Five or six years ago, Greene County coal mines were looking for workers.
“We had a real shortage of people going into mining,” said Barbara Cole, manager of the state’s CareerLink office in Waynesburg. “A lot of miners were retiring (and) younger people were not going into mining.”
The need for new miners reached a point that CareerLink held a recruitment drive for local coal mines and organized a workshop for people who were interested in starting mining careers.
That’s not the case today. One of the county’s largest mines, Emerald Mine operated by Alpha Natural Resources, closed in November after depleting its mineable reserves, ended employment for more than 200 miners.
But unlike in the past, when laid off miners could easily find jobs at other mines in the area, no mines are hiring and the industry struggles to escape a severe downturn.
“The only people we have looking for miners now are some of the temporary agencies that do construction and maintenance for the mines,” Cole said.
Normally, these companies do not pay as well as they pay at the mines.
The average employment for coal mining in Greene County decreased by 476 jobs from a peak of 3,045 in 2012 to 2,569 in 2015, according to state Department of Labor and Industry statistics for the last 15 years. Average state coal employment for those years fell from 8,619 to 6,428.
Emerald’s closing meant the loss of another 235 jobs.
A year earlier, the mine had employed 445 workers, according to the state Bureau of Mining Programs. The number of workers gradually dwindled prior to the closing as miners retired or transferred to a sister mine, Cumberland.
The closing of Emerald and reduced work at other mines also had an impact on companies that service the mining industry, such as vendors and local machine shops, Cole said.
Though Greene County saw some layoffs “here and there” at local mine service companies, Cole said, they were not enough to cause much impact to the county’s unemployment levels. Many of the main service companies are not based in the county, Cole explained.
The impact, however, is reflected in statewide employment figures. According to Labor and Industry statistics, the number of people working in support activities for mining fell from a 15-year high of 18,247 in 2014 to 15,420 last year.
The sharp downturn in the coal industry in the last few years that forced companies, including Alpha, into bankruptcy, has been attributed to factors including tougher environmental regulations, cheap natural gas and decreased electricity use, compounded by a warmer-than-normal winter.
“Low natural gas prices have made natural gas the least expensive source for baseline electricity and costly compliance with federal regulations have caused industry to respond by closing (coal-fired) power plants like Hatfield’s Ferry,” said Rachel Gleason, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coal Alliance.
U.S. coal production declined from 1,000,049 tons in 2014 to 895,936 in 2015, according to Mine Safety and Health Administration production reports.
This year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration energy outlook, coal production is expected to decrease by 168 million tons, a 19 percent drop. This is the largest decline in terms of both tonnage and percentage since data collection began in 1949, EIA said.
Earlier this month, EIA issued a short-term projection for the coming year calling for a slight, 6-percent, increase in production for 2017, mainly for coal mined in the Appalachian and interior regions.
It attributed the bump to increased electrical demand and an expected rise in natural gas prices that should allow coal to regain some share of electricity generation.
“An increase in natural gas prices or a harsh winter or a sweltering summer (resulting in higher electricity use) will increase demand since coal is the most reliable and inexpensive way to power the grid,” Gleason said.
Coal is still the most reliable fuel for generating electricity, she said, noting problems that developed during the 2014 polar vortex, when electricity generation produced by natural gas and renewables struggled to meet customers’ needs.
In announcing quarterly earnings last week, CNX Coal Resources LP, formed by Consol Energy to operate the Bailey, Enlow Fork and Harvey mines, reported production at the highest levels since the first quarter of 2015.
It cited rising natural gas prices and increased electricity demand due to hot summer weather.
The company has restarted one longwall mining machine that it idled in January and is now running all five longwalls five days a week, CNX spokesman Brian Aiello said. It believes the market may have hit its low point, he said.
“You never like to definitively call a bottom, but it seems like we’re at the bottom and back on the upswing,” Aiello said.
The company has already sold all of its production for this year and 80 percent of production for next year.
Coal still faces major challenges, however, especially in light of expanding environmental regulations that could lead to further retirement of coal-fired power plants.
The most significant proposed regulations is the Clean Power Plan, a federal rule to limit carbon dioxide emissions at power plants. Implementation of the rule is now stayed by the U.S. Supreme Court pending resolution of legal challenges.
If the rule is implemented, EIA said, U.S. coal production is expected to decline 26 percent, or 230 million tons, by 2040. If not implemented, U.S. production would remain at 2015 levels through 2040.
Power generators take into consideration a number of factors, including fuel and emission costs, in decided to build new power plants, said Richard Bajura, director of the National Research Center for Coal and Energy at West Virginia University.
Environmental regulations have made it more expensive to use coal for electricity generation, he said. At the same time new directional drilling methods have made natural gas more cheap and abundant.
A number of other issues, such as energy use, energy conservation and the depletion of easy-to-mine reserves, weigh on the use of coal for future power generation, Bajura said.
Coal is expected to continue to have a role, but the question is how much.
“Coal will not go away. It will not be what it used to be and what it will be remains to be seen,” Bajura said.
Production at Greene County mines declined last year by more than 4 million tons, from 38.5 to 34.3 million tons last year, according to the Pennsylvania Bureau of Mining.
Most of the production in 2015, all but about 2.4 million tons, was mined by longwall mining, the most efficient and productive underground mining method.
While the short-term increase in demand for coal may mean some new jobs in the county for miners, any major impacts in employment may only come about if plans proceed for a new longwall mine near Holbrook.
Alpha continued the process of permitting the mine while in bankruptcy. However, the proposed mine’s reserves as well as Alpha’s Cumberland Mine, were sold last week as part Alpha reorganization plan to Contura Energy, a new company formed by Alpha’s first-lien lenders.
A new mine may be the county’s only source of new major employment for mining, Cole said.
“Everything is going to be contingent on Contura with the permit for the Holbrook mine,” she said. “That will determine the future of mining in Greene County.”