By Curtis Tate
May 5, 2017 - Kentucky fell to fifth place in coal production last year, according to government numbers, surrendering the No. 3 spot it held for more than two decades.
The state fell behind Illinois and Pennsylvania last year, producing only 42.7 million tons in 2016, down from 61.4 million tons in 2015.
Kentucky was the nation’s leading coal producer from 1971 to 1988. Since then, Kentucky and other Eastern states have struggled to compete with the cheap, abundant coal mined on leased federal land in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin.
In more recent years, all coal-producing states have had to compete with cheap, abundant natural gas produced through hydraulic fracturing. The cost of replacing or retrofitting coal-fired power plants has pushed numerous utilities to switch to natural gas or renewable sources.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s Quarterly Coal Report, coal production in Kentucky fell 30 percent last year from 2015 levels, including a 40 percent drop in eastern Kentucky.
The gap between coal production in eastern and western Kentucky widened in 2016, with western counties outpacing eastern counties by about 9 million tons, up from 5 million in 2015. For a century, eastern Kentucky produced more coal than western Kentucky did.
Neighboring Illinois produced slightly more coal than Kentucky in 2016, at 43.5 million tons. Pennsylvania produced 45.8 million tons.
Wyoming led U.S. coal production last year, with 297.5 million tons, followed by West Virginia, with 80 million. The top coal-producing states all posted declines last year.
President Donald Trump has rolled back a number of Obama administration regulations in a bid to revive the coal industry, though the impact of his actions is not yet clear.
This week, Congress approved a long-term health care fix for more than 22,000 retired coal miners, including nearly 3,000 in Kentucky.