Can Coal and Natural Gas Coexist?
25 February 2014
By Casey Junkins, Staff Writer
WHEELING - Within the next few decades, natural gas could
surpass coal as the nation's preferred choice for electricity
generation, according to estimates from the U.S. Energy
Currently, coal accounts for about 40 percent of all electricity
generation, with natural gas at about 25 percent. By 2040, the
U.S. EIA estimates natural gas will have 35 percent of the
electricity generation market, with coal at 32 percent.
Murray Energy Corp. CEO Robert Murray believes the transition
from coal to natural gas will hurt "our families, our region and
As the Marcellus and Utica shale natural gas drilling boom
proceeds across the Upper Ohio Valley, many wonder how this will
impact the road the local and regional coal industry is
traveling. As an example of how the shale chase is changing the
area, Consol Energy recently sold the former Shoemaker and
McElroy coal mines to Murray Energy as part of a $3.5 billion
deal. Consol officials are using the proceeds from the sale to
bore their way deeper into the shale game by drilling wells
throughout Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia.
Questions linger, not only about how the two fuels
will compete with one another, but how they will impact one
another in terms of labor and environmental effects.
- In 2011, coal accounted for 42 percent of all
electricity generation with natural gas at 25 percent,
according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration
- By 2040, the U.S. EIA estimates that 35 percent of
all U.S. electricity generation will come from natural gas,
with only 32 percent from coal
- So-called "co-fired" power plants, in which both
coal and natural gas are used, could be an option in the
future that would benefit both industries and still provide
power that is cheaper and more reliable than renewables such
as wind and solar
"The two industries differ in terms of wages, in terms of how
income is generated for those who own mineral rights, in terms
of how much labor is used relative to equipment, machinery, and
other capital, and along many other dimensions," said John
Deskins, director of the Bureau of Business and Economic
Research at West Virginia University.
The new EIA report predicts that by 2040, 35 percent of
U.S. electricity generation will come from natural gas, while
only 32 percent will come from coal. The remainder will come
from nuclear power and renewable sources such as wind, solar and
By comparison, federal statistics show 42 percent of U.S.
electricity came from coal in 2011 with 25 percent being drawn
from natural gas. In 1993, 53 percent came from coal with only
13 percent coming from natural gas.
Currently, nearly all of West Virginia's electricity comes from
coal, as does most of Ohio's.
"The Obama Administration has been encouraging natural gas use,
while destroying coal mining and utilization, at every turn,"
Murray said. "There is no doubt that the decreased utilization
of coal will increase electricity rates for everyone, including
our citizens on fixed incomes and our manufacturers of products
that compete in the global marketplace."
As more natural gas floods the marketplace, Xander believes
prices should remain relatively low. He said adapting some
coal-fired power plants to generate some of their wattage from
natural gas could help the plants meet the more stringent
federal emissions standards set to be imposed on them.
"Residential natural gas rates have dropped about 40 percent in
the last three years. But if they take coal out of the supply
mix for electricity, the cost per kilowatt hour will definitely
climb. It seems silly," Xander said. "Given our abundance of
inexpensive coal that can be burned with acceptable levels of
emissions, we are foolish to simply abandon coal."
Because of more stringent U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
air emissions standards, American Electric Power is set to close
the coal-fired Kammer Plant in Marshall County this year. AEP
now operates natural gas-fired plants in Dresden, Ohio,
Waterford, Ohio and Lawrenceburg, Ind.
Though many believe a shift to natural gas from coal will
improve environmental quality, Wheeling-Ohio County Health
Department Administrator Howard Gamble confirms there are high
levels of carcinogenic benzene emitted from some local natural
gas well sites.
Another problem can arise when drillers are working in the same
vicinity as miners. In 2012, Murray had a dispute with Oxford
Oil Co. after that driller initially got permission from the
Ohio Department of Natural Resources to drill wells through coal
seams at the Century Mine. The ODNR eventually did not allow
these wells to proceed after Murray objected for safety reasons.
Alliance Resource Partners continues mining coal at the Tunnel
Ridge Mine in Ohio County. As natural gas rigs populate the Ohio
County surface, coal mined from the underground Tunnel Ridge
facility feeds into three silos that tower above W.Va. 2 about 2
miles north of the Warwood section of Wheeling.
The Sierra Club, a powerful environmental lobbying group with
2.1 million members maintaining offices in San Francisco and
Washington, D.C., claims that burning coal leads to "as many as
13,000 premature deaths every year and more than $100 billion in
annual health costs." The group also has objected to the Obama
administration's push for more natural gas use, claiming that
industry, as well, can be harmful to the environment.