Coal conundrum

The closure of the Elk Creek coal mine in Gunnison County, announced Monday by Oxbow Mining LLC, will have a devastating effect on the economy of nearby Delta County, where most of the miners live.

Additionally, while the reasons for idling the Elk Creek mine are tied to a costly fire at the mine last January, rather than to existing market conditions, the closure also points to the importance of the industry in this region and raises questions about the future of coal mining.

As The Daily Sentinel’s Gary Harmon outlined in an article Tuesday, Delta County schools, Delta County Memorial Hospital, local governments and a multitude of local businesses dependent on coal mining or coal miners were already feeling the pinch because Elk Creek laid off 150 miners earlier in the year. With Monday’s announcement that another 115 miners will be laid off, those entities now face even gloomier economic prospects.

And don’t forget the miners themselves. They and their families are confronted with their own serious financial hardships in the midst of the holiday season.

A spokesman for Oxbow said the company remains committed to mining in this region, and hopes to eventually reopen Elk Creek and establish a new, Oak Mesa Mine in Delta County. But both projects will require a significant investment from the company and will take a number of years to complete.

Meanwhile, the coal industry nationally is under fire from a variety of quarters over its carbon dioxide emissions. Older coal-fired electric generation plants are converting to natural gas, something this newspaper has supported.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, total U.S. coal production through Nov. 23 of this year is about 1.7 percent below the same period in 2012. And 2012 registered a significant drop-off from the average of the previous five years.

But that doesn’t mean anybody should conclude the U.S. coal industry is about to disappear. Far from it.

As Colorado Mining Association President Stuart A. Sanderson noted on these pages several weeks ago, the United States has more than one quarter of the world’s coal — more than any other nation. And other countries, especially developing ones, want some of that coal to help them grow their economies.

An increase in exports of U.S. coal is among the reasons that Energy Information Administration projects U.S. coal production will begin rising again after 2016. More conversion of coal to liquid fuels and increasing demand for electricity in this country are also factors.

The point is, coal is not going away, even if there are temporary setbacks, such as those at the Elk Creek mine, that cause local economic hardships.

We believe coal must be part of the mix in this nation’s energy future for many years to come. As such, it is imperative for policymakers and regulatory agencies to work with the coal industry to seek ways to make it as clean as possible, not to hogtie the industry or to attempt to regulate it out of existence.


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