After highs reached in the 1990s, coal production levels on the decline
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- After reaching record highs in the late 1990s, coal production levels in West Virginia have declined in recent years.
Production in the state reached historic highs of 181.9 million tons in 1997 and 180.8 million tons in 1998, according to the West Virginia Office of Miners' Health Safety and Training.
Production levels declined in recent years, dropping to 165.8 million tons in 2008, 144.0 million tons in 2009, 143.2 million tons in 2010 and 139.4 million tons in 2011.
Underground mines produced 65.5 percent of West Virginia's coal in 2011.
Still, coal remains the nation's major energy source.
"Due to its relatively low cost and abundance, coal is used to generate about half of the electricity consumed in the United States," according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. It remains the largest domestically produced source of energy.
Today, the U.S. has the "world's largest estimated recoverable reserves of coal and is a net exporter of coal. In 2011, our nation's coal mines produced more than a billion short tons of coal, and more than 90 percent of this coal was used by U.S. power plants to generate electricity," EIA reported.
Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, said many producers in the state today have continuing "concerns with federal government policies and the lack of permits being issued.
"It has created an atmosphere of uncertainty, forcing companies to operate in areas they hadn't planned to operate in, which forces them to mine coal at a higher cost."
Markets for domestic thermal and steam coal have declined, Raney said, from a combination of warmer weather, large stockpiles and economic recession.
"We are hopeful that the economy is turned around and that the demand for electricity will increase," Raney said.
But long-term projections are a concern, and experts say a decline seen now in Southern West Virginia isn't likely to turn around, as the best coal in Southern West Virginia has already been mined.
Overall, production from Central Appalachia, which includes mostly Southern West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky, is projected to be cut in half by the end of this decade, according to recent forecasts.
Environmental restrictions add to coal's problems, but analysts say production is headed down regardless of air or water pollution restrictions.
"One of the industry's strengths is the export market. We continue to have the best metallurgical coal in the world. And we have the best coal miners producing that," Raney said.
High quality metallurgical coal is critical to making steel. U.S. "met" coal is exported to countries throughout Europe and Asia.
"Everyone in the industry continues to do everything they can to keep people working. We are continuing to look for new miners and new employees, while the skilled, experienced miners who are out there remain important," Raney said.
Still, while Raney and other experts have previously told the Gazette that the best coal in West Virginia has already been mined, Raney says the market and permitting also play a big role in coal production levels.
"We are not producing as much coal today as we did in the past," Raney said. "In addition to being a function of the market, it is also a real function of permitting.
"Mining operations involve very long-term planning," Raney said. "When operations are interrupted by permits that might not be issued, causing you to operate in areas that were not planned, that puts you into higher costs of production. A lot of those interruptions come from the federal government.
"Today, we are holding our own, running pretty much even with what we did last year. There is more production up north and a little bit less in the south," Raney said.
Coal-burning power plants have also upgraded their environmental technologies.
"Today, many of those plants can take higher levels of sulfur out of coal than they could 15 or 20 years ago," Raney said.
"But there is not much of a domestic market for 'met' coal. We still sell some here, but not nearly what we used to.
"Today, you also have steel companies from Europe that have bought mines and coal properties here so they will have a supply of metallurgical coal. We have the best in the world."
In West Virginia, Boone County remains the top coal county.
In 2011, Boone County ranked first in the number of miners employed -- 3,894; the amount of coal mined -- 20.9 million tons; and the most remaining coal reserves -- 3.6 billion tons.
Marshall County was the second-largest producer in 2011, mining 17.1 million tons. The other top counties were: Logan, Marion, Monongalia, Kanawha, Raleigh, Wyoming and McDowell.
The underground McElroy Mine, located just south of Wheeling, continued to be the state's largest mine. Owned by CONSOL Energy Inc., the McElroy Mine employed 991 miners who produced more than 9.3 million tons of coal in 2011.
Mechanization and surface mining have combined to increase productivity dramatically during the past 65 years.
In 1947, it took 116,421 miners to produce 173.7 million tons of coal. In 2001, just 15,729 miners produced 175.1 million tons of coal.
Coal severance taxes also help counties where mines operate.
In 2011, 29 coal-producing counties received $40.1 million in severance taxes for their local use.
The average annual wage for a West Virginia coal miner is more than $68,500, according to "Coal Facts 2012," an annual publication of the West Virginia Coal Association.
That annual wage was "more than twice the amount of the statewide average for all workers," according to "Coal Facts."
Also during the past 40 years, the percentage of coal mined by union miners has fallen dramatically.
When the West Virginia's historic Black Lung Strike took place back in 1969, well over 90 percent of all Mountain State miners belonged to the United Mine Workers of America.
In 2011, according to the EIA, union miners produced 32.3 percent of all West Virginia coal. Nationally, union miners produced only 16.4 percent of all coal, down from 19.6 percent the year before.
Reach Paul J. Nyden at email@example.com or 304-348-5164.