Beyond Coal and Natural Gas: What’s the Way Forward for West Virginia?

January 9, 2014 | 11:35 am
Jeremy Richardson
Former Contributor

Last evening West Virginia Governor Earl Ray Tomblin gave his annual State of the State address (transcript) to a joint session of the state legislature. His focus on investing in the future of the Mountain State was very encouraging, but he missed an opportunity to go further.

In his speech, Governor Tomblin spoke passionately about investing in our children and creating a brighter future for West Virginia. He cited examples from the energy sector, manufacturing, and STEM education, emphasized job creation, and praised the state’s financial health and rainy day fund. Interestingly, he devoted very little of his speech to the industry that has traditionally been synonymous with West Virginia: coal mining.

Muted Support for Coal?

Not surprisingly, Tomblin repeated his adamant support of coal:

To keep our coal industry alive and well—and I promise you we will—we must continue to seek out new markets and uses for it, while doing what we can to help the industry reduce costs, and be more productive, efficient, safe and environmentally friendly.

One could pick apart that statement, but let’s set it aside and focus instead on his next remark, which was striking in that it seemed to be less confrontational and more conciliatory compared to his three previous State of the State addresses:

While I will never back down from the EPA because of its misguided policies on coal, we should remind ourselves a challenge doesn’t always lead to confrontation. Last summer I sat across the table from EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy and shared our story. We have been hit hard. But with planning and perseverance I believe the obstacles can be overcome.

Presumably, when the governor highlights “misguided policies on coal,” he’s referring at least in part to upcoming carbon pollution standards for both new and existing power plants. Given that Congress has failed to act, these standards are critical to respond to the very real and urgent threat of climate change.

Personally, as a native West Virginian and a concerned scientist, I’d love to hear the governor talk more about the “planning and perseverance” he says can overcome the obstacles.

In reality, some of these obstacles cannot be overcome by changes in federal or state policy. Instead, they are fundamentally geologic and economic in nature: geologic because coal in southern West Virginia is becoming more difficult (and therefore more expensive) to mine, and economic because of competition from cheap natural gas. From 2008 to 2012, coal’s share of domestic electricity production fell from almost 50% to 37%. UCS recently released a report showing that about 59 GW of coal-fired power capacity are economically uncompetitive compared with a typical natural gas plant. Renewables are even cheaper than natural gas in some cases.

But the governor is right in implying that cooperation can pave the way forward. Kentucky, also heavily dependent on coal, has already engaged substantively and constructively with EPA on carbon pollution standards.

Touting Potential for Natural Gas

I was encouraged that the governor did talk about economic diversification, saying “West Virginia is attracting new and diversified jobs.”

As a prime example, Governor Tomblin touted the booming natural gas industry in West Virginia–progress for West Virginia from the same fuel that’s giving coal such grief. Back in November, the Brazilian company Odebrecht announced its intention to build a new petrochemical complex in Wood County. The Appalachian Shale Cracker Enterprise (Ascent) complex would include an ethane cracker, three polyethylene plants, and infrastructure for water treatment and energy cogeneration. (A cracker is a facility to convert ethane from shale gas into ethylene, which is used for manufacturing plastics.) Tomblin again called this development a “game changer” for West Virginia.

But it’s critical that we don’t look to natural gas as our only savior as the coal industry declines, especially given environmental concerns about air pollution and water pollution, evidence for groundwater contamination from hydraulic fracturing, and the risk to the climate from an overreliance on natural gas.

Hilltop drilling pad in Wetzel County, West Virginia

Hilltop drilling pad in Wetzel County, West Virginia (photo: flickr/SkyTruth)

Broader Strategy Needed

Across the river in Kentucky, state leaders are actively calling for economic diversification. Last month, Democratic Governor Steve Beshear and longtime Republican Congressman Hal Rogers participated in a summit in Pikeville, Kentucky, called Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR). Governor Beshear emphasized this initiative to diversify the economy in his State of the Commonwealth address earlier this week.

I see a window for Governor Tomblin to make a bigger commitment to diversifying West Virginia’s economy. Senate President Jeff Kessler is set to re-introduce a bill establishing a permanent mineral trust fund based on a portion of existing natural gas severance taxes. Will the Governor support this bill to invest in a bright future for West Virginia, one that does not rely so heavily on extractive industries and builds upon the multitude of other strengths the Mountain State has to offer?