A decade ago, West Virginia produced 152 million tons of coal a year. Nearly 25,000 miners were working. Last year, West Virginia produced 171 million tons of coal. About 18,000 miners had jobs.
Surface mines played a big role in the state's increased productivity.
Twenty years ago, only about 10 percent of West Virginia's coal production came from surface mines. Today, about a third of the state's coal is produced by surface mines.
In 1997, the average surface miner in West Virginia produced 46 tons of coal per day, according to the West Virginia Coal Association. The average underground miner produced 38.5 tons per day.
Mountaintop removal miners are the most productive of all. Draglines can move 4,000 cubic yards of material an hour, according to a report by the Marshall Miller Associates consulting firm. Conventional loaders can move only 1,600 cubic yards an hour. Dozers move about 600.
"MTR methods are essential to maintain the state's present levels of coal production," the governor's task force concluded. "The lower production costs of MTR have contributed significantly to maintaining West Virginia as a competitive coal producer."
More than many in the West Virginia coal industry, Bob Bays understands how competitive Wyoming mines are. He manages Arch Coal's West Virginia mines.
On July 1, 1998, Arch Coal bought the western coal holdings of Atlantic Richfield Co. The purchase included huge surface mines in Wyoming, Utah and Colorado. Some of these mines dwarf Arch's West Virginia operations. One mine alone, the Black Thunder, produces more than all of Arch's West Virginia mines combined.
When West Virginia mines need a new dozer or truck, Bays has to compete with Wyoming. If mines there will make more money, Arch Coal invests there instead of here.
"We compete internally for those investment dollars," Bays said. "If we can't do that, nothing else matters."
Woodring has an even bigger problem. He has to make sure Arch Coal can get people to buy stock in a coal company instead of a software firm or some other business.
In 1998, Arch Coal made its investors a 6.5 percent return on their money, Woodring said. The Standard & Poor's average return on investment was about 21 percent, Woodring said.
"I don't know what's acceptable, [but] certainly, I would like to see us have a 20 percent return on investment, instead of a 6 percent return on investment," Woodring said. "That is an unacceptable level of performance, and we have to improve."