Stagg.

The State Journal contacted Stagg, president and CEO of Stagg Resource Consultants in Cross Lanes and a sought-after expert on the topic, after noting several recent media references (here and here, for example) in which he is said to have forecast a near-term end to Central Appalachian coal.

"I have seen that in one or two publications or sources and it misquotes what I said in the Platts conference," Stagg said.

That was last month's Platts Coal Marketing Days in Pittsburgh. During his Sept. 21 talk there, Stagg said he recalls responding to a reporter's question about whether he sees Central Appalachian coal running out with something along the lines of "of course it's going to run out some day — there's a finite amount of coal — but I don't see that happening in 10 or 20 years."

An SNL Financial reporter wrote, "… industry consultant Alan Stagg said he expects mining in the high-cost region to cease in the next 10 to 20 years" — a statement that rightly has generated serious attention.

At the same time, the reporter Stagg said asked the question, Platts' Steve Hooks, wrote, "Stagg said he believes there will still be ‘some production' from (Central Appalachia) in 10 to 20 years from now."

It's true that West Virginia coal production is declining, Stagg affirmed for The State Journal, both in the southern and the northern parts of the state.

"If you look at production for Central Appalachia, it keeps coming down," Stagg said — from 24 percent of U.S. coal production in 2000 to just 17 percent in 2010.

"Northern Appalachian production keeps coming down," he said. That's the region that includes northern West Virginia.

"All of Appalachia keeps coming down," he said.

Is it the result of a "war on coal"?

"No," Stagg said emphatically. He has been talking about declines in Appalachian coal production for 10 or 15 years and sees current circumstances as only its most recent challenges.

"You've got coal-fired power plants that are closing. Some have been on the board for five years or more to be closed. They're old, they're inefficient. It was no secret," he said.

The extended global and U.S. economic downturn has reduced demand for coal, he continued. Power producers have been lured to cheap natural gas.

And most fundamentally, in Central Appalachia, a century of mining has left thin seams of coal in small blocks that cost more to mine than other coal.

"And by the way, yes, in my opinion, the Obama administration is against coal, and the Environmental Protection Agency has overstepped its bounds and the courts have pulled them back in," he said. "But is that what's caused the coal industry to be in the shape it's in? No. It's about markets."

Stagg is irked when those who are in a position to educate the public and help plan for the decline of Appalachian coal use its decline instead for political gain.

While politicians, coal associations and other cheerleaders of the industry say regulations need to be rolled back in order to bring back Appalachian coal production, he said, "my point is, some of this stuff is structural and it's not going to come back.

"That's not to say the coal industry is down the toilet or the U.S. economy is not coming back, but that the Appalachian coal production curve isn't going to turn and start ramping back up again to the glory days."

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