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How Much Coal Is Really Left in Kentucky?

There is still a lot of coal in the ground in Kentucky, though it’s looking increasingly unlikely that most of it will be mined and burned.

It’s difficult for geologists to determine exactly how much coal was originally in the ground in Kentucky, but Jerry Weisenfluh of the Kentucky Geological Survey said there was likely about 40 billion tons in the state’s thicker seams (greater than 28 inches) roughly a century and a half ago, before mining began.

Since then, about 13.5 billion tons have been mined. That leaves about 26 billion tons in the ground — nearly twice as much as has been mined since the beginning of time.

But Weisenfluh said that doesn’t mean those 26 billion tons of coal will be mined anytime soon. Or ever.

“There’s really the three levels of coal reserves: coal that’s left in the ground, how much of that is technically feasible to extract given a certain set of assumptions about mine-ability, and then whether you can sell that coal in the marketplace at a profit,” he said.

The state’s coal industry has imploded in recent years. During a high point in 1990, Kentucky miners produced more than 173 million tons of coal. Last year, that number had fallen by more than half, to 77 million tons.

Of the 26 billion tons of coal that remains in the ground, anywhere from 25 to 50 percent is technically recoverable, Weisenfluh said. Those are the seams that aren’t below power lines, residential areas, and other challenging areas. Assuming only a quarter of that 26 billion tons is recoverable, that still leaves about 6.5 billion tons of coal ready to be extracted.

“And so the question is how come it’s not being mined,” Weisenfluh said. “And the answer to that is the marketability question that’s being impacted primarily now by the change in the natural gas market and the switching of power plants from coal to natural gas.”

Coal that’s recoverable but unable to be sold isn’t worth extracting. As market conditions and regulations make it harder to profit from mining and burning coal, it’ll likely end up making more economic sense to leave billions of tons of coal underground. And for each ton of coal that’s not burned, there are 2.86 tons of carbon dioxide that won’t enter the atmosphere.


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