The real cost of coal for West Virginia

When the Environmental Protection Agency announced its new carbon emission rules for coal-fired plants, there were a lot of numbers that got thrown around — and quite a few that didn’t. So here’s a closer look at some numbers.

As Brad McElhinny reported, coal plants that plan to stay open beyond 2039 would have to cut or capture 90% of their carbon dioxide emissions by 2032. Plants that expect to retire by 2039 would face a less stringent standard but still would have to capture some emissions. Coal plants that are set to retire by 2032 would not be subject to the new rules. Translation: Coal plants that plan to stick around for more than 15 years have eight years to significantly cut greenhouse gases; ones that plan to close within 15 years have to make some cuts but not as many; and ones that will close within eight years don’t have to make any changes.

Of course, coal proponents decry the rules and claim it would cause coal plants to close — usually with the implication the closures would happen immediately. To be clear: Coal-fired plants have, at minimum, seven full years to outfit their facilities with carbon capture technology or find ways to cut emissions. Considering that technology is constantly improving and becoming more economical, this shouldn’t be the end of the world for coal plants.

But let’s pretend all the coal-fired plants in West Virginia closed within the year. What would we be losing?

According to a WVU study, in 2019, coal mining and coal-fired power plants directly employed 15,400 people (roughly 13,000 in mining and 2,000 in plants) and indirectly supported the employment of an additional 17,900 people. 

If the entire state coal industry went belly-up tomorrow, West Virginia could lose over 33,000 jobs, assuming the indirect ones also go. And that is scary to think about.

But it’s also scary to realize what West Virginia is losing out on by continuing its unwavering, no-strings-attached support for coal.

 In the last legislative session, several bills came up to support renewable energy expansion. But the legislation wasn’t just pushed by environmentalists — it was the result of specific requests from industries that showed (conditional) interest in coming to West Virginia. The Legislature killed virtually all those bills, basically giving those companies the middle finger.

So what do we lose by clinging to coal above all else?

Well, in 2021, the renewable energy sector employed 923,000 people nationwide, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency (compared to coal’s 43,000 people in 2022). The “West Virginia Clean Energy Jobs & Economic Impact Report for 2022” says the state had 17,959 jobs across the “clean energy” sector. That number can easily increase.

Then there are the industries that are passing on West Virginia because we’re passing on renewables. A 2019 report from the Economic Policy Institute looked at the multiplier effect of certain industries: Information technology creates 573 indirect jobs for every 100 direct jobs; professional, scientific and technical services create 418; durable manufacturing creates 744; and nondurable manufacturing creates 514. In comparison, mining (not just coal) creates only 390 indirect jobs for every 100 direct jobs.

In short: Maybe the EPA regulations do cause coal-fired plants to close, or maybe they don’t. But the jobs West Virginia would lose in those closures are fewer than what we are losing now by prioritizing coal over everything else.