Economic report underscores need to diversify

August 12, 2018

The Parkersburg News and Sentinel published this editorial on Aug. 5 regarding West Virginia’s coal industry:

Coal is an important part of West Virginia’s economy — still. But a study by the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the West Virginia University College of Business and Economics shows it is not as big a part as it once was, and will likely never rebound to levels seen during its heyday.

Coal mining and coalfired electric power generation amounted to approximately $12.9 billion in economic activity in 2017. The state’s gross domestic product that year was approximately $77 billion. Direct mining operations employed approximately 13,000 miners — and an average coal worker in 2017 earned about $85,000 a year.

And, in 2017, West Virginia was still producing 12 percent of the country’s coal.

“Despite production declines in recent years, coal remains a very important part of West Virginia’s economy, as illustrated in our research,” said the bureau’s director, John Deskins. “Coal continues to support a sizable share of the state’s economic output and thousands of high-paying jobs.”

As always, plenty of good information came from the report produced by WVU researchers. The project was funded, however, by a Charleston-based lobbying group, the Coal Forum. In responding to the release of the report, Coal Forum Co-Chairman Chris Hamilton said coal is “the bedrock of (West Virginia’s) economy,” and “our industry is rebounding.”

That may be a touch optimistic. The report forecasts demand for coal will, in fact, remain even until at least 2050. Coal is certainly still a vital part of our economy, but not the force it once was. Changes that go beyond the targeted attacks of previous presidential administrations mean the Mountain State must continue to look for ways to transition its economy. Not abandoning coal, or cutting it off at the knees — in fact, continuing to fight for fair regulation and treatment of the industry, but shifting our focus to a more diversified economy that takes advantage of all West Virginia has to offer.

One extraction industry no longer defines us, folks. It is still a big part of who we are; it is not everything. The sooner we take into account data like that presented by WVU’s researchers, the better we all — including our miners — will be.