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Coal-dependent businesses fight to hold on, as industry shrinks

The price of coal continues climbing while natural gas is increasingly a more affordable alternative, leaving businesses dependent on the coal industry in a tight spot.

By Jean Tarbett HardimanAssociated Press / September 2, 2012

Shaft mining in the Kanawha-Eagle Mine is life in the dark 600 feet below the surface digging into coal created around 350 million years ago.

Tim Johnson/AP

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Huntington, W. Va.

Get a bigger piece of the shrinking pie.

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That's how Danny Vance, owner of Service Pump & Supply in Huntington, describes his business strategy during challenging times for the coal industry and the many businesses that support it.

With the cost of mining coal rising and with natural gas becoming so competitive, the coal industry is in the midst of a battle. And Vance and some other local companies whose health is intertwined with the coal industry say they are doing what they can to fight the trend's ripple effect.

"So far we've been able to adapt and not had layoffs," said Vance, whose company sells and services pumps, blowers and other equipment used in the mines. "We're down about 15 percent, and we're very fortunate. A lot of companies like us are down 50 or 60 percent and are shutting the doors." The challenge has been the rise in the cost of producing coal compared with the low cost of natural gas, with the jackpot found in the Marcellus Shale formation that spans West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York.

Compared with the current affordability of natural gas, the price of coal is climbing, having gone from $43.75 per ton in 2007 to $63.78 per ton in 2011. Natural gas costs have dropped, to less than $3 per 1,000 cubic feet.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration's annual report released in June, higher coal exports provided some support in 2011, but U.S. coal production is projected to decline for four years thereafter as a result of the low natural gas prices, rising coal prices, lack of growth in electricity demand and increasing generation from renewable energy sources.

New federal environmental regulations are projected to take a toll on coal as well, including requirements to control emissions of nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide and air toxins such as mercury and acid gases. That will result in the retirement of some coal-fired generating capacity, including some here in West Virginia.

Charles Patton, president and chief operating officer of Appalachian Power, told The Herald-Dispatch earlier this summer that the company will close some of its older plants that won't meet new regulations of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency by 2015. It also will convert some operations from coal to natural gas.

After 2015, coal projections vary by region, according to the EIA. Coal produced from the heavily mined, higher-cost reserves here in Appalachia will be replaced with lower-cost coal from places like Illinois and Wyoming, the EIA reports. But there's an expected increase in production in northern Appalachia that moderates the region's overall decline, the EIA says.

The EIA projects overall U.S. coal production to grow at an average annual rate of 1 percent through 2035, with coal used for electricity generation increasing as electricity demand grows and as natural gas prices rise. More coal also is expected to be used for production of synthetic liquids, and coal exports should increase, the EIA says.

All of it means that businesses related to the coal industry are doing what they've gotten pretty good at over the decades — getting creative, diversifying and making adjustments.

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