Utah’s oldest coal mine aims to expand into an uncertain future
"They are the highest producer because their coal was thick and more uniform. They could use longwall panels that they wouldn’t have to move as often," Tabet said.
But operations are now stepping down into the lower bed, where mining conditions are trickier and the coal is not as a pure or rich in energy. This is because it formed not in the center of the swamps, but closer to their edges, where streams disgorged sediments that mixed in with the organic material, Tarbet said.
Not only does the coal pack less energy and more ash, but it lies deeper underground, up to 2,500 feet deep at the western end of the Greens Hollow tract. Indeed, Sufco has struggled in recent years to supply coal with sufficient Btu content to satisfy the needs of its biggest customer, triggering a lawsuit filed by Rocky Mountain Power then settled out of court.
Coal’s unclear future » Last year Sufco, which employs 363 people, produced nearly 6 million tons, nearly 36 percent of Utah’s output from eight mines.
But its production has declined by 2 million tons in the last few years, following a statewide trend in the face of faltering demand, according to the Utah Geological Survey’s 2013 annual report.
"Existing Utah mines face steady reserve depletion and difficult mining conditions," Tabet and his colleagues wrote. "In addition, the demand for Utah coal has sharply decreased over the past few years as power plants have switched to natural gas over coal-fired generation."
While federal policy accommodates extraction of publicly owned coal to serve the nation’s energy needs, the environmental community is pushing back because of coal’s propensity to pollute the air and release climate-altering gasses when it’s burned.
Natural gas burns more cleanly and releases half the carbon dioxide per kilowatt generated.
"They know those local contracts are good now but the future of coal power generation is pretty iffy right now," said Jeremy Nichols, WildEarth Guardians’ energy program director. "It’s last gasp is to look to the export market."
Despite environmental concerns, Utah’s political leadership has pledged to support coal production and agencies are studying ways to strengthen markets.
Last fall the state completed the long-anticipated Quitchupah Creek road connecting the Sufco mine with State Route 10 a few miles south of Emery. This 11-mile road cuts haul distances for up to 250 trucks a day to the Hunter power plant by 46 miles.
That road’s $30 million cost was covered by the state’s Permanent Community Impact Fund, which distributes revenue from federal mineral leases to build roads, water projects, sewer and other infrastructure in rural areas that accommodate energy production.
The Forest Service is now conducting a separate analysis on Sufco’s request to expand its permit area by 19 acres along the Quitchupah road where it wants to develop crushing, loading, storage, blending and other facilities for handling coal.