Coal production from Carbon County mines could decline by as much as 95 percent over the next ten years, and even under the most optimistic conditions it is expected to be about half of current output by 2023.
That is the forecast of the Utah Geologic Survey, recently analyzed and published by the University of Utah's Bureau of Economic and Business Research.
The study considers that environmental concerns, development of competitive energy resources and technologies, availability of new mining permits and viability of export markets will all affect the future of coal. In the worst case, Carbon's production collapses to just 500,000 tons per year after 2020 from the estimated 10 million tons today.
BEBR research analyst Michael Hogue said that in this situation, just about everything goes wrong. The Carbon Plant and other nearby generating plants go into retirement and aren't replaced because environmental constraints make coal-fired generation uneconomical. New markets overseas don't open.
In the best case, with new technology in pollution control making new power plants possible and Pacific Rim export markets expanding, the county's mines will still taper off to 5.5 million tons per year by 2023. Emery County would then be the king of the coalfields with a predicted output of 11 million tons.
Since coal accounts for 82 percent of the electricity generated in Utah, the future of generating plants is the future of coal. Only a few years ago, coal accounted for roughly 90 percent of electric generation, but while no coal plants have shut down, new generation has shifted to natural gas, the report notes.
One of the factors involved in the UGS low-production scenario is the absence of any new coal-fired generation in recent years. There are four proposals still on the drawing board that have yet to gain approval: an addition to the Bonanza Plant near Vernal, another unit at the Intermountain Power Project near Delta, Hunter 4 at Castle Dale and a new plant at Sigurd. All face environmental challenges and a lot of uncertainty about what shape greenhouse gas regulations will take.
The BEBR study notes that one potential rescue of the coal industry might be in technological progress in coal coal conversion to cleaner-burning gas. The newer plants might be so-called Integrated Gas Combined Cycle models. In these generators, the coal is converted into gas by a simple chemical process, then the gas is burned to power a turbine generator. Waste heat from the turbine is harnessed to produce steam, which then propels another turbine generator.
A lot of pollutants such as sulfur are left behind in the conversion process, and carbon dioxide emissions are also reduced, the report notes.
Carbon capture and storage technology has a long way to go before it is commercially viable, the report says.
The projected economic impacts of the anticipated decline will be covered in the next report of this series. However, it is worth noting in advance that the mining and electric power industries account for more than basic payrolls of their employees.
People who work in manufacturing, sales and services that support the mines and plants have incomes tied to energy. And those who are directly and indirectly employed in coal production spend their wages locally, supporting hundreds of other jobs in retail and services in Carbon County.