By T.L. Headley, MBA, MA, BA

EnergyCommunications Consultant

Let’s take a look at the economics of coal … shall we?

Coal mining in West Virginia provides 23,000 direct mining jobs plusanother 60,000 support jobs (verified data via West Virginia Universityand Marshall University Colleges of Business). These jobs pay on average $70,000 a year, which is twice theaverage per capita wage in the state. I personally know miners who make as muchas $100,000 a year. The industry provides $26 BILLION a year to state’s economyand pays approximately $3.6 BILLION a year in wages to the state’s miners. Many of these jobs are in some of the most rural, most impoverished areas of the region — where other well-paying jobs are almost impossible to find. (Note:This is not because of mining but rather is due to the extreme isolation, lack of quality highways, lack of readily developable land and a host of othergeographic factors). So rather than contribute to poverty, as some on the left would have you believe, mining actually alleviates to some degree thepoverty that exists in the region.

Now, in the absence of mining, you might ask, would the statistics improve? Possibly, but that would be because there would be a mass exodus of people from the region — a region that simply couldn’t support the population currently there, leaving behind a very small population comprised of retail, a few professional service providers and public employees. One of the anti-coal activists who took part in recent protests in our state actually admitted as much in a magazine article — suggesting that the area would essentially become an empty national park.

As a lifelong native of this region — and someone whose family first settled in West Virginian 1798 — I don’t want this. I want — and most West Virginians want — a more diversified economy, BUT we don’t want to throw out or destroy the mining industry that forms the bedrock of the current economy. We believe mining can not only sustain us today but be a reliable and valuable partner in the effort to develop and diversify the economy.

Our current economic situation did not happen because of mining, but rather because of generations of leadership that did not look to the future. Their focus was always on the present — it doesn’t matter whether that was due to political corruption, poor policy or attempts to deal with the issues of the present — the bottom line was the proper planning for the future never happened. This is not an indictment of any political party or leader, there is more than enough blame to go around.

Today is a different story … we have weathered the nation’s economic storms far better than most states. We face our first budget issues of the recession this year. Until this year, we have maintained a budget surplus and been able to expand services, largely because of the $1/2 BILLION in coal severance taxes we collect each year. Our current budget shortfall is due to the delayed impacts of the Obama Administration’s anti-coal agenda combined with an abnormally warm winter. And before you suggest the cheap price of natural gas is the “real” problem, the current price structure of Central Appalachian coal and natural gas is economically unsustainable for natural gas– which is selling for less than half the market-sustainable price. This is based on an equally unsustainable production rate — with companies drilling shale gas wells at a feverish pitch to mask the fact that the individual wellshave a sharp production decline curve measured in months rather thanyears.

It does no one any good to try to force a change in the marketplace. You are tilting at windmills. Policy (economic or otherwise) must be based on a balance of impacts — impacts on the environment, on the economy and on people. Your agenda on the left ignores one of the legs of that three-legged stool, and in doing so you are also creating problems for a second — the people. You are asking them to give up their livelihoods “for the common good.”Sorry, but most people don’t roll that way.

West Virginia has more than 200 years of coal left in the ground. Yes, some of the easiest-to-mine seams have been largely depleted but there remains a huge amount of identified economically mineable coal reserves and much more still that has not been “proven” but known to exist (much like the deep gas reserves of the Marcellus shale).

West Virginia’s future should be bright. Instead, we are being told to throw away our advantages and ignore our natural resources. We have a “president” and an out-of-control EPA so intent on implementing their “green panacea” that they either can’t see or choose to ignore the suffering of people and the cost of their actions to the American economy.  Through its attack dog EPA, the Obama Administration has attempted to make the radical anti-industrial philosophy of the far left the law of the land – bypassing Congress and trampling on the Constitution and on the people of our nation to do so. They have left in their wake a wasteland that used to be the energy and industrialsector of our country. Shuttered plants and locked gates is the “Obama Vision”for our nation’s future – for our children and grandchildren’s future.

West Virginia could and should be the new energy capitol of this country. We should be at the forefront leading this nation out of the now three-and-a-half year recession. Instead, our 63,000 coal mining families are suffering … It would be no less difficult to live with but easier to understand if this were the result of some natural economic factors,but that it is the result of a conscious policy decision by the Obama Administration – an administration charged with protecting and defending our nation – is simply unbelievable.

America’s future should be bright. We should be mining coal, drilling for natural gas and oil, building things. We should be hearing the whirring sounds of the American economic engine revving up. Instead, we stand in unemployment lines and listen to the wind through empty buildings and locked gates. Is this the future we want?

NOTE: Headley holds an MBA in management and finance from West Virginia University and an MA in public relations from Marshall University. He is also a graduate of the Community and Economic Development Institute and of Leadership West Virginia, the Class of 2001. He has more than 25 years of experience in communications and energy issues. A native of the West Virginia coalfields, Headley provides communications and research consulting services toa host of coal and energy organizations.