US Mines More Coal in the West, but the East employs More Workers

The annual Coal Report by AJOT revealed that about 60% of coal was produced in the western part of the United States in 2021. However, only 28% of workers in coal mines worked there.


The difference is due to the technologies employed in the East and West – surface mines in the latter use massive mining equipment and machines to extract a large amount of coal using fewer workers.

The report separated the US into two regions, East and West, divided by the Mississippi River.

Before the 1970s, most of the coal in the country came from the East. However, starting in the 1970s, the production of coal started expanding in the West due to the following reasons:

New emissions laws and regulations

New large-scale surface mines at the Powder River Basin in Wyoming, and other areas in the West. Lesser freight rail shipping costs.

It is important to note that coal is basically used for electricity generation in the US. However, the Clean Air Act of 1970, and subsequent amendments in 1977 and 1990, restricted sulfur emissions from power plants powered by coal. In order to meet the regulations, these power plants have to burn low-sulfur coal which is normally found in the West. This resulted in an increased demand for low-sulfur coal, especially in the Powder River Basin.

In 2021, coal mine workers in the West produced 16 tons of coal every hour, significantly higher than their counterparts in the East where workers produce only 4 tons per hour of coal. The difference can be attributed to the size of the coal mines in the West which are often large, open-pit operations that tap thick coal seams close to the surface. This lets miners from the West utilize super-sized draglines, shovels, and monster trucks, allowing companies to extract and haul more coal with relatively fewer workers.

In the East, mines are smaller, underground operations with thinner coal seams which are often deeper and more difficult to extract. And despite deploying advanced technology like the longwall mining systems, mines in the East are not only laborious and toilsome compared to their western counterparts, but they also have a lower productivity rate.

The new business environment in the railroad industry following the country’s railroad deregulation prompted railroads to innovate and utilize dedicated unit trains that typically load a single commodity directly to its destination. These unit trains let coal from the western side be transported in an economical manner to power plants all over the US.

Coal production in the United States peaked at about 1.2 billion tons in 2008. Since then, the production of coal has slipped significantly as the country sways towards natural gas, renewable and green energies for electricity generation. In 2021, the country managed to produce 577.4 million tons of coal, which is less than half of the amount it produced before.

Aside from coal production, employment in the coal mining business has also dwindled. Most of the jobs that were cut were in the East. Since 2008, coal mining employment fell by:

59% in the East, down from 68,605 workers in 2008 to just 28,314 employees in 2021
39% in the West, dropping from 18,114 employees in 2008 to about 11,115 employees in 2021

Brief 2021 Highlights of US Coal Performance

In 2021, US coal production went up by 7.8% year over year to 577.4% million short tons or MMst. However, total productive capacity slipped to 871 MMst, a decrease of 6.6% from the previous year’s level.

US coal mining productivity went up 9.5% from the 2020 level to 6.71 short tons per worker per hour. Consumption of US Coal has likewise increased by 14.5% from the 2020 level to 546.6 MMst. The electric power sector contributed about 91.9% of the total coal consumption in the country in 2021.

In 2021, Bituminous coal was $61.68 per short ton average sales price. This is up by 23.3% from the previous year’s level. The average sale price for the sub-bituminous coal was $14.18 per short ton which is better by 1.7% from the 2020 level. Thermal coal’s average sales price increased by 3.7% to $25.85 as compared to the 2020 level, and metallurgical coal’s average sale price also increased by 37.4% from the 2020 level to $151.97 per short ton.

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