MORGANTOWN, W. Va.—An economics expert at West Virginia University  predicts that the free-falling decline in coal jobs will subside, but the Mountain State—once the nation’s boiler room—will depend more heavily on cleaner-burning natural gas, which is expected to have production growth of nearly 10 percent.

John Deskins, director of the WVU  Bureau of Business and Economic Research and an associate professor in the College of Business and Economics, recently said the baseline economic forecast for West Virginia calls for job losses in coal to subside within the near term.

However, the outlook is subject to considerable downside risk depending on the environmental regulatory climate and conditions in the global coal market. Natural gas shows some promise over the period, though, as low prices and regional infrastructure bottlenecks that have weighed on the industry will subside over the next year or so.

“We anticipate conditions will improve considerably in 2017-18 thanks to new pipeline capacity and expanded natural gas use in electricity generation,” Deskins said. “Overall, production is expected to increase at an annual average rate of 9 percent through 2021, and employment is expected to increase at an average annual rate of 4 to 5 percent. Natural gas output stabilized over the past year after tremendous growth for four years. Output is expected to again rise at a healthy pace in coming years. Total GDP from natural gas is expected to equal that of coal in the near future. GDP from natural gas was one-tenth of one percent of coal less than a decade ago."

Deskins said the state has seen employment decline by an estimated 17,000 jobs over the past four years, a significant number of which can be attributed to the downturn in the coal industry.

“By the end of 2016, we expect that coal output will have fallen by around 55 percent since 2008, with the losses occurring in the state’s southern coalfields,” he said. “A more diverse economy is necessary in order to steer West Virginia toward a brighter economic future.”

He can be reached at 304.293.7876 or [email protected].

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