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Long-Term Outlook for Coal Industry Is Strong

February 22, 2012
By JENNIFER COMPSTON-STROUGH - City Editor , The Intelligencer / Wheeling News-Register

Although unemployment remains high across the nation, local mines continue to hire many workers in their 20s and 30s.

So what's the long-term outlook for coal in the United States?

Those entering the job market today must reach 67 years of age before they retire, according to the U.S. Social Security Administration.

Article Photos

File Photo by Jennifer Compston-Strough
Local coal mines are expected to keep hiring young employees in the coming years to replace those who are retiring. In addition to jobs underground, mines employs people to load coal and drive trucks, as well as perform many other tasks.

For a 20-something, that can be 40-45 years in the future - but coal industry insiders believe reserves are sufficient to keep them in mining jobs until their golden years.

The key to keeping people employed in the coal industry will be to ensure demand for the fuel remains high, according to J. Davitt McAteer, vice president of sponsored programs for Wheeling Jesuit University, and Dave Kelly, vice president of Ohio Valley Operations for Consol Energy.

"I see a continuing demand for coal miners for the next 30 years because ... the population in the mines is like the population in general - they're getting older," said McAteer, who served as assistant secretary for Mine Safety and Health at the U.S. Department of Labor during the Clinton Administration. "When we get older, we don't want to work all the time. The retirement cycle will drive it a lot. We'll need miners, managers, executives ...

Fact Box

Q: The area's coal mines continue to hire many workers in their 20s and 30s. What's the long-term outlook for coal?

A: Strong, according to industry experts. Locally, Consol Energy holds decades of coal reserves in Marshall and Wetzel counties, which means workers will continue to mine coal from the McElroy and Shoemaker mines. The key to the future, though, is to find ways to burn coal more efficiently so that it can continue to power the nation.

"I think there will come a time when, in 30-40 years, we see a leveling out of production capacity and reserves - and the same in oil and natural gas," he continued. "Any extraction industry, by its nature, hits a peak then declines."

Kelly pointed out Consol's McElroy and Shoemaker mines in Marshall County are currently producing coal from the Pittsburgh No. 8 seam.

"There are other seams that can be mined," he said. "It all has to do with the economy and what demand is. ... It's a cheap fuel to use - our energy policies should want to use coal."

McAteer expects U.S. strategy to shift toward more efficient mining and use of coal - getting more coal out of the ground and producing more energy when it's burned.

Citing coal dust as a current hazard in underground mines due to its explosive capability, McAteer suggested it should be collected and used.

He said this would remove the danger from the mines and noted it would increase production without significantly increasing costs for producers.

He said something similar could be done with old slag heaps. A chemical process could separate coal that already has been dug out of the ground from rock and other waste in the piles.

"In-situ mining" is another alternative McAteer said could become widespread in the future. Rather than removing coal from the ground, mine employees would burn it in place and collect the energy that is produced.

He said this process would be safer for workers, and it could allow pollutants to be contained underground.

Kelly pointed out that in addition to the 20-30 years of reserves Consol is estimated to hold at Shoemaker and McElroy, it also has an untapped block of coal in Marshall and Wetzel counties. And the company holds much more nationwide - 4.4 billion tons of reserves.

Kelly said he is confident that those employed at local mines when reserves eventually do run out would have the opportunity to work for Consol elsewhere.

He noted some of those who work at Shoemaker previously were employed at the Eighty-Four mine near Washington, Pa., and several McElroy employees used to work at the now-closed Ireland mine.

Steve Winberg oversees research and development for Consol, and he believes cleaner coal-fired electricity plants will keep demand high for decades. Despite a "suite of EPA regulations" that will lead to closure of some older power stations, Winberg said scrubbers and fabric filters, or baghouses, will be installed at others to further reduce emission.

He said coal-to-liquids or coal-to-gas facilities could be built in the future to produce jet fuel, gasoline or diesel, but that will hinge on the price of oil.

"The technology has been commercially available since WW II," he said of coal-to-liquids operations. "It's a question of whether oil prices will stay in the $90-$100 a barrel range. If one believes so, they might invest in coal-to-liquids. ... If they think oil prices will drop, they might not make that investment."

He noted there are a "host of uses of coal," including making activated carbon for water filtration and products such as the construction component CFOAM made at Wheeling's Touchstone Laboratories.

"Power generation and liquid fuels are the big uses (of coal) - millions of tons," Winberg said. "The Touchstone product is a very creative, high-end use, but it won't use that much coal. It is a great product."

McAteer said innovative future uses "absolutely will increase demand" for coal.

"We've only scratched the surface of the utilizations of coal," he said. "It's really rather primitive what we do - burn it or add it to the mix to create steel. The carbon in coal is one of the most prevalent and basic elements in the world. We just haven't figured out how to break it down to use it more efficiently and widely. That's a place where we can advance in the future."

And while Kelly said foreign markets such as China and other developing nations will not impact production at Consol's local mines, McAteer believes sale to other nations will affect the industry as a whole.

According to McAteer, investors from China, Japan, Russia and other countries have purchased coal reserves in the United States and Canada. And while these producers are selling much of that coal in the United States, he expects them to export more to their home countries as their supplies diminish - keeping demand for U.S. coal high for many years into the future.

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