Coal Age opens this month with an opinion piece by Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va. (See News, p. 4). The elder statesman from the Mountain State lectured the coal industry about its recent behavior in dealing with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and surface mine permits. Environmental activists quickly parsed parts of the writing and praised him for supporting their cause. As usual they were espousing half truths. He made his points clear and he drew logical conclusions: coal as a fuel cannot be replaced, mountaintop removal is unpopular, and coal operators in West Virginia need to choose their battles wisely. Readers should review the paper in its entirety. This represents a considerable change in mind set for a long-time pro-coal Democrat. Coal operators could almost identify with what he wrote if they thought the EPA would draw the line with mountaintop mining. Many, however, believe that this is only the beginning of a major, protracted battle with the EPA on several mining-related fronts.
While the folks in West Virginia grapple with permitting issues and environmental activism, the Annual Forecast finds the rest of the coal industry eagerly awaiting an economic recovery that will restore some level of normalcy to the industry (See Annual Forecast, p. 18). King Coal experienced a good run during the days of irrational exuberance and, like everyone else, he had to pay the price. For the first time in several years, U.S. coal production dropped significantly in 2009. Right now coal operators find themselves facing an over supplied market with weak spot prices. While they are not happy with the policies they see coming from Washington, they also know that the country depends on coal. As the economic recovery takes hold, power plants and steel mills will draw down the stockpiles and prices will firm again—maybe as early as the third quarter. One thing is clear, they are not waiting; they are investing in equipment and technology to take advantage of the next market upswing.
This month’s cover story is an update on Canada’s coking coal business (See Canadian Coal, p.28). All of the metallurgical mines are located in British Columbia and Alberta hosts a thriving steam coal business. The Canadian Rockies are incredibly scenic and business for those Canadian miners is brisk. They refused to participate in the Great Recession and, after hooking up with the Chinese whose stimulus package actually created jobs, have repositioned themselves to cater to a resurgent Pacific Rim steel market. In Western Canada, companies that mine coal, oil sands, precious metals, and potash, are desperately seeking skilled labor, and the situation will only get better.
Finally, the surprise over the holidays was the Bucyrus announcement that it would acquire the mining assets from Terex (See Suppliers News, p. 48). Bucyrus CEO Tim Sullivan and his crew have set their sites on becoming the premiere vendor for the mining business. The combined strength of the two companies will have an enormous footprint. The deal makes a lot of sense and bridges the gap between large surface coal operations and smaller ones. St. Louis might be the global headquarters for coal, but Milwaukee is looking like a great place to get a good deal on mining equipment. Enjoy this edition of Coal Age.
Steve Fiscor, Coal Age Editor-In-Chief