Utah's coal production has reached a record high, but employment of miners is down.
Jahan Bani, coal industry analyst for the Utah Energy Office, estimates that mines on federal land will produce 14.9 million tons this year; 350,000 tons will come from state land, and nearly 3 million tons from private property - a grand total of 18.2 million tons."Definitely a record year for Utah," he said. "We never had 18.2 production."
The average price of coal this year is $26.76 per ton, which means the resources mined were worth nearly $500 million. But royalties are only 8 percent of the price, and the companies pay only $3 an acre rental - so Utah sees little direct return from it.
Also, the royalty rate is expected to drop soon, possibly to 5 percent.
Not only are fewer Utahns working because of this coal boom, but less than half of the resource is used in this state.
In 1982, coal production hit a peak of 16.5 million tons, with 4,300 miners working. This year's forecast is for 18.2 million tons, but only about 3,000 men and women are in the mines.
"We're becoming more high-mechanized," said Max Nielson, the Bureau of Land Management's coal project manager for the agency's Uinta-Southwestern Coal Region. "The longwall production systems are producing probably 10 million tons of that coal now, and that's probably doubled in the last couple of years. So we have (fewer) miners involved."
In the longwall system, mining machines are used to gouge out coal from long seams, using only a few miners to operate them.
The 1982 peak in production was because of high export levels to Pacific Rim countries. Asian manufacturers had been buying from Australia, but then labor troubles in the traditional coal fields caused the Asians to look elsewhere.
"They made a decision to start spreading out their acquisitions," Nielson said. Because Utah has abundant high-quality, low-sulfur coal and good rail connections to ports, the state was a natural alternative.
Still, the state had the disadvantage of being a long way from the market.
"Things were stabilized over there and the world market crisis stabilized and dropped, I guess. And Utah coal was not competitive," Nielson said. Once the labor problems were ironed out, Australia regained its market.
In 1983, production in Utah plunged to only 12 million tons. After that, it began a gradual climb upward, until this year it is certain to pass the 1982 record.
"We're seeing a little comeback in that right at this time in the export market," Nielson said.
Also, the recently completed Intermountain Power Plant near Lynndyl, Millard County, is expected to burn more than 5 million tons a year, generating power for hungry California utilities. Its coal comes from Carbon and Emery county mines.
Not only does IPP export its electricity to California, but Nielson estimates that 25 percent of the Utah Power & Light generation is exported to other states, particularly California and the Northwest.
A major reason for this is the great drought of 1988 reduced stream flows throughout the country, which means less water went through turbines in the Columbia River system and elsewhere in the Northwest. That means less electricity came from hydropower, forcing the utilities there to look elsewhere.
On top of that, California is booming, creating greater demand for power.
Including coal shipped in coal trains and burned to provide electricity that goes out via wire, "over 60 percent of our coal is being exported one way or another," Nielson said.
That's not to say that Utah will soon run out of its coal.
Total reserves, including the Kaiparowits Plateau in the south, are estimated to range from 5 billion to 6 billion tons. "There's a lot of coal out there," Nielson said.
There's a lot of money to be made by somebody, too. At the going rate, that coal is worth a minimum of $133 billion.