Statewide, a downward production trend unbroken since the third quarter of 2014 persisted in the July-September period. Output slowed by 0.8% to 15.6 million tons, leaving Kentucky on track to produce less than 64 million tons in 2015, which would be its lowest total in decades.
Fueled by a number of daunting factors, including low natural gas prices, ever-stricter government pollution controls rules, lower demand by electric utilities faced with stagnant load growth, and higher production costs, especially in the case of eastern Kentucky, production has fallen by almost 50% in less than a decade. In 2008, for instance, the commonwealth produced 121.1 million tons of coal.
While state coal officials were not cheering, they were hoping, at least, the protracted production decline may be stabilizing in eastern Kentucky. That region produced less than 7 million tons in the third quarter, a 5.8% decrease. Still, the decline was modest compared to much sharper losses during the past several years that saw eastern Kentucky finally passed by its cross-state neighbor.
Indeed, western Kentucky mined more than 8.7 million tons for a 3.7% gain in the latest quarter, reversing a loss earlier this year. Much of the region’s increase can be attributed to Alliance Resource Partners’ River View underground mine near Waverly in Union County. River View, a continuous miner operation, is the largest mine in the state. It turned out more than 7 million tons in the first three quarters of 2015 and is on pace to reach last year’s total of 9.3 million tons.
During the third quarter, underground mines in Kentucky produced 11 million tons, a 1.4% increase from the second quarter of 2015. However, production at surface mines decreased by 5.8% in the quarter and accounted for only 29% of total production.
As it has for years, Pike County remained the top producer in eastern Kentucky at 1.67 million tons in the quarter. But that represented a 17% decline for the mountainous county where coal long has been king.
Harlan County was the only other eastern Kentucky county to produce more than a million tons in the third quarter.
Union County again led the way in western Kentucky with 2.3 million tons, the highest in the state and a 6.3% increase. Three other counties in the region — Hopkins, Ohio and Webster — also produced more than 1 million tons.
Muhlenberg County, a traditional coal powerhouse in western Kentucky, produced nearly 870,000 tons in the quarter.
Total state mine employment continued to slide, although, once again, by a smaller margin than in previous quarters.
As of October 1, the report said, an estimated 9,356 people were working in Kentucky coal mines, a decline of 318 employees, or 3.3%, from the second quarter this year. There were 207 lost underground mining jobs, seven lost surface mining jobs and 62 coal preparation jobs that were lost. Another 20 office employees lost their jobs.
During the third quarter, there were 5,835 people employed in eastern Kentucky mines, a decrease of 2.1% from the second quarter. Coal mines in western Kentucky decreased total employment by 195 jobs, or 5.2%.
Most of Kentucky’s coal — about 80% — is used to generate electricity at 82 power plants in 14 states in the U.S., primarily in the Southeast. Nearly 21%of the coal was shipped to power plants that are scheduled to curtail coal-burning generating capacity before 2020, the report said.