Sunday, January 07, 2001

Ohio coal could be star again

State's production 59% below peak year of 1970

By Mark Williams
The Associated Press

        ALLEDONIA, Ohio — While high oil and natural gas prices grab attention, an energy source that lies deep beneath the rolling hills of eastern Ohio rarely crosses the minds of many people.

        “They do forget about coal,” Thomas Brown said as he watched a conveyor carry the product from the 400-foot-deep Ohio Valley Coal Co. mine where he works.

  • Ohio produced 22.5 million tons of coal in 1999, 15th in the country and down 19 percent from 1998.
  • Number of coal mines in 1999: 112, eight underground and 104 in surface mines. Peak number of mines: 1,155 in 1898, all underground.
  • Number of coal miners in 1999: 2,950. Peak annual coal employment: 50,267 in 1908.
  • Coal consumption by Ohio utilities in 1999: 52 million tons. Amount of out-of-state coal burned: 33 million tons.
  • Value of coal mined in 1999: $640 million.
  Sources: Ohio Division of Geological Survey and U.S. Department of Energy.
        “The only thing you hear about coal is how dirty it is,” fellow miner Tom Alderman said.

        But coal supporters haven't given up hopes that new technology, rising energy needs and economic trends could lead to a comeback.

        High in sulfur, Ohio coal has long been attacked by environmentalists as a source of air pollution and acid rain. Though production in Ohio has been dwindling for decades, coal still generates 56 percent of the nation's electricity — 88 percent in Ohio.

        “Most people go into their homes and offices and flick that switch and don't have any thought to where that fuel comes from,” said Doug Crowell, state geologist who monitors Ohio's coal industry.

        Ohio's 112 coal mines produced 22.5 million tons of coal last year, 59 percent below the record of 55.1 million tons in 1970, according to records kept by Crowell.

        The Clean Air Act of 1990 accelerated the decline by forcing many utilities to switch to other sources of fuel or buy cleaner-burning coal from other states.

        Ohio, a state that once employed 50,000 miners, is down to about 3,000. And those who remain are not optimistic.

        “Eventually, we will be gone,” Mr. Brown said.

        “Every year, we're wondering if this will be the last,” said Michael Zavorek, 47, a miner for 28 years.

        Ohio Valley owner Bob Murray said keeping that mine open has been tough.

        “A lot of mines have shut down, but I am hanging in there,” he said. “It's been a financial struggle.”

        He isn't the only one having trouble.

        American Electric Power Co. is trying to sell mines owned by subsidiaries in Meigs and Guernsey counties that produce high-sulfur coal. The companies have nearly 1,000 employees.

        Mr. Murray, a Belmont County native, said it is important to keep Ohio's coal industry alive because of the high-paying jobs it generates in what are the mostly poorer, Appalachian areas of eastern and southern Ohio.

        He also is betting that Ohio coal will make a comeback and maybe could be used one day to help energy-starved places such as California. Almost like a mantra, Mr. Murray and his miners say coal can be burned as clean as natural gas, it is cheap and there is enough to last hundreds of years.

        But converting power plants to burn high-sulfur coal without emissions is not yet economical, said Jackie Bird, director of the Ohio Coal Development Office.

        Utilities would have to invest tens of millions of dollars in scrubbers and other equipment to meet emission standards, said Chuck Linderman of the Edison Electric Institute, an industry group.

        Several utilities building plants to supply electricity in Ohio during times of peak use have chosen to burn natural gas instead.

        The American Gas Association, which represents 189 natural-gas utilities, said gas usage increased 35 percent over the past decade and is forecast to grow by 45 percent by 2015 nationwide.

        But the strong economy coupled with a colder than usual start to the winter heating season has sent natural gas prices soaring.

        Association spokeswoman Daphne Mangunson said supplies will be adequate, but tight for the short term and that conservative estimates show there is enough natural gas to last at least 60 years.

        “Natural gas is the fuel of the future, but we also see that there is a need for a balanced energy portfolio in the United States relying on a variety of fuels,” she said.

        Coal supporters agree.

        “There is a role for natural gas, a role for oil and a role for coal. We will have coal a lot longer than other energy-producing natural resources,” said Mike Carey, president of the Ohio Coal Association, a group representing 38 coal-producing companies.

        “Coal is cheap and will continue to be cheap because there is plenty of it.”

        Ms. Bird said coal will continue to be the backbone of the nation's energy supply for decades.

        “Coal doesn't sound sexy to anyone,” she said. “But when you have brownouts and your refrigerator goes off, that's not sexy either.”


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