February 6, 2021 - Below is an interview with Chris Hamilton, President of the West Virginia Coal Association.
CoalZoom.com: Congratulations on being appointed President of the West Virginia Coal Association. As you take the reins of this fine organization, what are your thoughts?
Chris Hamilton: The last 4 years have been very unique with a President in the White House that not only publicly embraced the industry and fossil fuels generally but very much wanted to see the coal industry thrive and do well. We are now confronted and have to prepare for a President and an administration that has set its highest priority to move away from coal and fossil energy in order to “decarbonize” America.
We need to be better organized and prepared to quickly respond to the onslaught of onerous proposals and challenges that will quickly abound. We must challenge those who would like to move away from coal on every front including legislative, legal, and regulatory front and it will take an effective grassroots effort with everyone who gets a paycheck or benefits from coal mining, including our elected and community leaders, families and friends to stand up, be counted and speak out for coal.
Speaking of elected officials, we are so fortunate to have so many great people who are in our corner fighting for coal every day from Governor Justice, Attorney General Morrisey, Rep. Shelley Capito and our great Congressional team, our Legislative Leaders and Board of Public Works.
CoalZoom.com: What do you see are the biggest challenges for steam coal and met coal in West Virginia?
Chris Hamilton: It troubles me to bifurcate these two major coal types for the overriding objectives of an administration that publicly wants to force a zero-based carbon economy. This impacts all dimensions of our business equally. They will not take any prisoners. With that said, as it relates to steam or thermal coal, the biggest challenge is to preserve and protect coal-fired generation and counter the growing public sentiment against coal-based, manufactured electricity. Here in West Virginia, about 12 years ago, we shipped 4 times the amount of steam coal than we do today to 165 electric plants in 20+ states. The majority of states, east of the Mississippi River, received shipments of WV coal which was responsible for powering 40% of the east coast. Today, we’re down to 30 plants in eight states. Its indisputable that coal-based or “baseload” electricity is the necessary ingredient that ensures the uninterrupted delivery of household and industrial power. Especially, during sustained inclement weather events. So, coal remains essential for the stability and resiliency of the nation’s electric grid.
Regarding met coal, West Virginia has the highest quality and most diverse met coal reserves found anywhere in the world. Although our met producers have a special niche in the domestic and global marketplace at the moment, they are also vulnerable if the environmental extremist have their way and fail to recognize their valuable contributions to our nation’s and world infrastructure and defense programs. Ongoing regulatory reform, reduction of coal’s overall tax liabilities coupled with investment incentive programs should be extended to met coal operations to drive investment dollars to West Virginia. Our met producers are in extremely tough geological formations and compete in the international marketplace where fierce competition from foreign producers and the tightness of margins exists.
CoalZoom.com: As you plan the future, what are the WVCA priorities?
Chris Hamilton: Doing what we can to protect and preserve coal-based generation and continued development of our metallurgical coal reserves are our top priorities. Not far behind is to help jump start or stimulate the advancement of alternative uses for coal and carbon products. There’s a universe of advanced coal and carbon products being researched presently that are worthy of our attention so we are able to expand markets for this valuable resource. West Virginia remains the “energy state” and under Governor Justice’s leadership along with Sens. Capito and Manchin, occupying two of the most important seats in the US Senate, with our super Congressional team, we need to find the way to unleash coals real potential and the universe of advanced coal processes and technologies.
We must also do everything humanly possible to continue benefiting from our current level of instate coal consumption. West Virginia’s eight-plant fleet is among the cleanest burning and most efficient plants in the nation or world. They provide economic wealth for so many West Virginians and local communities and contribute immensely towards energy and homeland security measures. Although the biggest threat to the longevity of these plants will come from Washington, we have recently experienced our in-state utilities beginning to weaken its historic strong preference for continued coal use. ESG and environmental pressures are influencing West Virginia’s utilities to consider other base fuels primarily renewable energy forms for electric generation. This will potentially decimate local communities, cost West Virginians jobs and cost consumers more for household power.
CoalZoom.com: The country right now is divided and by comparison the coal industry needs to be united and speak with a common voice. Some observers in coal are concerned that the different voices for steam coal, met coal and products from coal may be competing with each other in the public relations arena in an uncomplimentary way? What should be done about this?
Chris Hamilton: The West Virginia Coal Association is the leading state coal association in the nation. We represent more bituminous coal production for steam and electric generation than anyone and our members represent greater volumes of metallurgical coal by huge margins. We work very hard to represent the state’s leading industry and the men and woman who work every day extracting coal and producing energy. With all the serious challenges facing all aspects of our business, we must pull together and work from a shared set of messaging and consistent narrative. There’s an old adage that probably fits coal today that goes like, “if we don’t stand together, we are certain to hang separately”. That is where the industry stands today.
CoalZoom.com: As part of its survival strategy, the coal industry, amongst other things, has to eliminate fatal accidents and increase productivity. The industry has so far failed to eliminate fatal accidents and mining productivity is falling. Does the WVCA have a role to play in these vital areas?
