BETWEEN the recession and restrictions on the burning of steam coal to generate electricity, consumption of coal in the United States fell 20 percent from more than 1.1 billion tons in 2008 to just under 900 million tons last year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency.
That drop of 230 million tons is offset by the increase of 1 billion tons of coal consumption in China in the same period, as Chinese coal consumption topped 3.9 billion tons in 2012.
China's consumption was up 33 percent in those four years. India saw a 25 percent increase in coal use in those four years as it is now the world's No. 3 consumer of coal at 800 million tons in 2012.
These two markets present an opportunity for the miners in West Virginia. To be sure, China and India have large coal reserves that they are exploiting. But U.S. exports of coal are up and nearly half those exports come from West Virginia.
But wait. There's more. Japan abandoned nuclear power following the 2011 tsunami that melted down the Fukushima power plants. Germany just opened its first coal-fired power plant in eight years.
There is also less. Coal's carbon-fuel competitor, natural gas, is on the upswing, according to the Morgantown-based Downstream Strategies.
"Following a sharp overall decline in coal-fired electricity generation from 2011 through 2016, generation from coal increases for the rest of the projection period, resulting in an average annual increase in coal-fired electric generation of 0.2 percent through 2040. Despite this increase, coal's share of total generation falls from 42 percent in 2011 to 35 percent by 2040," the report said.
Having 35 percent of the U.S. electric market a generation from now is pretty good. The growth may be slow, but reports of the death of coal are at least 25 years premature.
While West Virginia must continue to push for a post-coal economy — and over the years the chemical, steel, aluminum and glass industries have broadened the base of the state's economy — the fact is the coal industry is very much alive.
West Virginia's congressional delegation is obligated to stand up for coal against unnecessary federal regulations.