Wednesday, May 28, 2014
There have been more people who have stood on the moon than where you’re going,” says Dave Dillon, safety representative at Deep Mine 41, operated by Alpha Natural Resources ANR -1.9% in the southwestern corner of Virginia. Dillon is a third-generation miner, but he still gets excited showing off the coal face, where a thundering “continuous miner” with hundreds of tungsten-carbide-tipped teeth claws bituminous coal from a 6-foot-thick seam. We step where no human has ever been before: into the midst of compressed and fossilized plant life that last saw the sun 300 million years ago. As conveyor belts haul the chunks of coal to the surface, another team mans the “roof bolter,” which drills 6-foot-deep holes into the ceiling and inserts epoxy-covered rods that hold the rock together, preventing cave-ins. The average worker down here makes $80,000, roof bolters $100,000. These are increasingly important jobs in a region that has seen thousands of layoffs and the closure of dozens of mines. “If the price isn’t right, we’ll leave it in the ground for another day,” says Kevin Crutchfield, CEO of Alpha.
It would be all too easy to assume that Alpha, and coal, is on its deathbed. But despite fears of global warming coal remains the fastest-growing fossil fuel worldwide, thanks to China’s sprawling economy and fears of nuclear disasters in places like Germany and Japan, which mothballed nuke plants after Fukushima. Coal’s share of the domestic power-generation pie has bounced back to 42%, from a low of 36% in 2012, amid a rebound in natural gas prices over the past two years. Solar and wind energy may grab headlines and taxpayer subsidies, but coal’s share of U.S. electrical generation remains nine times greater than that of those two combined. “Declaring the death of coal is premature,” says Bob Yu, analyst at Bentek Energy, a division of Platts.
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