For the entire year, the country’s third-largest coal-producing state produced 77.4 million tons, a decrease of 3.7% from 80.4 million tons in 2013, according to a report released in February by the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet. Fourth-quarter output totaled 18.2 million tons, down from 19.1 million tons a year earlier, a 8.9% decrease.
While the industry’s performance in the Central Appalachian coalfields of eastern Kentucky was nothing to write home about, it paled in comparison to the mine closings and cutbacks that have ravaged the region over the past several years. From 2008 to 2013, eastern Kentucky production plummeted from 91.9 million tons to 39.6 million tons, with average coal employment in the region also falling from 14,391 to 7,288.
That is why the region’s production decrease from 39.6 million tons in 2013 to 37.5 million tons last year was seen by industry officials as a harbinger, perhaps, of at least a stall in what has been an incessant downward trend.
Meanwhile, in western Kentucky, part of the Illinois Basin, production dipped only 2.2% in 2014 to 39.6 million tons from 40.8 million tons in 2013.
Overall, the commonwealth remains primarily an underground mining state, the report showed. Coal output at deep mines totaled 52.8 million tons last year, a 3.3% decrease. Surface mines produced 24.7 million tons, or 4.7% less than 2013. Underground mines produced 12.6 million tons in the fourth quarter while surface mines turned out 5.6 million tons, representing decreases of 5% and 16.5%, respectively.
Although it most likely will be April, when first quarter 2015 figures are available, before officials get a better read on the industry’s direction, Kentucky Coal Association President Bill Bissett said the latest report showed “we remained relatively flat with production and employment in both coalfields, compared to where we were in 2012 and 2013.”
Indeed, western Kentucky’s slight decline probably can be explained, at least in part, by the idling of Patriot Coal Corp.’s Highland No. 9 underground steam coal mine near Waverly in Union County for most of December. In January, Patriot closed the mine permanently and sold most reserves to Alliance Resource Partners.
The demise of Highland, which produced 4 million tons just a couple of years ago, clearly was reflected in Union County’s 2014 production, which decreased 2.2% to 12.9 million tons. Union County still led the region, however, followed by Ohio County, 8.3 million tons, or an increase of 1.7%; Hopkins County, 8 million tons, a decrease of 8%; Webster County, 6.3 million tons, an increase of 8.8%; Muhlenberg County, 3.6 million tons, a decrease of 10.9%; and Daviess County, 323,807 tons, a drop of 33.2%. McLean County joined the coal-producing ranks for the first time in 2014, producing 220,910 from Rhino Resource Partners’ new Pennyrile, or Riveredge, underground mine near Calhoun.
In eastern Kentucky, perennial leader Pike County again topped that region with 10.4 million tons in 2014, or a 4.3% decrease. Then came Perry County, 7.4 million tons, a 1.1% decrease; Harlan County, 4.7 million tons, a 4.7% increase; Floyd County, 2.5 million tons, a 5.1% increase; Martin County, 2 million tons, a 31.6% decrease; Knott County, nearly 2 million tons, a 4.6% increase; Letcher County, 1.6 million tons, a 26.3% decrease; Bell County, 1.41 million tons, a 22.6% increase; Leslie County, 1.4 million tons, a 34.3% decrease; and Magoffin County, 1.2 million tons, a 22.4% decrease.
Altogether, 11,643 miners were employed in the Kentucky coal industry at the end of 2014, including 4,354 in western Kentucky. That was down from a total of 17,748 miners statewide in 2008.
Bissett said he has not heard much from coal operators about their plans for all of 2015. “We hope to remain around 80 million tons,” he added.