Explaining Appalachian Coal


Make. America. Great. Again. This is the refrain of now-President Trump’s campaign. The plans to get the USA’s economy to better times. One major part of it is the coal industry. The coal mining and steel manufacturing regions served as a major part of the electorate for Trump.

Here is the truth. A politician can certainly support policies that are friendly towards manufacturing. However, in this case, in 2017, there are many things that the politicians cannot solve. There are things that screaming “fake news” cannot stop.

In terms of the economy, there are factors that need to be considered. It has become cheaper to produce steel in India and China than in the USA. The coal and steel industries in the USA have changed as well. The demand for coal in the USA has not been on the rise, at least in terms of where that coal comes from. The number of people employed by the coal industry has declined since the 1950s.

While environmental regulations have played a role, geography and technology are factors to consider. Let us start with technology. The coal industry has undergone immense automation. And with mountain top removal being a major mode of mining coal, fewer people are needed for mining the coal. But even mountaintop mining causes many problems, from degradation in the local topography to health problems for people.

Hobet Mountain in West Virginia before and after mountaintop removal.

And then where the coal is coming from. Geography lesson now. Low sulfur coal is in higher demand these days. A majority of the coal being mined in the USA is coming from the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming.

Decker’s Coal Mine in Montana.



Central Appalachia’s high-sulfur coal is in less demand these days, at least in power plants. It still has a use in the steel mills. And we segue into steel.

The USA still produces steel, a large amount of it. China leads the world in steel production. However, the USA is in the top 5 in terms of steel production. 78.62 million metric tons of steel were produced in 2016 by the USA. Steel production hit a low of 58 million metric tons in 2009. This likely reflects the state of the economy. Less demand for steel, less production. However, in 2000, 101.8 million metric tons of steel were produced by the USA. The steel industry itself employs fewer people than it did in 1960. That said, the steel industry too has underwent automation. Steel is not as labor intensive as it was in 1960. Fewer people are needed to produce steel. Furthermore, the sources for energy in the steel mills are changing. Anthracite and bituminous coal from Appalachia are used in the steel mills. Coal is used as a reducing agent in steel. Natural gas is also being used. According to the Scientific American, more steel plants are looking for cleaner ways to produce energy for producing steel. The method being spoken of is electrolysis. Natural gas in increasingly being used in steel manufacturing. Coal will be competing with other forms of energy.

And now back to coal. A geological factor. The easy to get to, economical coal seams that served Central Appalachia in its heyday have become nearly exhausted. The coal that is left is harder to retrieve from the ground.

Another factor is transportation. Transporting coal will come at a cost. Appalachian coal tends to be carried over longer distances compared to other kinds of coal. A majority of coal is shipped by railroad, 58 percent.

There is more. The largest amount of coal traveling by railroad goes between Wyoming/Montana and Missouri. Most of the coal coming from Appalachia travels via trucks. Truck shipping has its disadvantages. For starters, the speed limits. Coal cannot reach its destination as quickly compared to rail transportation. Rail transportation is privately owned and pays for itself. The interstate highway system in the USA is not as reliable. The road infrastructure needs constant repairs, and those repairs often come out of the taxpayer’s salaries. The railroad networks are going to be a major factor in the coal industry. Transportation costs have the potential of being higher than mining the coal. Rail transportation tends to be higher due to the railroads taking care of its own infrastructure. And with the cost of transportation comes another issue with Appalachia. Appalachia itself.

Appalachia’s geography presents some particular transportation problems. The Appalachian region is very rugged and mountainous. While the Rocky Mountains are rugged, and higher, there is a difference. The Powder River Basin has more in common topographically with the Great Plains than with the Rockies further West. The Appalachian Mountains could not be easily out-flanked. Even today, the topography of Appalachia makes transportation, while possible, difficult compared to many places. Appalachia has fewer railroads going through the region. With railroad being the main mode of transportation for coal, this will present a problem. Interstates have been built through Appalachia. Cities such as Pittsburgh and Atlanta are served by such interstates. However, Pittsburgh and Atlanta are in more favorable locations. Atlanta is technically not in the Appalachian Mountains, but in the Piedmont. However, Atlanta is close to the region, and some highways that serve Atlanta go through Appalachia. The coal, however, comes from the more remote parts of Appalachia, most notably eastern Kentucky and southern West Virginia.

Appalachian coal is increasingly harder to get to. And due to the geography of the region, the coal is also harder to transport out of the region compared to other places. And with more demand for low sulfur coal, less demand for Appalachia’s coal. While it still has a use in the steel mills, the steel mills have their own changes. Changes in technology, the diversifying in energy, these are factors that need to be considered. The Powder River Basin has coal that is easier to reach, and coal that is easier to ship. More coal can be shipped from this region because the railroad infrastructure is more widely available.

The steel industry can get stronger. However, the likelihood of coal being a factor, while still there, will decline in its prevalence. Coal is in lesser demand these days. Even if environmental regulations were to be lifted, Appalachian coal is harder to get to compared to coal from other regions. In the end, geography, impact on an areas’s health, the economics of supply and demand, and technological changes will play bigger factors than any politician ever could.


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