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Tomblin rejects idea to diversify coalfield economy

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin is rejecting a proposal from activists that he form a bipartisan commission to begin more serious planning for the decline of Southern West Virginia's coal industry.

Tomblin spokeswoman Amy Shuler Goodwin said all West Virginians "want a vibrant, diverse economy" and that the governor "works on those issues every day."

Goodwin said "energy and natural resources will be a major part of that" and "diversifying our economy does not mean abandoning a significant part of our current economy."

The governor's office was responding to Gazette questions about the requests from citizens who tried to meet with Tomblin last week about coal-mining issues.

Organized by the group Radical Action for Mountain People's Survival, or RAMPS, the citizens criticized Tomblin for opposing tougher federal restrictions on coal mining and coal-fired power plants, moves the governor and the industry describe as a "war on coal."

The citizens noted that forecasts call for a drop in Central Appalachian coal production over the next decade, regardless of what new regulations are finalized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The activists urged Tomblin to create a "Citizens Advisory Council on Economic Diversification" to advise the administration on a path forward for the state's coalfields.

"We believe that West Virginians are smart and creative enough to find solutions that work for everybody," they said in a letter to Tomblin.

Earlier this year, Tomblin rejected another proposal aimed at helping the state navigate coal's decline: A proposal by the West Virginia Center for Budget and Policy for a small increase in coal taxes to create a "future fund" that would pay for educational, infrastructure and economic development efforts.

As Tomblin did during a debate with Republican challenger Bill Maloney, Goodwin said the governor believes the region's coal industry is poised to rebound.

"There has been an uptick in the price of natural gas recently," Goodwin said. "So much so that the CEO of AEP indicated that some of AEP's fleet may well be switching back to coal.

"It is reasonable to believe that power plants are going to start using more coal and, in turn, coal production will pick back up," she said. "Assuming, that is, the EPA does not continue to get in the way."

Analysts point to low natural gas prices as a central factor in coal layoffs and the industry's troubles this year. However, government and private forecasts have for years projected a long-term decline caused by the mining out of quality and easy-to-reach reserves and competition from other coal basins.

"We're in the middle of a steep decline, and it's not going to come back," said energy analyst Jeremy Richardson, a West Virginia native from a coal-mining family who is studying the issue for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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