Chris Hamilton: As you know, I’ve had quite a bit of experience in mine safety. Although we’ve had excursions from time to time, our mine safety performance record has shown gradual and constant improvement over the years. Last year, 2020, was the safest year on record! West Virginia coal has an exceptional corps of mine safety professionals who oversee and manage comprehensive mine safety and training programs at the mine level. They also maintain highly sophisticated mine emergency equipment and technologies on a 24/7 basis. These are the special forces of our industry. Kudos to all our mine safety professionals!
By its nature, mining has very unique conditions and environmental considerations that must be thoroughly analyzed and controlled. Like our engineering and technical resources, we have the best mine safety professionals and accident prevention teams you’ll find anywhere in the world. Our critics will quickly point out that the 2020 safety record resulted because of the low number of miners working throughout the past year, but just think about this — 2020 was the year of the pandemic and its effect on mining was very dramatic with all the new policies implemented designed to prevent the spread of COVID, and with work shifts and miners being staggered and kept apart from one another and normal work teams and operating procedures regularly altered. When you take these factors, all the general disruptions and deviations from established, everyday procedures into account, the safety record of 2020 becomes even more exceptional. Our miners, mine managers deserve a special shout out for this feat!
CoalZoom.com: The National Mining Association (NMA) represents the coal industry but it also represents the metal and non-metal industries which supply products for the wind and solar industries that compete with coal. Arguably, coal's voice may have become diluted. As a result, has the role of the state coal associations increased in importance?
Chris Hamilton: We have always represented our members in national and congressional affairs. We work closely with NMA and other national energy groups to help parlay resources and focus on national priority issues. We also maintain regular contact and work closely with our Congressional members so we can adequately represent WV coal. As we discussed earlier, we have to work with every group inside and outside our state, if we are to succeed against the most serious of challenges the industry has ever faced. There have always been challenges but none as serious or as threatening as a President of this country, the world’s leader, fully committed to a zero-carbon based economy. We have to work hard to unite the hundreds of thousands of coal and energy workers together in a relatively short time.
CoalZoom.com: At CoalZoom, we believe that the entire coal industry must come together with the best talent in the nation to devise a plan to save what's left of the industry. This could be done in a well-organized national symposium. Would you be in favor of such an event and would the WVCA be willing to lead the effort?
Chris Hamilton: As you know, we just concluded a major coal mining symposium, which in our mind, is a national symposium intended to showcase our fine industry. The WV Mining Symposium brings industry and elected leaders together with top government officials to examine relevant coal policies, programs and industry trends. The program has served our industry well over its 48-year history. We always look at ways to grow and improve this program so it can be of greater service to our members. So, the short answer is yes, we would be willing to explore a new focus and format. Not only is the state of West Virginia, the energy state, given our state’s history and current mining portfolio, but it will likely be “ground zero” for education and debate as our country is steered away from coal and fossil energy. We are so fortunate to have the commerce and strong industrial base provided by coal and coal mining.
CoalZoom.com: If a graph is drawn of coal production in America over the last few years and the line is projected forward, the graph shows practically no coal production by 2028. Can the American coal industry be saved and how do you see West Virginia coal production during the next few years?
Chris Hamilton: I strongly believe the American coal industry will be sustained over time but as you well know, we clearly have our hands full and must overcome the biggest challenge we have ever faced. I believe that President Biden and his energy team will realize their objective is not realistic and cannot be achieved without major job losses and economic disruptions or disastrous consequences throughout America. Thus, they will retreat and come back with a more focused assault on coal and coal-fired generation.
We quickly cite job losses associated with substituting other energy forms with coal, but there’s another cost not readily visible to people when you talk about making wholesale changes to the existing energy infrastructure without a realistic transition phase-in period, and that is simply this: when you replace a major system like our energy program overnight, the costs are astronomical and the rate payer is penalized. It’s like buying a new home without selling your old house. You basically end up with two mortgages. In the case of replacing all the infrastructure from a coal-based energy system to a system that relies on renewable energy, you will continue to pay for the older system which has been incorporated into the rate bate and energy usage for consumers for years to come while paying for the new one as well.
As you and I have talked, there are a lot of misunderstandings that rein throughout our society over basic energy concepts, possibilities and limitations of certain energy forms. Also, the average person does not really understand how much energy we consume as a society. If you remove coal, along with the entire fossil energy portion (about 60%), from our nation’s energy supply, the void simply cannot be replaced with available renewable or alternative sources. With that said, the technical or scientific aspects of the arguments are conveniently missing from today’s discussion.
The objective to move away from coal today is not realistic nor supported by fact. It is driven by political forces and extreme agendas. The industry is well aware of a natural transition period out ahead of us as our nation’s coal supplies are depleted. That’s inevitable, and while we may find that realization concerning, it is more plausible than the “forced conversion” of basic energy usage we find staring at us today. Decades from now, when our coal reserves begin to measurably deplete, there will be other energy forms and systems ready to pick up the load and our country will methodically begin the transition. Until then, coal and West Virginia coal in particular should continue to fuel the world utilizing the best miners in the world.
CoalZoom: Thank you very much, Chris, and the very best of luck to you and your team!