It’s always curious when big business and their bankrolled politicians complain about how the government and its regulations stymie the “magic of the free market.”
Then they turn around and keep protectionist policies that give certain industries big favors such as tax credits.
That’s what the General Assembly has done with a bill that would have reduced tax credits doled out to utilities that burn coal mined in Virginia. The original proposal backed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe was intended to help fill a $2.4 billion gap in the state’s biennial budget.
The idea quickly ran afoul of Dominion Virginia Power and the Virginia Coal & Energy Alliance. The original idea was to scale back tax credits but cap coal tax deductions at $500,000 in any given year. But after the utility and the coal industry lobbyists got involved, a bill to retain the tax credits was quickly approved setting caps at a more generous $7.5 million in a given year.
The credits stem from a law passed in 1999. Its purpose is to make it easier for big utilities like Dominion to choose thermal coal mined in Virginia over product mined elsewhere.
Coal production peaked in the state at 46 million tons. It’s now about 22 million tons or less. Coal employment has likewise dropped sharply over the years.
Much of the coal mined in Southwest Virginia is of high quality and some can be used either to generate electricity or make steel. The problem is its cost. Many of the seams in the state have played out and coal is increasingly thinner and is in harder to reach areas. The cost of mining it has gone up.
For years coal maintained a price advantage over alternatives such as natural gas but thanks to hydraulic fracturing, that is no longer the case. Utilities like Dominion have been converted facilities to gas or are building new plants that use gas. Its last coal-related plant is a hybrid near St. Paul.
What’s causing this shift away from coal? High production costs and cheaper alternatives. Out West, in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana, coal is cheap and easy to mine. It does well. In other words, the free market is affecting the declining Virginia coal industry yet the General Assembly wants to prop it up at the expense of taxpayers and the budget.
By the way, Dominion and coal giant Alpha Natural Resources in Bristol are among the biggest political donors in the state.