As the coal industry is squeezed, the most productive mines employ huge machines and relatively few people.
The average miner underground in West Virginia produces three tons of coal per hour. The average miner at a strip mine in Wyoming produces nearly 28. That is not the fault of the miners but of the mines’ geology. Appalachian coal mines have a size problem.
This is different from the well-documented problems of the industry itself. Yes, cheap natural gas has become the go-to fuel for generating electricity. And pollution regulations have made coal-fired plants less profitable. Exports have waned as China and other countries mine more of their own coal, and renewable options such as wind and solar have become more practical and widely used.
But coal still accounts for 30 percent of the electricity generated in this country. The problem for Appalachia is that when the market is squeezed, its mines often can’t produce as much as the vast strip mines out west, where coal is easier to access and the machines that harvest it can be as big as engineers can build.
“It’s an economy of scale,” said Jürgen Brune, professor of mining engineering at the Colorado School of Mines. “Smaller spaces require smaller equipment, and that reduces the productivity and the amount of coal you can get with the same number of miners.”
Forty-five percent of the coal produced in the United States in 2015 came from 16 mines in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration data. The coal seam there is thicker than 70 feet in places, far larger than the seam running through Appalachia, which tops out at around 13 feet. The coal is less than 200 feet below mostly flat land, an ideal scenario for strip mining, Brune said.
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