WHEELING - The coal industry's troubles have been well documented over the past few years, but West Virginia Coal Association Vice President Chris Hamilton said he believes the worldwide need for coal can provide the industry somewhat of a silver lining for decades to come.
"There is a tremendous need for coal to be exported, but there is no guarantee we will be providing it," Hamilton told the Rotary Club of Wheeling on Tuesday.
He cited both positive and negative factors influencing today's coal industry.
"Everyone hasn't experienced the decreases and production cuts like we have here in central Appalachia, and moreover the state of West Virginia," said Hamilton. "There is a positive side. We have just got to weather the current storm."
Hamilton said there are a number of factors that do not favor the industry, including what he termed a "very discriminatory anti-coal" policy in Washington, and the abundance and rise of natural gas in the region.
"These things have converged together and have effectively cut out a percentage of coal in the market, and that has resulted in a lot of layoffs and that has resulted in the state of West Virginia's tax coffers being a little lighter," he said, noting coal production in West Virginia alone has decreased by 25 percent over the past four years.
This has cost about 3,500 West Virginia jobs, he added.
"And those are $70,000 a year jobs, times 3,500," said Hamilton, following the luncheon. "So that reduces spending power ... particularly for your smaller communities that are not as diversified as what we are up here in the Northern Panhandle.
"The positive side is that West Virginia coal is going to be around awhile. I would say for the next three or four decades. ... I am not sure anybody's crystal ball goes much further than that," Hamilton added.
He said there is a chance for West Virginia to send more coal overseas, with a strong opportunity in the export market. He said the state's coal exports have doubled over the past five years because of growth around the globe.
"And as these countries grow, they require and have a greater needs - so that should be sustained over time," said Hamilton, who warned about the extreme amount of international competition in the coal market.
"But, West Virginia, we have great infrastructure, we have got a great work force, the best miners in the world. ... We truly do have the best miners, most confident and skilled miners as found anywhere in the world. We have some of the best mining equipment ... and up in this area we clearly have some of the best mining companies," he said.