Coal has been produced in Kentucky since the late 18th century. In the early years, all mining was by underground methods, but surface mining became the dominant method during and after World War II. In recent years, surface-mine production in both fields has decreased while underground mining has increased.
In the last half of this century, the traditional steam coal market for locomotives has virtually disappeared, leaving electric power generation and coking coal for the steel industry as the principal markets. More than half of all coal produced in the State has been produced in the last 25 years. Whether this level of production can be profitably sustained is questionable.
More than 50 percent of the coal in eastern Kentucky is Jess than 28 in. thick, while more than 69 percent of the coal in western Kentucky is greater than 42 in. thick. Although eastern Kentucky's resources are thinner, they have a lower sulfur content and higher calorific value than western Kentucky's.
Traditional resource estimates have overestimated the amount of coal that can actually be mined because they have not taken into account factors such as competing land uses and geologic and engineering constraints. KGS is participating in national programs to estimate coal availability and recoverability. Results of selected study areas suggest that as little as 50 percent of the original resource is available for mining, whereas only 20 percent is economically recoverable. It is uncertain yet whether these averages are indicative of all of Kentucky's coal resources. Regional assessments of Kentucky's most important coals, which incorporate coal availability methods, are under way.
A number of regulatory and taxation issues will have an impact on the coal industry in Kentucky, but how much of an impact is uncertain. These issues include the Clean Air Act Amendments, liability for unreel aimed surface mines, regulatory flexibility to permit changes in postmine land use, and changes in the State's workers' compensation law.
Advances in thin-seam and remote-mining technology will be crucial, particularly in eastern Kentucky, where most of the remaining coal occurs in thin seams. improvements in coal-preparation technology could make Kentucky's higher sulfur coals more attractive. There may be potential for extraction of methane gas from coal beds, as an energy by-product.
Detailed knowledge of the physical and chemical character of Kentucky's coal beds will be vital in their development. Acquisition of this knowledge could be facilitated by cooperation among private industry, public agencies, and research institutes.
Information Circular 59
Digital Object Identifier (DOI)
Weisenfluh, Gerald A.; Cobb, James C.; Ferm, John C.; and Ruthven, Carol L., "Kentucky's Coal Industry: Historical Trends and Future Opportunities" (1998). Kentucky Geological Survey Information Circular. 60.