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Shift from Coal to Natural Gas Has Little Impact on Harmful Emissions, Large Impact on Region’s Coalfield Economy

February 27, 2019

Environmental regulations that helped trigger sharp declines in coal production and the Southwest Virginia economy have had little impact on harmful emissions worldwide, according to a new report by the Institute for Regional Economic Studies at King University.

The report is titled “The Shift from Coal to Natural Gas in the U.S Electric Power Sector: Impact on Global Greenhouse Gas Emissions and the Southwest Virginia Coalfield Economy.” It was prepared by Dr. Sam Evans, associate professor of Economics, with assistance from King University students Kesley March, Robert Wilkinson and Joey Mammolenti.

According to the report, inflation-adjusted earnings from coal mining fell $281 million in Buchanan, Dickenson and Wise counties and the City of Norton between 2011 and 2017. This represents a 59 percent decrease for this three-county region that has long been dependent on coal production. And, the report continues, lost income in the coal industry puts less money into other sectors of the region’s economy, which means the overall impact is even greater.

“The downward trend in coal use and production has had a significant impact on the Southwest Virginia economy,” March said. “There was a slight uptick in coal production and employment in 2017 owing to greater U.S. exports of coal. Even so, coal mining employment in Southwest Virginia at 2,660 (jobs) was little more than one-half the recent high of 5,261 achieved in 2011.”

Because lost jobs in the coal industry have not been replaced with new employment opportunities, the coalfield region has become more dependent on government programs. According to the report, these programs provided 35 percent of total personal income within the study region in 2011 and 41 percent by 2017.

Much of the decline in coal production is due lower natural gas prices and regulations aimed at reducing harmful greenhouse gas emissions, which forced the electric power industry to switch to natural gas and, in some cases, renewable energy like wind and solar power, the report says.
“Faced with the decision to invest in expensive emission control technology or shutting down, many coal-fired power plants were retired….” Evans said.

To determine if the reduction in coal-powered plants had the intended effect on harmful emissions, Evans and his students examined documented levels of greenhouse gases including carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. Because coal is more carbon intensive, emissions are expected to decline when coal is replaced with natural gas. The researchers found there was a reduction in these harmful emissions, but only “.39 percent worldwide as a result of the shift from coal to natural gas in the U.S. electric power sector.”

The shift has, however, allowed the U.S. to become a world leader in the move to reduce emissions. The U.S. share of global greenhouse emissions fell from 16 percent in 2007 to 13 percent in 2017.

To access the full report and the 19 previous KIRES reports, please go to

The King Institute for Regional Economic Studies (KIRES) was established in 2012 and is charged with building a knowledge base of the regional economy, informing public and private decision-making, and providing an opportunity for King students to participate in research projects.