Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

July 22, 2013

Coal faces challenging future

By BILL ARCHER
Bluefield Daily Telegraph

BECKLEY — During a brief rain delay prior to the start of the Travis Tritt concert Saturday night at the Friends of Coal Auto Show in Beckley, Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association reflected on the challenges that the coal industry is facing.

“These people out here all know the importance of the coal industry,” Raney said as he motioned toward the crowd of 8,000 to 10,000 people gathered in the Paul Cline Memorial Sports Complex. “It’s important to every one of their lives. We just can’t get that message through to the administration in Washington.

“West Virginia has the finest coal miners in the world who mine the best coal in the world,” Raney said. “There are no better people in the world than the coal miners of West Virginia. We ought to be able to mine our coal, but this administration does not seem to want to listen to reason when it comes to coal mining.”

For the past 10 years, Raney along with former football coaches, Don Nehlen of West Virginia University and Bob Pruett of Marshall University, have been part of the annual Friends of Coal auto show. Raney is the point man for the state’s coal industry, while Nehlen and Pruett travel the state to work as spokesmen for Friends of Coal.

“This is my home,” Pruett, a Beckley native said as thousands of people stood and cheered. “I was born here.” With Pruett, a Raleigh County native, and Raney, who was born in Wyoming County, but grew up in Mercer County, the coal industry has a pair of strong, southern West Virginia supporters, but Nehlen frequently expresses his appreciation for coal miners and the coal industry.

“I wasn’t born here, but I’m a West Virginian by choice,” Nehlen said, also receiving a thunderous applause. “These people who don’t support the coal industry — we need to remember them when the next election comes around.”

The administration in Washington, D.C., isn’t the only challenge that the coal industry faces. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, domestic coal prices were down 2.9 percent during the first four months of 2013, compared to the same period in 2012. The EIA predicts that trend to continue with “coal prices to the electric power industry falling for the first time since 2000.” Some thermal coal data reveals that the price of coal used in energy production dropped dramatically in June, and showed only a modest recovery during the first weeks of July.

Perhaps more troubling for the southern West Virginia metallurgical coalfields is the EIA’s projection for export coal markets. The coal industry set a record export month in March 2013, but “continuing economic weakness in Europe — the largest regional importer of U.S. coal — slowing Asian demand, increasing supply in other coal-exporting countries, and falling international coal prices are the primary reasons for the expected decline in U.S. coal exports,” according to the EIA report.

Still, Jack Fairchild Jr., of GE Fairchild, a past chair of the Friends of Coal Auto Show along with being associated with the coal industry for his entire life pointed out that with major U.S. companies like GE and Caterpillar entering the underground coal mining machinery business recently, the future of the industry has become stronger.

“Companies like GE and Caterpillar entering the underground coal mining machinery industry strengthens what many of us believe is where the coal industry is headed,” Fairchild said. “There have always been cycles in the coal industry, but I think the future of coal is solid.”

A few of the faces in the crowd who applauded the remarks by Raney and others were still smudged with coal dust after finishing a shift in the mines and coming to join their families for the concert. Families appeared to enjoy the evening.

— Contact Bill Archer at barcher@bdtonline.com