DANVILLE, W.Va. - After working 37 years in the coal mines of West Virginia, Ronny Justice punctuates his sentences with coughs. He lost his job a year ago, leaving him without health insurance just as he's battling the early stages of black-lung disease.
Justice, 57, had planned to work four more years in a job that paid him about $58,000 a year, enough to eat out anytime he wanted. Now he can't remember the last time he hit the Park Avenue Restaurant and Motel for a $6.95 steak dinner.
Boone County, where he lives, hosts 91 mines and an annual festival meant to celebrate "coal and its heritage." Like Justice's health, that heritage is under siege. In the next three years America will close a record number of coal-fired power plants, enough electricity to power 18.4 million households for a year, government estimates show. Lower-cost gas, new environmental rules and increased use of renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar, are reducing coal usage.
"Things are looking grim," Justice says. "I've never seen it this bad, no. Coal's what pays the bills in West Virginia."
Pain is being felt from Appalachia to Wyoming as the United States reduces its dependence on coal to almost the lowest level in 63 years - the cost of the country becoming more energy self-sufficient through the production of more natural gas and oil.
Prices have retreated 57 percent from a record in June 2008 as coal's share of U.S. electricity generation sank to a record low of 37 percent last year from 50 percent in 2005. Its future looks even bleaker after President Barack Obama said in his State of the Union address that fighting climate change would be a second-term priority.
Obama failed in his first term to get Congress to pass legislation controlling greenhouse gases. His new pick to run the Environmental Protection Agency, Gina McCarthy, helped create the Northeast's cap-and-trade program for power plants as Connecticut's environmental chief. Cap-and trade is a system aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions by allocating permits to polluters that must surrender enough allowances to cover their discharges of carbon dioxide or pay fines.
In his State of the Union Address, Obama said more aggressive steps to address climate change are needed, citing natural disasters, from last year's drought that reduced Mississippi River levels to Hurricane Sandy, which pummeled the East Coast, killing at least 147 people and causing an estimated $50 billion in damage.
"We can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy and the most severe drought in decades and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen were all just freak coincidence," he said in his address. "Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science and act before it's too late."
Burning coal emits 205.7 pounds of carbon dioxide per million British thermal units compared with 117 pounds per million Btu for natural gas, according to data from the Energy Information Administration. Natural gas will fuel 28 percent of generation this year, compared with 30 percent last year and up from 16 percent in 2000.
Coal's decline is being exacerbated by increased reliance on renewable energy as its share of electricity jumps by about 54 percent during the next four years, spurred by federal and state mandates and tax incentives.
As many as 5,400 direct U.S. jobs could be lost by 2015 as regulations prompt utilities to shut plants to comply with tighter environmental laws, based on data from the Energy Department and estimates from Matt Preston, principal coal analyst for the Americas region at Wood Mackenzie in Annapolis, Md.
Another 30,000 more may disappear in the coalfields and ripple through the businesses that support them, from local diners to the companies that help replace worn tires on mining equipment, said Douglas Blackburn Jr., president of Blackacrellc, a Richmond, Va.-based industry consultancy, whose clients include Goldman Sachs, Duke Energy Corp. and the U.S. government.
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has unlocked shale deposits that previously were uneconomical to produce. The losses in coal may be more than made up by the gains in shale. About 3.5 million new jobs will be created by 2035 as the U.S. exploits its shale reserves, a 2012 IHS study sponsored by the American Petroleum Institute, the Natural Gas Supply Association and others estimated.
While most analysts expect a short-term bounce in coal this year as natural-gas prices rise, total U.S. coal production in March was down 3.3 percent from a year earlier, according to data from Bloomberg Industries. That trend is likely to continue because of tightening environmental restrictions and cheaper natural gas.
No region is more affected than Appalachia, where West Virginia, the second-largest U.S. producer, accounted for 25 percent of the nation's 91,611 coal jobs in 2011, Energy Department data show. Nationwide, industry payrolls plunged 46 percent from 1985 to that year, according to the figures.
Houses and trailer homes line Route 85 as it slithers through hills to the foot of a mountain that holds Alpha Natural Resource Inc.'s Independence mine. Many of the units have sagging roofs and rotting wooden porches, one with a rusty water heater sitting on it.
The number of West Virginia miners or workers connected to mining who applied for unemployment benefits rose to almost 6,000 in 2012, from 2,045 in 2011, according to the state's Commerce Department. Like many of them, Justice has run out of jobless benefits. After being unable to find a job, he sought the help of the United Mine Workers of America to get his pension, worth less than half of what he was earning, and to secure medical insurance.
About a mile away, James Gray, 47, of Danville, has also joined the ranks of the unemployed. He worked in the mines for 24 years. He and his wife, a licensed practical nurse, live off her salary. After he was fired from his $65,000-a-year job in 2011, they canceled cable television, reduced their auto insurance to just liability coverage and stopped eating out.
"If she wasn't working, we wouldn't be making it," he said. "We're just barely getting by."