WHEELING - Rep. David McKinley believes that finding new overseas markets for coal can help keep the industry remain viable as new regulations make coal increasingly tougher to burn in America.
With coal production in decline - about 7 percent both nationwide and in West Virginia between 2011 and 2012 - McKinley and industry leaders like West Virginia Coal Association President Bill Raney believe fostering the export market will be key to preserving the approximately 19,000 Mountain State jobs directly supported by coal mining.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last year announced strict new standards for carbon dioxide emissions on future coal-fired power plants. New rules for existing plants could be issued by this summer, and McKinley, R-W.Va., sees no relief in sight for the coal industry.
"There's more to come. The president's been very clear about that," he said. "He's going to be much more proactive on climate change."
According to McKinley, the entire continent of Africa - home to more than 1 billion people - can only generate enough electricity to burn a 60-watt light bulb for three hours a day, per person. Coal, he believes, presents the best opportunity to make progress toward Obama's own stated goal of doubling Africa's generating capacity.
"We can bring them out of poverty. ... (Coal is) the cheapest, most affordable way for these nations in Africa to have electricity," McKinley said.
Raney also sees exports as vital to the future of his industry. West Virginia coal already is shipped to 38 different countries, he said, and demand is growing.
"Germany, for instance, tried the windmills and solar panels and all that, and now they're moving back to the coal industry because of its dependability and the low cost," Raney said.
Raney said the EPA may reveal new rules for existing power plants in June - and he's very concerned about what shape they will take.
"We're hopeful they're going to be more practical," he said. "There's nothing over the last five years that would indicate that would be the case. ... Congress truly needs to get in charge here."
Although developing export markets could help the coal industry offset the impact of those regulations, McKinley knows that won't help the millions of Americans who get their electricity from burning coal.
"If you do away with the gas or the coal, you're just going to pay more for your electric bills. It's going to be passed on," McKinley said. "Are we, as a nation, with the economy as fragile as it is, ready to accept that? I don't think we are."
McKinley said studies by the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change illustrate that even outright elimination of the coal industry would have a minimal effect on carbon dioxide emissions. Burning coal, he said, accounts for about 0.2 percent of worldwide emissions - and all man-made sources, just 4 percent.
"People have to be aware of the consequences of what we're doing here," McKinley said.