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Report: U.S. coal productivity rising despite mine closings

March 24, 2018 GMT

Coal mining productivity in the United States is trending upward despite the fact that mines are closing, the U.S. Energy Information Administration reported on Wednesday.

Contributing to the increase in productivity are improvements in technology and processes, but a larger factor is the distribution of productivity across mines. The mines that are first to close during market downturns are often the ones with higher production costs and lower productivity, while more-productive mines remain operating, increasing overall productivity, according to the EIA.

The EIA’s Annual Coal Report said that coal mining productivity in the United States increased 26 percent over the past five years, reaching 6.8 tons per miner hour in 2017, up from 5.4 tons per miner hour in 2012.

Coal productivity varies widely across production regions, with productivity in the Powder River Basin (large surface mines in Western states) far exceeding productivity in the Interior and Appalachian regions (including Pennsylvania deep mines).

An estimated 547 mines of the 1,229 mines operating in 2012 have been closed or idled, accounting for a 45 percent decrease in operating mines, the EIA said. Miner hours worked declined 39 percent over the same period.

U.S. coal production also has fallen, but to a lesser extent, decreasing from 1,016 million tons in 2012 to 774 million tons in 2017 – a 24 percent drop.

After several years of declines, coal production in 2017 increased by an estimated 6 percent and total labor hours rose by 7 percent from 2016 levels, according to the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Although Appalachian and Interior coal basins are less productive than those in the Powder River Basin, Appalachian and Interior coals have other advantages. The coal produced in Appalachian and Interior basins has higher energy content, and the mines are located closer to many of the power plants and industrial facilities that consume coal, the EIA said.

Stephen Huba is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-1280, shuba@tribweb.com or via Twitter @shuba_trib.