Forecast projects stable coal future
Following a 10-year low in 2004, Utah coal production jumped by 12.6 percent to 24.6 million short tons in 2005 and increased an additional 6.4 percent to reach 26.1 million tons in 2006.
But mines operating in the Castle Valley region experienced a difficult year in 2007.
The Crandall Canyon closure, followed by the idling of the Aberdeen mine, resulted in a 7.1 percent decrease for a total statewide production of 24.3 million short tons, indicates the latest outlook and forecast data compiled by the Utah Geological Survey.
The closures resulted in a 5.3 percent loss in mine-related employment, continued the department of natural resources' agency.
Nevertheless, Carbon surpassed all of Utah's counties in coal production in 2007.
Last year, Carbon County's coal mining operations posted a record-high 11.8 million short ton production level, accounting for 48.6 percent of Utah's extraction total.
However, 2007 brought several unexpected circumstances hampering mining and causing a drop in production to 24.3 million tons.
UGS analysts expect increased production from longwall mining activity in Bear Canyon to compensate for the losses resulting from the Castle Valley's closed underground operations in 2008.
Rising prices and foreign demand along with the proposed opening of two mines suggest a stable future for the coal industry, at least during the next several years, noted the Utah Geological Survey outlook report. But the coal mining industry's long-term, 50 years or more future is less certain.
The United States Bureau of Land Management estimates that only 1.2 billion tons of coal reserves are left in the Wasatch Plateau, Book Cliffs and Emery coal fields, equating to roughly 45 to 50 years of production.
In addition, utilizing coal to fuel electric generation remains uncertain as global warming and carbon mitigation questions receive mounting attention.
In 2008, the UGS report projects that coal-fired power generation will supply more than one-third of electricity generation worldwide. Coal-fired plants are also projected to supply roughly 50 percent of the nation's electricity needs and about 85 percent of Utah's generation.
Despite the dominance, emission standards constitute a major undefined regulatory issue for coal combustion. New legislation and research, including gasification and coal-to-liquid plants, are being vigorously pursued around the world, particularly in the U.S., pointed out the UGS report. Research on carbon sequestration includes the Farnham Dome test project near Wellington funded by the U.S. Department of Energy.
At the national level, DOE's energy information administration's 2008 outlook predicts that U.S. coal production will increase by an average of 0.6 percent annually until 2015, when the total will equal 1,215 million short tons.
Growth should become stronger between 2015 and 2030, averaging 1.2 percent per year as electricity demand continues to increase.
However, the forecasted growth is less than in previous years as more electricity generation is expected to be met by renewable and nuclear energy. The demand projection assumes that several coal-to-liquids plants will be constructed, explained the UGS report.
Cheap, low-sulfur coal from western mines should furnish the vast majority of the production increase predicted for the country.
The EIA predicts that Rocky Mountain coal production in Utah and Colorado will nearly double from 2007's 56 million short tons total to roughly 92 million tons in 2030.
However, short-term production projections from Utah coal companies show an increase in 2008 to 25.4 million short tons and staying at roughly the same level in 2009 at 25.3 million tons.
Powder River Basin production is expected to increase from 436 million short tons in 2007 to roughly 567 million tons in 2030. Interior production is expected to increase from 156 million short tons in 2007 to about 241 million tons in 2030, while the Appalachian level is projected to decrease from 384 to about 328 million.
Despite the Crandall Canyon and Aberdeen mine closures, longwall production at Bear Canyon along with smaller increases at Dugout, Skyline and Horizon will help keep Utah coal production steady in the upcoming year, according to the state agency's outlook report .
Utah's production should remain at the 25 to 27 million short tons per year range for the foreseeable future as proposed operations like Lila Canyon, Coal Hollow and a facility on the Cottonwood tract replenish the declining levels extracted at current mines, indicates the UGS outlook report.