That’s an opinion based on simple mathematics; a longwall mine produces a lot more coal with much fewer people than a room-and-pillar mine. This year, the numbers are telling. Overall production from longwall mines is up more than 10% and the larger longwall installations are producing even more coal. The transition taking place in this industry is that coal companies are now designing longwall mines with the infrastructure to support higher production capacities rather than simply adding a longwall to a room-and-pillar operation.
On the policy front, the news was a mixed bag this month. Coal scored a victory in West Virginia and lost a battle in Illinois. It’s troubling that coal must fight for its future in either place, but that’s the world we live in today, where science, logic and common sense often have to take a seat at the back of the room. West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin repealed legislation that would have forced the Mountaineer state to generate a portion of its electricity from renewable sources. Overwhelmingly, West Virginia politicians from both sides of the aisle rejected the renewable mandate, which would have increased costs for electricity, inflicting more damage on an economy already reeling from job losses.
That, however, is not the case on a national level. A month after President Obama called for American leadership on addressing climate change, the Department of Energy decided to back out of its commitment to build FutureGen, the first near-zero emissions coal-fired power plant with carbon capture and sequestration. Based in President Obama’s home state of Illinois, the permitted project had just broken ground and had contracts to supply electricity.
Speaking of Illinois, Coal Age publishes an article that describes the history of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) in the Illinois Basin (see Organized Labor, p. 50). The last 125 years could also be described as the rise and fall and resurrection of the Illinois Basin (ILB), which includes Illinois, Indiana and western Kentucky. The article’s author documents the UMWA’s rise and steady decline using statistics and firsthand experience. What happened in the ILB shaped the history of coal mining in so many ways. During the 1970s, miners in the region were some of highest paid hourly workers. The wheels came off the wagon in the 1980s. Many readers remember the tumultuous period when non-union mines entered the ILB. Shell built the Elkhart mine (the Viper mine today) north of Springfield, Illinois, and Kerr-McGee built Galatia (now AmCoal), near Rend Lake, and the UMWA protested the only way it knew how. The Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 (CAAA) placed more downward pressure on the ILB coal business. Many utilities switched to western coal, which was also considered more dependable.
Ironically, today it’s a combination of stricter environmental regulations and dependability that are causing utilities to gravitate back toward ILB coal. The Viper and AmCoal mines are still operating today, while all of the other union operations have closed. And, the ILB has seen a resurgence in coal production and employment mainly because of advanced longwall mining techniques.
Steve Fiscor, Coal Age Editor-in-Chief