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Energy crisis reminds nation that there's no fuel like an old f

by Jennifer Biller

STAFF WRITER

The sleeping giant has awakened. West Virginia's coal industry, which has grown quieter and quieter during the past few years, is once again making noise.

As recently as 1999, the industry seemed a shadow of its former prosperous self as production decreased, prices fell and small operators folded.

Now, as the country faces a growing energy crisis, coal companies are striking fast. The result is increased prices, a renewed interest on Wall Street and an improved economic outlook for an industry classified by some as dying.

"The energy crisis has reminded people that coal is important," said Thomas Hoffman, vice president for public relations for CONSOL Energy. "It renews the idea that coal in West Virginia is going to be a significant part of the economy for years to come."

W.Va.'s economic recipe

Coal has always been a main ingredient in the state's economy.

But with its volatile history, emphasis has been placed on other areas such as high technology and tourism to help secure continued development.

"Travel and tourism are important and growing, as are high tech jobs, but both are probably not quite as big as coal," said economist George Hammond, director of West Virginia Economic Outlook. "Coal is a large and important industry and one of the biggest for West Virginia."

The boom in the coal business doesn't mean other industries will suffer, Hammond said. In fact, the upturn will have an indirect result and help to support the state's overall economic growth, he said.

Economic diversity is the key to success, according to Delegate Mary Poling, D-Barbour.

"As our resources dwindle, if we don't develop our other industries in conjunction with coal then we'll fall behind," she said. "I think we can look at timbering and manufacturing, and hopefully redevelop our coal industry in a conservative way so we're not destroying the environment."

Hoffman believes there doesn't have to be a tradeoff of coal development vs. the environment.

"This is not the industry of 25 years ago," he said. "There are lots of laws on the books to protect the environment and to use coal efficiently and cleanly and that's a plus."

A continued boom?

The coal boom is offering a number of possibilities for the state right now, according to Sen. William R. Sharpe Jr., D-Lewis. Sharpe is chair of the Senate Energy, Industry and Mining Committee. He said the committee is continuing to work to get permits for strip mining and to offer the state's coal as a resource for other states.

But taking advantage of the market may not be easy, Hoffman said.

"Surface mine permits are harder to get, and I think smaller producers who got out of the business will have a hard time getting back in," Hoffman said.

"The ability to get new coal is not as easy as it once was, and those who normally would have come in and taken advantage of the increasing coal prices can't do it now," he said.

This coal boom differs from the one in the '70s in that companies are not building power plants and mines, Hoffman said.

But as the need for electricity continues to rise as does the costs of fuel, will coal production continue to flourish?

No one knows for sure. Historically, boom cycles in the coal industry have been short-lived, said Davitt McAteer, consultant for the state Office of Miner's Health, Safety and Training.

"The production usually outstretches the demand," he said. "But right now the government is interested in looking at how we might turn this interest in energy into a positive for West Virginia."

Hoffman thinks that the supply and demand for coal are more in balance than they've been for years. That means good things for coal companies and the state economy, he said.

"Supplies of coal worldwide are tight, and we don't see that changing," he said. "There are some additions to the supply coming in, but it's not enough to offset the demand that's out there now, so prices will remain up."

Staff writer Jennifer Biller can be reached at 626-1449 or jbiller@exponent-telegram.com.

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