Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Why do miners mine coal?

Or why mine coal at all?

Coal is a natural resource. It is packed with energy from ages past. When it is burned, that energy is released. Before there was oil or gas or nuclear or solar or geothermal, coal was THE mass driver of energy. Coal created the modern society of today.

Besides its use for energy, coal can be chemically changed into many products including plastics, creosote, napha, a variety of phenols, medicinal components, fertilizer, ammonia, and a thousand others. It is also required to make steel. Every day, nearly everyone in the world is either warmed by coal, use the electricity produced from it, or, without realizing it, is touched in some way by one of its byproducts.

Coal can be found nearly everywhere in the world. It is most abundant in North America and Russia. The reason for that is complex but has to do with the manner in which ancient forests were covered by the debris of the ages.

As cities and manufacturing plants grew during the industrial revolution in the 19th century, energy was desperately needed. Coal was there and whatever it took to get it, that's what was done. A lot of miners died and got sick but a vastly greater number of people were raised up to benefit from the new industrial age. Miners, for the most part, were politically insignificant but, for all practical purposes, built the technical civilization we enjoy today..

Most people outside the mining industry who think about coal mining and miners generally think about it and them in the way it and they were in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with picks and shovels and exploding methane and dead canaries and mules. In the 21st century, coal miners in the United States are much different. However, in the rest of the world, they are only a little better off. Russian and Chinese miners work in an environment similar to 1940's USA.

Modern coal miners in the United States (and here I'm talking about those who go underground which are the minority, most coal being stripped from the surface) essentially work in a computerized underground plant. Their environment is controlled and monitored by the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), a federal agency with much authority and an ability to shut down a mine that doesn't adhere to its safety and health requirements. MSHA has supplanted unions and forced modernization and safety to a remarkable degree on the coal mining industry.

American underground coal mines are marvels in efficiency. To work in them, American coal miners are thoroughly trained. The equipment they use, the computers they operate, the geology they learn, all are astonishingly complex.  They are paid accordingly. Pay for experienced miners is in the $75,000 - $125,000 range and upwards. It should be easy to understand why such trained and experienced people don't want to go into a different profession and start anew.

Coal mining is far from the most dangerous profession in the United States. Logging, fishing, garbage pick-up, truck driving, farming, and construction kill many more workers.  Water sprays and face masks, all required by MSHA, should decrease the amount of black lung in the future.

Most people think of coal as that nasty stuff burned for energy or electricity. In fact, there are different grades of coal. The coal used for making electricity is of a different grade than that which is used to make steel. Sometimes, coal that can be used for steel is burned for energy but not vice versa. Much of the coal in West Virginia is steel-making coal.

The coal business is going to wax and wane. But no matter what happens, the demand for coal miners is going to diminish. Every day, underground mines become more automated. Ten men can do now what hundreds did when I lived in Coalwood, West Virginia, and watched those long lines of miners trudging along the road that led to the coal mine, greeted by their fellows from the shift before them trudging back home. My father and others of his generation began the automation that ultimately would destroy the town he loved and make those long lines of hardy miners a thing of the past.

The wealth created by those miners mostly ended up in New York and Washington and Los Angeles and all the big, rich places. We hope you've enjoyed it.

To learn a little about modern coal mining and enjoy a crackling good yarn at the same time, may I suggest my novel Red Helmet? You'll like it, I swan.

And there is the truth.