In the face of an Ohio Valley natural gas rush, federal emissions regulations and an administration that is waging war against it, coal still reigns as king in the local area.
Will that continue to be the case when today's youngsters enter the work force?
Dave Kelly, vice president of Ohio Valley Operations for Consol Energy, has a short answer: "Yes."
Kelly oversees operations at McElroy and Shoemaker mines in Marshall County. He said two longwall machines and the 1,042 employees at McElroy produce 9.5 million tons of coal annually. At that rate, he said, the mine will continue to operate for 25-30 more years.
Shoemaker has 612 employees, and its single longwall yields 5 million tons annually; Kelly expects that will continue for 15-20 years. And Consol has another block of reserves in excess of 300 million tons to tap in Marshall and Wetzel counties.
"We have not even started into that yet," Kelly said. "If the climate and the demand are there, yes, I see a very bright future for coal."
Q: Will coal jobs be available when today's youth enter the workforce?
A: Yes, experts said, as coal still powers more than half of the nation's energy needs and companies such as Consol and Murray Energy are shipping coal around the world to developing countries.
New mining technologies are developing, but Kelly doesn't believe that will reduce the number of workers needed to do the job. For Consol, he said the technological focus is safety and compliance. He cited proximity detectors for underground machinery as one example. These devices are able to determine when a person is too close to the equipment or in the "red zone" where they could be struck by its moving parts.
"It's all about making our equipment safer for our employees and making sure we are compliant with the law," he said.
J. Davitt McAteer, vice president of sponsored programs for Wheeling Jesuit University, served as assistant secretary for Mine Safety and Health at the U.S. Department of Labor during the Clinton Administration. He pointed to additional reasons for the evolution of coal mining technology.
Over the next decade or so, McAteer expects many mining operations to move into thinner coal seams as reserves decline. As a result, he said mining equipment will need to be smaller.
He also said mining will continue to become more efficient, with companies removing rock from the ground along with the coal. He said modern techniques make it possible and affordable to separate the rock from the coal, allowing more complete extraction of coal from a given area.
According to McAteer, technological advancements have made it possible to complete more mining tasks with a single machine. In the roughly 20 longwall mines in West Virginia and 110 nationwide - one machine can support the roof, cut and convey the coal and protect the miners as it moves forward on its own.
And while advancements like these will make mining faster, safer and more efficient, McAteer does not expect them to have a negative impact on employment opportunities. He has the same opinion about environmental regulations that some believe could harm the coal industry.
McAteer recalled that during his childhood, waterways all over the Ohio Valley and the Mountain State ran orange or black due to the region's high-sulfur coal mining operations "dumping crud into those streams." Today, that is no longer the case and McAteer said that is because the government mandated that companies halt those practices.
Air quality also has improved as a result of federal regulations, he said. Now, he believes, it is time to take the next step and he thinks the coal industry will keep up with the pace.
"We can't continue to dump nitrogen and carbon into our atmosphere and expect the atmosphere to handle it," he said.
"The down side of not (regulating emissions) is that pollutants in the atmosphere will create hazards to our health from breathing them. China is recognizing now that with increased pollution, they are seeing an epidemic of respiratory disease. That's not where we want to be."
He said the need to clean up power plants' exhaust, make the electric grid more efficient and find better ways to burn and use coal likely will create entirely new jobs for young people that relate to the mining industry. Instead of going underground to extract coal, many new workers will be employed in laboratories and engineering fields, thinking of new ways to reduce and dispose of waste, release additional energy from the coal, make mining safer and more.
"Young people coming out of school need to be the ones leading us in that direction," he said. "We need new ways of thinking, a new approach."
Kelly is concerned that young people don't really understand local mining operations.
He pointed out that TV shows and movies tend to depict very small operations that blow up for dramatic effect. He is concerned about the portrayal of miners and mine operators breaking the law and having little regard for safety.
"A lot of good people go underground and make an honest living," he said.
He said Marshall County's two mines are highly mechanized and spacious with roofs reaching 8 feet in height. Rather than cramped crawl spaces, he said McElroy and Shoemaker are like big cities or subway systems underground.
And local miners don't find themselves working side-by-side with people who are poorly qualified.
"You have to have a high school degree or GED, and no felonies," he said of prospective employees. "We just don't let anybody come work for us."
Kelly believes coal will continue to supply jobs for people in the Ohio Valley for decades to come.
"Hopefully we'll develop an energy plan that continues to use coal and all our available resource for energy," he said. "I can't predict the future, but we have large resources for coal in our country, and it makes good sense to me that we should use that reserve."