MORGANTOWN – Despite the continued downward spiral of the demand for West Virginia coal, other natural resources will continue to make the state a major energy producer.

That was the consensus of members testifying before a field hearing of a Senate Energy and Natural Resource Committee hosted by Chair Shelley Moore Capito and member Joe Manchin Monday in Morgantown.

The panel included academics and business leaders from across the state, who spoke of the benefits of energy and natural resources to West Virginia. However, the majority of panel members warned that coal is not returning so the focus needs to shift to natural gas and other energy sources, including alternative.

John Deskins, director of West Virginia University's Bureau for Business and Economic Research, said diversification of the state's energy sector is "crucial" for West Virginia to continue being a global leading provider of power.

He added that it's vital to the state's economy that it "strengthen its energy sector."

Deskins pointed to the struggles of a number of coalfield counties struggle to balance their budgets as the taxes from coal shrink annually. An example he gave was Boone County's recent struggles to fund its educational liabilities. The county's schools are facing an expected budget deficit of $7 million.

Coal's decline, he said, is a "vicious cycle" for coalfield counties across West Virginia.

Chad Earl, director of business development for Orders Construction, said the energy sector keeps West Virginians employed.

He said other sectors are dependent on the state's natural resources, including Orders Construction and that the growth of the state's natural gas sector has helped businesses across the state.

"We're being able not only to keep jobs, but we're constantly adding jobs and growing our business," he said, a result of the natural gas industry.

The state's energy sector, he testified, has a trickle-down effect on communities. He said when the sector is healthy, so are schools, local businesses and communities.

"Our communities prosper when the energy industry is robust," Earl said.

About 20 people were in the audience for the hour and a half hearing, which Capito said was an opportunity for a dialogue about the need for modern energy infrastructure and to identify areas of opportunities.

"As the United States becomes one of the dominant players in energy production, there is arguably no other state where the discussion on energy infrastructure is more critical than in West Virginia," Capito said. "Building modern infrastructure will do exponentially more than just deliver cheap, reliable energy – it will also create jobs, boost the economy and local communities, improve the safety of our grids and pipelines, and contribute to lowering emissions."