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Front Page » June 23, 2005 » The Business Journal » How long will coal be part of the family?
Published 3,764 days ago

How long will coal be part of the family?

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General manager

There are a great many finite resources on earth; some have already been used up by man, others are on their way to extinction.

Coal is a finite resource that someday will be, for all intents and purposes of mans use, gone from the planet.

Coal as a source of heat and power has been around for centuries, and as an extracted material provides the majority of the power in much of the country. Coal powers industry and many of the technological advances we see crop up every day.

Coal has been criticized over the years for being too dirty, to expensive to the environment to extract, process and even use. But while technology has developed ways to make coal burning cleaner, so as to protect the environment, there is a bigger threat to the coal industry than environmental zealots.

That threat is that coal, in amounts that are extractable from the earth in quantities needed for our modern society, is running out. More to the point, in the local area estimates say that coal mining could be a thing of the past in less than 20 years.

That means in less than a generation, coal mining could be a thing of the past in Castle Country.

That point was put across by James Kohler, geologist and chief branch of solid minerals for the Bureau of Land Management during the Energy Dayz Symposium held at the College of Eastern Utah on June 16.

James Kohler

"People often don't understand the difference between reserves and resources," Kohler told the morning session of the gathering. "And the difference is important to understand when people talk about what is available to be mined."

Kohler says that resources are the naturally occurring concentrations or deposits of coal in the earth's crust, in such forms and amounts that economic extraction is currently or potentially feasible.

On the other hand reserves are part of a base which could be economically extracted or produced at the time of determination considering environmental, legal and technologic constraints.

In other words there is a lot of coal out there in the world, but at least some of it can't be mined for one reason or another.

When Europeans first came to the United States and viewed its vast resources of timber, wildlife and land, none of them could imagine that anyone could use all of it up. But over the 400 men have staked out their claim on the country all the land is either privately owned or locked up by government, most of the old growth forest in the country has been cut and many species of wildlife have become extinct, while others have been on the verge of that for years.

At one time coal resources were looked at in the same way. Mining coal was a slow and labor intensive process, and based on the view of people at the time, man could never clean the coal out of the seams that they knew existed.

But technology has vastly changed the coal industry and with the advent of the continuous miner in the 1940's and later the long wall in the 1980's, coal has been removed from reserves at an unprecedented rate.

Kohler pointed out, however, that despite advances there are probably some coal seams that will remain untapped, at least with present technology.

The first is access. The topography and geology of an area can create problems when getting at coal. Some coal is so deep it is impossible to mine with todays equipment. Other mines have extreme amounts of gas which creates problems for safe operation. Access problems can also be related to governmental regulation, such as deposits in a protected area. Restrictions can range from federal land use planning to local zoning requirements that can curtail the opening of a mine.

Next is the profitability of a potential mine.

A cat pushes a pile of coal at a local loadout.

"Our coal industry is driven by capitalism and if it is not profitable companies won't go after the resource," he stated.

Reserves must be big enough to justify the huge investment it takes to open a mine. Even small mines are expensive to open, and that investment also must include the study of a market for what is produced.

That production is dependent on the thickness of the coal seam and the quality of the coal contained in it. Thin coal seams are expensive to extract. Coal has different characteristics as well. Some is low sulphur, some high, Some can be used to strengthen steel (used in the process of making carbide steel) while other coal is good for burning in generators to provide power.

Of course the size of the reserve is also important. A seam may be thick, but unless it is big, the investment may not be worth it.

Another set of constraints are environmental blockades to development. Only two generations ago people paid little attention to what a mine did to the environment connected to it. Today, those kinds of concerns are at the forefront of any development.

Kohler said that those concerns can come in many forms. Hydrologic protection is one of the prime issues. A coal mine can affect a perennial stream, a seep or a spring and even stock ponds. The kinds of problems that can occur include everything from a decrease or even a shut down in water flow to pollutants in the water.

In some places there are also escarpment protection issues. Mining can displace land and create safety issues.

Kohler also stated that wildlife protection is another constraint that includes everything from the Endangered Species Act to seasonal restrictions in certain areas where animals have breeding grounds or migration routes.

He also pointed out within this same group of constraints was mine safety, which is administrated by the Mining Saftey and Health Administration of the U.S. government.

Kohler says that production of coal in Utah increased from 1983 until 2001 when the tonnage produced peaked at 27 million tons for the year. From 1990 to 2004 the stare produced a total of 367 million tons of coal from all mines throughout the state. During that same period of time leases were issued to companies for a little over 300 million tons.

Coal production is now falling in almost every area of the state, including in Carbon and Emery counties. A lot of the coal that is left in the local area is harder to get at than the coal that was here only a few years ago. Mines are having to go deeper and deeper and that is not only expensive but also time consuming and dangerous. There will come a point in time when extractable coal will run out, but there is debate about when that would occur. And when that date could come will also be determined by how the technology to remove coal advances.

At present the Utah Statistical Abstract says that the Book Cliffs, Wasatch Plateau and Emery Coal Fields have remaining reserves of 2.6 billion tons. At the rate of 25 million tons of production a year that reserve would last 100 years.

However, the BLM has estimated a base of only 1.2 billion tons on their lands which would equate to 48 more years of mining at 25 million tons per year production.

The most gloomy prospects come from the mining companies themselves when they report on their reserves. The say in the three fields there is only .4 billion tons of coal left. At 25 million tons per year that coal will only last 16 years.

"Keep in mind that some of the reserves are thick enough to mine with present technology and remain profitable while others aren't," stated Kohler.

To make things even more complicated, coal prices have been in a general decline since 1992, with a temporary upward spike in 2002. That overall trend makes coal mining less and less profitable.

Coal is part of the family in Carbon County. Every business, organization and governmental entity is affected by its highs and lows. While gas has become an important part of the energy output of the county, coal still provides by far the most jobs for the population.

How that will change over the coming years and what it means to Carbon citizens is to a certain extent up in the air. But with coal reserves decreasing it certainly will mean a change in the economy whether that means a change to some other economic base or industry or a loss of those revenues entirely.

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June 23, 2005
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