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Displaced miners deserve help from elected leaders

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Seth Gaskins is an attorney and mining consultant running for House of Delegates in the 36th District. He and his family reside in South Charleston.

Last month the U.S. Energy Information Administration and The Institute for Energy Research released statistics showing that Americans still depend on coal more than any other fuel source when it comes to generating electricity. In fact, 37 percent of our electricity is generated by coal, while natural gas comes in second with 30 percent. But while coal is still king, its use is down from 53 percent in 1993 — quite a large shift. 

Nevertheless, experts predict that by the year 2040 these numbers will remain relatively stagnant, with coal producing 35 percent of America's electricity and natural gas producing the same 30 percent. Of course, all of this is dependent upon natural gas prices, which could mean that coal will come in second if prices remain low. So what does all of this mean for West Virginia and our mining industry? Well, it means that coal is definitely going to have to learn to share more of the market with oil and gas producers, but it also means that coal is by no means a "dead" industry. 

America's electricity consumption is predicted to increase 0.9 percent each year through 2040, which should bode well for coal, a resource that has proven to be the most efficient and cost-effective over the long run. Overall, the news is terrific for West Virginia as a state, which will stand to gain more revenue from severance taxes. 

It should mean no shortage of jobs in the energy sector, be it coal or gas and oil — depending on where you live, of course. But somewhere in those few drops in percentage points there is a group of disenfranchised coal miners left with no hope of earning an honest living. And while coal is going to be making up a little smaller piece of the pie in the future, the Obama Administration has made what would otherwise be a slow transition into one that is happening almost overnight. There are those that say that the transition is inevitable, so let's get it over with. However, I say we owe it to our miners who have spent their lives in the coal industry a chance to remain in their jobs if the free market will still allow it. 

At the same time, we should be providing assistance to our miners through job training, which would allow younger miners to make the transition now or simply improve their skills within the mining industry to become more competitive. The end result, however, is one in which a sizeable portion of our coal industry is left stranded, not by naturally occurring market conditions but by an overzealous executive branch that thinks it can bypass the legislative process. This kind of overreaching has real repercussions and our elected leaders shouldn't stand for it. But while it all seems hopeless, there is some good news. We can put these men and women to work if we make the necessary legislative reforms here in West Virginia. 

These reforms, just to name a few, include: (1) reforming our corporate tax structure to incentivize businesses, (2) providing exceptional alternative and vocational education for students and workers to gain a competitive edge in our evolving economy and (3) creating an intermediate court of appeals that will allow for more certainty in navigating our unpredictable judicial system. These are the reforms that businesses need in order to provide the jobs to our displaced miners. As a former coal miner and attorney, I can tell you that just talking about these issues hasn't helped much. We must demand swift action in our Legislature starting now.