Colorado coal mining sits at a crossroads. Skyrocketing demand and potential environmental regulations may force coal insiders to make difficult decisions about the industry’s future—and the fate of the 2,200 Coloradans who venture deep into the earth to mine the black gold.
Despite the increased scrutiny, the coal industry soldiers on. “Clearly, coal is having a resurgence,” Popovich says, “but it has environmental issues we need to deal with. And we are dealing with it. But it will take time. If Congress were to mandate very strict emissions reductions in the next couple of years, it would send coal into a tailspin. But if we are patient, we could see technologies in place in 10 to 12 years that could make coal a near zero-emissions fuel.”
Which means American miners will likely continue to mine coal for many years to come, but even that could create problems. According to NMA estimates, the nation will need nearly 50,000 new coal miners in the next decade to meet increasing demand for energy and to replace the thousands of Baby Boomer miners who are reaching retirement age. During coal’s down years, engineering schools closed their mining departments, miners moved to cities looking for jobs, and the country lost an entire generation of miners. “We are simply lacking miners who are from 25 to 40 years old,” Popovich says.
The NMA says that the industry is developing workforce growth initiatives, marketing in noncoal regions, targeting depressed sectors like the auto industry in Michigan, and holding job fairs on the outskirts of Appalachia. Here in Colorado, the competition for new miners is no different. “We pay our miners very well—about $93,000 per year in pay and benefits—but production here in Colorado will still be impacted by our ability to attract and hire new miners,” says CMA’s Sanderson. In Colorado, however, we do have at least a partial advantage: The Colorado School of Mines is one of only 12 institutions nationwide to still offer bachelor of mining degrees and touts the largest mining graduate program in the country.
Attracting workers to the coal mines—where more than 100,000 people have died since 1900—is no easy task. Although mining jobs have dropped out of the top 10 most dangerous professions, fatalities have decreased by 92 percent since 1970, and injuries have declined by nearly 70 percent since 1990, the coal industry still suffers from a negative public perception, an unfortunate past, and intense media coverage that spikes only after a catastrophe. “You watch Deadliest Catch on the Discovery Channel and there’s a romance with that danger,” Sanderson says. “You don’t see Congress jumping on the fishing industry. But if there’s an accident in a coal mine it’s all over CNN.”