In coal’s fu­ture, jobs few, at screen

Com­puter-run min­ing ad­vances

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - BUSINESS & FARM - TIM LOH

While on the cam­paign trail in West Vir­ginia last year, Donald Trump donned a hard­hat and pan­tomimed dig­ging coal with a shovel. The coal min­ers in the au­di­ence would soon be back to work, he promised.

The only prob­lem: Coal min­ers no longer swing a pickax or wield a shovel. While coal com­pa­nies are hir­ing again, ex­ec­u­tives are start­ing to search for work­ers who can crunch gi­ga­bytes of data or use a joy­stick to maneuver min­ing ve­hi­cles hun­dreds of miles away.

“If you do PlayS­ta­tion, you can run a 300-ton truck,” said Dou­glas Black­burn, a fourth­gen­er­a­tion miner him­self who runs the in­dus­try con­sul­tancy Black­acre LLC. For an in­dus­try once no­to­ri­ous for its risks, “the worst that can hap­pen is you sprain a thumb,” he said.

The trend to­ward fewer work­ers, of course, is noth­ing new. The hey­day of coal em­ploy­ment came in 1923, when the U.S. in­dus­try — then re­liant on la­bor­ers with hand tools, blast pow­der and oil lamps — had a record 863,000 min­ers, ac­cord­ing to the Mine Safety and Health Ad­min­is­tra­tion. Ever since, that num­ber has fallen thanks to in­creas­ingly so­phis­ti­cated ma­chin­ery.

The tech­no­log­i­cal change took a leap for­ward in the 1980s with the ex­pan­sion of large-scale min­ing in Wy­oming’s Pow­der River Basin, where the coal can be scooped out of the ground from above. The min­ers no longer had to tun­nel un­der­ground.

In the Pow­der River Basin’s gi­ant open-pit mines, large haul trucks now criss­cross the sites day and night, col­lect­ing up to 400 tons of coal at a time from tow­er­ing seams. High school grad­u­ates with lit­tle ex­pe­ri­ence of­ten drive the trucks, tak­ing home wages that can be $30 an hour. Trains that can stretch more than 100 cars long are loaded up me­chan­i­cally with the coal and sent off to plants as far away as Ge­or­gia.

“Whether coal comes back or not is not nec­es­sar­ily di-

rectly re­lated to jobs,” Heath Lovell, a spokesman for coal pro­ducer Al­liance Re­source Part­ners LP, said in an in­ter­view on Na­tional Pub­lic Ra­dio’s On Point. “We should be be­com­ing more and more ef­fi­cient, which would mean we could pro­duce the same amount of coal with less em­ploy­ees.”

In Illi­nois, un­der­ground min­ing con­cerns in­clud­ing Al­liance Re­source and Fore­sight En­ergy LP have a col­lec­tion of long wall min­ing ma­chines — com­put­er­ized de­vices that cut coal from the earth in slices that can ex­tend for miles — ready to ramp up pro­duc­tion with min­i­mal man­power if de­mand al­lows.

To be sure, Trump’s pledge has come true for some work­ers. Coal com­pa­nies added 2,400 jobs since Septem­ber, bring­ing

the to­tal to 51,000, ac­cord­ing to the Bureau of La­bor Sta­tis­tics. Coal com­pa­nies are ad­ver­tis­ing for li­censed me­chan­ics and elec­tri­cians, ware­house clerks and se­cu­rity guards.

Coal’s fu­ture, how­ever, is likely to in­volve a new set of skills. It won’t be long be­fore a miner is work­ing out of an of­fice in, say, Den­ver, where he’ll stare at com­puter screens and maneuver equip­ment in Wy­oming, ac­cord­ing to Black­burn. The miner — earn­ing, per­haps, $15 an hour — will mon­i­tor sev­eral mas­sive trucks that largely steer them­selves, he said.

Just as elec­tric lo­co­mo­tives once re­placed the pit ponies and mules in the mines, Cater­pil­lar Inc. is al­ready sell­ing fleets of its “au­tonomous” haul trucks to Australian min­ing com­pa­nies. One cus­tomer, iron-ore gi­ant Fortes­cue Met­als Group Ltd, has in­creased pro­duc­tiv­ity by up to 30 per­cent thanks to the ve­hi­cles’ bet­ter-than-hu­man

con­sis­tency and pre­ci­sion, Denise Johnson, Cater­pil­lar’s head of re­source in­dus­tries, said at a Deutsche Bank meet­ing on June 8.

