By Steve Fiscor, Editor-In-Chief

After several years of robust demand, business fell flat in 2009 for U.S. longwall operators. Several of the mines were idled for short periods to balance production with demand. Others invested in equipment improvements or pushed ahead with development plans. Business began to revive by the end of 2009 with an uptick in the met markets. Even though industrial demand for power is not expected to return until the end of 2010, a protracted cold snap during this winter season has given U.S. longwall operators something to smile about.

For the most part, the U.S. Longwall Census shows only a few major changes compared to last year. One new mine, Bull Mountain, was added in Montana. Alpha Natural Resources merged with Foundation Coal and the census now reflects that information. Jim Walter Resources in Alabama changed the company name to Walter Energy.

The number of longwall mines now stands at 44 and, with five mines operating two faces, the number of faces is 49. CONSOL Energy remains the longwall leader with 12 faces. Arch Coal operates five longwall mines. Walter Energy and Alpha Natural resources both operate three faces. West Virginia leads the nation with 13 longwalls, followed by Pennsylvania (8), Utah (6), and Alabama (6).

Signal Peak Energy began longwall production at its Bull Mountain mine near Roundup, Mont. Mining coal from the 17-ft Mammoth seam, the company installed an all Joy face. It is mining coal from a panel that measures 1,250- x 23,000-ft at a depth of 500 ft. The shearer is one of the highest horsepower shears in the U.S. and, at 1,130 tons, the roof supports are significant too. In July 2008, FirstEnergy Ventures Corp. entered into a joint venture with the Boich Companies, a Columbus, Ohio-based coal company, to acquire a majority stake in the Bull Mountain mine.

Walter Energy reported longwall production officially commenced at the Mine No. 7 East Expansion area during mid-December. The $175 million expansion, which began in 2005, is expected to generate approximately 2 million tons of incremental production in 2010 and up to 3.5 million tons in 2012. The additional production will increase Walter Energy’s rated capacity for premium coking coal to approximately 9.5 million tons in 2012. The footprint of the expansion is approximately 19.5 square miles and has sufficient reserves for approximately 20 years of production.

“Our Mine No. 7 produces some of the highest quality coking coal in the world. The expansion of the mine to an annual capacity in excess of 6 million tons makes it the largest low-vol hard coking coal mine in North America and the expansion is ideally timed to meet expected growth in demand for premium, low-vol hard coking coal,” said Victor P. Patrick, CEO, Walter Energy.

During July 2009, Alpha Natural Resources and Foundation Coal Holdings merged to create one of America’s largest coal producers. Alpha now owns two longwall mines, the Cumberland and Emerald mines in southwestern Pennsylvania, and three longwall faces. The Emerald mine, which operates two longwall faces, experienced a roof fall during November that disabled the mine’s mainline conveyor line and shut down coal production for about two weeks. No employees were in the area at the time of the roof fall and there were no injuries.

Patriot Coal reported that both of its longwalls in West Virginia, Federal and Panther, were performing well. “Federal had its best production quarter in 2009 and Panther had its best quarter since it became part of our portfolio,” said Patriot Senior Vice President and CFO Mark N. Schroeder. “We are seeing positive results from the upgrades in our operations earlier in the year, with new equipment, improved engineering and mine plans.”

During 2009, the Federal longwall encountered a rock parting in the coal seam and adverse roof conditions. The longwall mined through the region and was near its normal 4-million-tpy level. For Federal’s next panel, which will be the final panel of the current mining area, Patriot refined the mine plan to avoid this adverse geology. In mid-2010, the Federal longwall will move to the South area of the mine, where overall geology is expected to be more favorable.

At Panther, a longwall move during the quarter included significant upgrades to components of the longwall mining equipment. Downtime related to the longwall move, together with time required to fully integrate the new equipment, caused Panther’s output to be somewhat lower in 2009.

Arch Coal reported that the longwall at West Elk has now reached better mining conditions and is expecting to make fewer longwall moves in the future. The company also plans to spend $25 million on a new preparation plant for West Elk, which is projected to be online during the third quarter of 2010.

CONSOL Energy Brings Mines Back Online
When the market dropped, CONSOL Energy made a wise move to idle some production and focus on longwall development. Keeping development ahead of high production longwalls can be a challenge during robust periods. The rationale, one concentrating on costs rather than volume, would be to have panels developed when demand returned.

During July 2009, longwall production resumed at CONSOL Energy’s Buchanan mine near Mavisdale, Va. The mine produces a high value, low-volatile metallurgical coal, but the company idled longwall production during March 2009 to balance supplies with an anticipated reduction in demand from steel producers. Taking a similar stance with balancing coal supplies, CONSOL Energy also idled production during the summer at its Blacksville No. 2 mine near Wana, W.Va. The Blacksville No. 2 mine normally produces approximately 440,000 tons per month.

“We took steps early to manage metallurgical coal inventories. As a result, we are now able to resume longwall production at Buchanan with inventories where we need for them to be in this market,” said Brett Harvey, president and CEO. Recently, the company announced it was selling 500,000 tons of production from the Bailey Complex to China. Markets more recently, especially the met market, are starting see some activity. During the fourth quarter earnings call, Harvey admitted that six months ago he never would have been talking about exporting coal to China. The steel industry in Pittsburgh was built on the coal found in the region. Today more Pittsburgh No. 8 coal is used for power generation, he explained, but it should come as no surprised that it could easily cross between markets.

CONSOL Energy recently completed a $250 million, three-year refurbishment project at its Shoemaker mine (See News, p. 10). The company upgraded the coal haulage system and Shoemaker now has the ability to produce 5 million tpy. During the past few years, CONSOL has spent a lot of money (more than $500 million) increasing production efficiency at its longwall mines. Most of the money was invested in longwall expansions and lengthening longwall faces. The company will complete its program to lengthen faces this year. CONSOL Energy is continuing to work on its long-term plan to develop BMX, the fifth longwall for the Bailey-Enlow Complex.

By the Numbers…

The average cutting height for an America longwall dropped, but the size of the panels continue to grow. The average cutting height in coal droped to
85 inches from 86 inches last year. The average panel width grew to 1,075 ft from
1,043 ft last year. The average panel length grew to 10,995 ft from 10,749 ft last year. The average depth of cut remained the same at 38 inches.

Arch Coal’s SUFCO mine in Utah has the longest face: 1,800 ft. Three of the four faces operating at CONSOL Energy’s Bailey Enlow Complex measure 1,500 ft. At 23,000 ft, Bull Mountain has the longest panel followed by Mach Mining, which has a panel length of 18,000 ft. It’s interesting to note that two of America’s newest longwalls have the longest panel lengths.