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Western Kentucky coal mines hiring to meet recent boost in coal demand

Skyrocketing natural gas prices across the world is causing a spike in U.S. coal production this year to meet surging energy demand, as some world economies begin to rebound from the ongoing pandemic. Some western Kentucky mines are expanding operations to meet this short-term boost in demand.

Joel Bradley is the assistant general manager of Warrior Coal, a subsidiary of Alliance Resource Partners that operates an underground mine in Hopkins County. The mine employs more than 400 people, and Bradley wants to hire another 50-60 miners into next year.

“The demand for energy far is outpacing supply right now. So it's just driving all energy prices. And coal [is] certainly still a big part of power generation in the U.S, and internationally as well,” Bradley said.

Bradley said another Alliance Resource Partners mine in Union County is also expanding operations with the recent bump in demand. Union County produced more coal than the entire eastern Kentucky coal field in the first quarter of 2021 with 2.5 million tons of coal.

But energy analysts with the U.S. Energy Information Administration say while this year will be the first year since 2014 that coal-fired electricity-generation will increase, the short-term boost won’t continue as coal-fired power plants continue to be retired and natural gas prices begin to fall from the current spike.

Kentucky’s coal industry has shed thousands of jobs, and coal production has declined by more than 80% over the last two decades, according to data from the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet.

Gov. Andy Beshear’s announcement this year of new electric vehicle battery plants in Hardin County plans will bring about 5,000 full-time jobs to the state. That’s more jobs than the entire coal industry in Kentucky currently employs with a little under 4,000 workers.

Hopkins County Judge-Executive Jack Whitfield, a former coal miner, said coal is still a significant part of the county’s economy, with well-paying mining jobs and severance taxes infusing money into the local community. But he knows he can’t rely on industry in the long-term, despite the short-term hiring boost.

“I'm very proud of our coal history. We have to be prepared for a day when it may not be here,” Whitfield said. “And that’s through diversifying our economy.”

Whitfield mentioned other companies such as Carhartt and fiber-based materials manufacturer Ahlstrom-Munksjö in Madisonville as examples of future drivers of the local economy.

Joel Bradley with Warrior Coal said he believes coal production at his mine will be relatively stable over the next few years, with the new hires able to stay with the mine longer.

Beshear last month released a new energy strategy for the state that did not mention climate change or the state’s goals to limit carbon emissions. Climate change impacts such as historic flooding already seen in Kentucky will continue to worsen unless governments take action to curb fossil fuel emissions, according to worldwide experts on the climate.

More than two-thirds of Kentucky’s electricity generation came from coal last year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

"Liam Niemeyer is a reporter for the Ohio Valley Resource covering agriculture and infrastructure in Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia and also serves Assistant News Director at WKMS. He has reported for public radio stations across the country from Appalachia to Alaska, most recently as a reporter for WOUB Public Media in Athens, Ohio. He is a recent alumnus of Ohio University and enjoys playing tenor saxophone in various jazz groups."
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