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Decline in coal production in Kentucky may be over.

While not exactly a surge, Kentucky's slight increase in coal production during the first quarter of 2017 perhaps was a sign the prolonged output decline that saw the Bluegrass state slip to fifth nationally in 2016--behind even Illinois and Pennsylvania, as well as Wyoming and West Virginia--finally may be over.

Kentucky produced a little more than 11.2 million tons in the first three months of this year, keeping it on course to turn out nearly 45 million tons in 2017. If so, that would beat the 42.7 million tons the state produced in 2016, which was down 61.4 million tons in 2015.

Cheap natural gas, flat load growth at traditional coal-burning U.S. electric utilities and the regulatory overreach all contributed to the steady drop in Kentucky coal production over the past half dozen or so years. Once, from 1971 to 1988, Kentucky even led the nation in coal production before surrendering that lofty mantle to Wyoming and West Virginia.

A report released by the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet in May said the 11.2 million tons mined in the first quarter represented a 0.56% rise in production over last year.

The news was better for both the eastern Kentucky (Central Appalachian) and western Kentucky (Illinois Basin) coalfields. The eastern Kentucky region boosted output by 0.2% to 4.5 million tons in the January-March period, compared to an improvement of 0.76% to more than 6.7 million tons.

According to the report, underground mining is on the rise while surface mining continues to decrease. Coal production at underground mines totaled 9 million tons in the first quarter, a 5.4% increase from the previous quarter. However, Kentucky surface mines produced only 2.3 million tons, or a 15% decrease from the fourth quarter of 2016. The trend was more pronounced in western Kentucky where surface mining operations showed a significant dip of 26.8%.

The report showed that Pike County, a traditional coal powerhouse in eastern Kentucky, again retained the top spot in that region, producing 1.1 million tons in the first quarter. That was a 2% decrease from the previous quarter. Trailing Pike County in eastern Kentucky were Harlan County, 1 million tons, or a 5.8% increase; Perry County, 991,999 tons, or a 12.1% increase; Floyd County, 331,695 tons, or a 0.6% decrease; and Leslie County, 320,145 tons, or a 18.6% increase.

In western Kentucky, Union County again led the way, and was the state's top coal producer, at 2.4 million tons, or a 4.6% increase. Union County is home to Alliance Resource Partners' large River View underground continuous miner operation near Uniontown that normally produces more than 8 million tons a year. Behind Union County were Ohio County, 1.2 million tons, or a 10.3% decrease; Hopkins County, 1 million tons, or a 1.9% increase; Muhlenberg County, 886,163 tons, or a 8.6% increase; and Webster County, 856,202 tons, or a 2.5% decrease. Ohio County is where Armstrong Coal operates most of its mines, and the subsidiary of St. Louis-based Armstrong Energy has cut production in the past couple of years.

But while production ticked upward in the first quarter, Kentucky continued the disturbing trend of losing mining jobs during the period. The report said Kentucky coal mines reduced on-site employment by 216 workers, or 3.3% of their workforce, in the January-March period. As of April 1, an estimated 6,261 people were employed at Kentucky coal mines, which is a level of coalfield employment not seen in the commonwealth since the late 1800s.

Indeed, less than a decade ago, in 2008, Kentucky had a little more than 19,000 on-site coal mining jobs, a number that has continued to decrease each year since.
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Comment:Decline in coal production in Kentucky may be over.(NEWS)
Publication:Coal Age (1996)
Geographic Code:1U6KY
Date:Jun 1, 2017
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