HAZARD, Ky. (WYMT) - A new report suggests Central Appalachia's coal industry faces difficult times in the years ahead.
The report, published by the West Virginia environmental consulting firm Downstream Strategies, finds the industry will continue to struggle to remain competitive.
Researchers predict coal production could drop by as much as 31 percent by the year 2020.
The report suggests the Central Appalachian coal industry continues to face competition from coal basins in other parts of the country. The region produced 185 million tons of coal in 2011, but researchers say market forces could drive that number down to 128 million tons by 2020.
"Part of what underlies those market forces is simply that coal has been mined in this region for such a long time that many of the thickest, most easily accessible coal reserves have already been mined out," said Evan Hansen, President of Downstream Strategies.
On top of that, demand for coal has fallen as coal-fired power plants are either shut down or converted to natural gas.
Local officials we talked to argue the decline in the coal industry has less to do with economics, and more to do with what they call "over-regulation" from the federal government.
"The EPA, they change their policy," said Perry County Clerk Haven King. "They'll have a policy that says the companies need to do ABC, then when the companies change it to ABC they change it to DEF."
The report's authors say the "war on coal" mentality is counter-productive to finding real solutions to the region's economic woes.
"That could help people come together and try to identify constructive solutions, to work toward the future rather than placing blame," said Hansen.
Researchers say Central Appalachian communities will have to find ways to diversify their economies, as coal jobs and coal severance receipts continue to decline.
The group published another report on the decline in the coal industry in 2010 with similar findings.