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MAP TO PROSPERITY: Coal has a future in WV

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Brooks McCabe Brooks McCabe
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  • Map to Prosperity

    Map to Prosperity

    Thursday, January 2 2014 11:59 AM EST2014-01-02 16:59:08 GMT
    "Map to Prosperity" is a long-term project of The State Journal that will deeply examine government and business in West Virginia — both the perceptions and the reality.
    "Map to Prosperity" is a long-term project of The State Journal that will deeply examine government and business in West Virginia — both the perceptions and the reality.

Sen. Brooks McCabe, D-Kanawha, is managing member and broker of West Virginia Commercial LLC. He has been involved in commercial and investment real estate for more than 30 years, and he also is general partner of McCabe Land Company LP. He has served in the West Virginia Senate since 1998, and is a special project consultant to The State Journal.

With the expansion of the natural gas industry in the shale-rich counties of North-Central West Virginia and the electric utilities accelerating the retirement of coal-fired plants due to federal regulatory efforts, many feel that the often used phrase "Coal is West Virginia" is indicative of the past, not the future. 

There is no doubt coal's dominance of West Virginia's economy is being challenged. This is not to say that coal will not continue to be a mainstay of the State's economy. However, it will be sharing the role with natural gas as well as services and technologies directly related to this more comprehensive energy economy. 

Perhaps the new slogan for the 21st Century should be "Energy is West Virginia." 

The expansion of the Panama Canal and the high quality of Norfolk Southern's port and coal terminal facilities provide the transportation infrastructure needed to allow coal to continue to lead West Virginia's exports. Coal will remain the fuel of choice for much of the expanding global economy. The future of coal in West Virginia is one of a mature industry adapting to seismic changes but doing so in a way that will assure its survival. Coal exports will increase as a counter-balance to coal fired-power plants being taken off line in the United States. 

Carbonyx announcing its plans to build a plant in Jackson County is a major event signaling expanded opportunities for coal. New technologies need to be developed to provide more diversified uses for coal. We need to find other ways to use coal in manufacturing facilities within West Virginia. Coal research needs to be one of the state's top priorities. 

If West Virginia is to embrace being an energy state, we all must better understand and appreciate the role played by natural resource extraction in the national and global economy. 

Saleem H. Ali, in his book "Treasures of the Earth: Need, Greed, and a Sustainable Future," writes about "Lifting the Curse." We must understand that natural resources do not spell doom for an economy. Properly developed, resource extraction can become a viable part of a sustainable development plan. The key challenge is to have economic diversification, community development and environmental policies all working together to assure that sustainable economies are developed. Diversified employment opportunities and education need to be the focus. Finding ways to balance exports with local manufacturing is the key. 

With coal-fired power plants on the wane, other types of industry must be found. Carbonyx is an excellent example for coal, just as the ethane cracker is for wet natural gas. To quote Ali, "Finding the right mix of market incentives, regulation, planning mechanisms and community vigilance is essential in making effective use of resources for development and for ensuring that the life support systems on which we depend are conserved." 

If West Virginia is to become recognized nationally as an energy state, we must take the lead in creating sustainable communities at the same time we develop a sustainable economy. West Virginia is not just about coal and natural gas. It is also about water and wind electric power generation, as well as solar power, for renewables must be an ever-increasing part of the equation going forward. Within 10 to 15 years, geothermal power will become part of the mix. In addition, gas and electric transmission lines are central to the discussion. The smart power grid must also be part of the mix. 

Being an energy state is far more than just coal and gas. We must find a way to move past our negative connotation of extractive industries. In many ways, coal and natural gas represent our future, as well as our past. How we choose to understand and embrace our natural resources is the key to our future. West Virginia has a chance to show the nation how to do it right. Properly executed, coal will have a bright future, although it may look very different than its past.