“You can keep those trucks run­ning 24/7,” Johnson said. “You don’t have to take bath­room breaks.”

That sort of sav­ings will be hard for U.S. coal com­pa­nies to re­sist as they strug­gle to stay com­pet­i­tive against the on­slaught of cheap nat­u­ral gas, so­lar and wind power. Cater­pil­lar’s au­tonomous-min­ing tech­nol­ogy is al­ready be­ing adopted by U.S. cus­tomers and it is ex­pand­ing its of­fer­ings, a com­pany spokesman said by email. The com­pany de­clined to iden­tify its cus­tomers.

And such tech­nol­ogy won’t be lim­ited to Wy­oming. When talk­ing to coal ex­ec­u­tives, Rick Hon­aker, chair­man of the Univer­sity of Ken­tucky’s min­ing pro­gram for the past decade, keeps hear­ing how they want young en­gi­neers who can au­to­mate

a piece of equip­ment, man­ag­ing gi­ga­bytes of data so the ma­chin­ery can be used most ef­fi­ciently.

“The way to com­pete is be­ing more au­to­mated,” Hon­aker said in an in­ter­view. “And un­for­tu­nately, that means less jobs — more skilled la­bor but less over­all em­ploy­ment.”

Against that back­drop, Trump is cap­i­tal­iz­ing on the sense of nostal­gia for coal’s by­gone days and anx­i­ety about the fu­ture, said Pa­trick Hickey, a political sci­ence pro­fes­sor at West Vir­ginia Univer­sity. In Ap­palachia, peo­ple are well aware that min­ers stopped heav­ing coal with shov­els gen­er­a­tions ago, but Trump’s air-shov­el­ing still res­onated in a state whose flag bears the im­age of a 19th-cen­tury miner hold­ing a pickax.

“Coal min­ing jobs were hard jobs — peo­ple had se­ri­ous health prob­lems as a re­sult of them — but an hon­est ef­fort

was re­warded well,” Hickey said. By trad­ing po­lit­i­cally on an an­ti­quated im­age of a miner, Trump is ap­peal­ing not just to dis­placed coal work­ers but also to those in man­u­fac­tur­ing and other sec­tors threat­ened by au­to­ma­tion and for­eign com­pe­ti­tion.

“As we see this dis­rup­tion all over the econ­omy in the pub­lic and pri­vate sec­tor, I think it’s re­ally pow­er­ful to hear­ken back to these touch­stones of an econ­omy that had more cer­tainty,” he said.

One irony for the in­dus­try now is that in some ar­eas the coal com­pa­nies say they can’t find the high-skilled work­ers they need. In West Vir­ginia, com­pa­nies are re­sort­ing to of­fer­ing sign­ing bonuses and fully paid health care to poach ex­pe­ri­enced shift fore­men, me­chan­ics and elec­tri­cians from ri­vals. Many of those work­ers left the coal in­dus­try dur­ing the last decade’s col­lapse and found more sta­ble em­ploy­ment in other sec­tors. They aren’t anx­ious to switch back.

“The scars are still fresh,” said Ge­orge Deth­lef­sen, CEO of Canons­burg, Pa.-based Corsa Coal Corp., which opened a mine in Penn­syl­va­nia last month. “Those guys are not fully trust­ing that this mar­ket is back and here to stay.”

Find­ing young tal­ent is es­pe­cially hard. Dur­ing the bust, com­pa­nies were lay­ing off peo­ple rather than train­ing a new gen­er­a­tion of min­ers. That cre­ated a dearth of high-skilled work­ers in their 20s and 30s.

“Youth might be the most looked-for qual­i­fi­ca­tion,” Matt Pre­ston, a coal an­a­lyst at Wood Macken­zie Ltd., said in an email. Find­ing young work­ers “willing to get into a shrink­ing in­dus­try is an up­hill climb.”

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