With Natural Gas Booming, Coal is at a Crossroads

Coal generates nearly half the electricity in the country, but the emissions it produces make it controversial. The Sierra Club has launched a campaign to shutter the industry, while natural gas drillers tout their product as a cleaner alternative. How does this all play in Pennsylvania's coal country? In conjunction with the StateImpact Pennsylvania project, WHYY's Carolyn Beeler visited the southwestern part of the state to find out.

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BEELER: Greene County is tucked into a corner of the state, bordered on two sides by West Virginia. Here, coal still reigns. Literally.

ANNOUNCER: I'd like to welcome everyone to the 58th annual Pennsylvania Bituminous Coal show, and tonight's Coal Queen pageant.

BEELER: A local high school auditorium is packed on a stormy Sunday for the crowning of the Coal Queen. (audience ambi running under)

ANNOUNCER: Candidate number six.

BEELER: The evening-gown clad students tout their coal mining pedigrees along with their volunteer work and grades.

ZAWELENSKY: Good evening, my name is Alexis Zawelensky and I'm proud to be a coal miner's daughter as well as your Lower Highlands senior representative.

BEELER: One in five jobs in Greene County is in mining, and a third of the county's general fund comes from taxes on coal. Unlike in many places, here.

SNYDER: Coal is not a dirty four-letter word.

BEELER: Pam Snyder has been a Greene County commissioner for eight years.

SNYDER: Coal means jobs, sustainability on our tax base, families being able to make a good living, raise their children, have decent health-care.

BEELER: In August, the Obama administration put in place new rules designed to cut air pollution from coal-fired power plants by more than half. And this summer New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg donated $50 million to the Sierra Club campaign to shut down coal-fired power plants.

Snyder says she sees anti-coal sentiment as a misunderstanding.

SNYDER: I think if you live in a part of the country where coal has no place and never existed, you are just used to turning on your light switch, never giving thought to where that electricity's being powered from, but I think people do need to understand that, they need to understand what coal has meant for this nation and what it can mean for this nation in the future.

BEELER: Snyder's county is home to four major underground mines, including the nation's largest.

Miners at Bailey ride an elevator down 700 feet, then take underground trolley car for a half hour just to get to the job site. There, a lumbering shearing machine slices away the surface of an exposed wall of coal.

Chunks fall from the ceiling into a sludge of water mixed with coal dust.

It's a far cry from the days of pick-axes, but mining is still hard, dirty work. Yet, it pays well --- an average of almost $90,000 a year, much higher than the county average.

Tom Mills, who works at another Greene County mine, says he sees new regulations as a threat.

MILLS: No matter what you always worry about your job. You need to be mining coal to get paid. And if they shut these power plants down, these coal-fired power plants, what are they going to use the coal for?

BEELER: A visible cause for worry among miners now dots the Pennsylvania countryside: natural gas wells.. New hotels are being built to accommodate out-of-town Marcellus Shale drillers; restaurants are packed. Miner Chuck Knisell sees the drillers' lack of regulation as unfair.

KNISELL: How could you put so much pressure on coal and want to do away from burning the coal, but yet you allow these people to come in here and like I said before rape and pillage the land and just leave? It just doesn't seem like we're on a level playing field.

BEELER: Coal still generated 46% of the nation's electricity this winter, but that was the lowest first-quarter level in more than thirty years. The decrease was largely due to low natural gas prices.

BROCK: It certainly could push out a percentage of the coal.

BEELER: That's Jimmy Brock, head of coal for Consol Energy, which owns Bailey mine, and also has natural gas operations. He says if natural gas cuts domestic demand for coal, he's confident international markets will make up the difference.

BROCK: I am not worried for the future of coal. I believe coal's here today, I believe it'll be here tomorrow, and I believe it'll be here for many years to come.

BEELER: What's more, American demand for electricity is expected to grow by a third in the next quarter century. King Coal's crown may have been knocked askew, but no one in Greene County is ready give up on it yet.

I'm Carolyn Beeler.