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Coal valuable throughout U.S. as a power plant provider

The days when Oliver Twist needed a chunk of coal for a little heat are long past, but the coal mining industry remains a powerful force.

In these modern times, where computers are the window to the world, and people are constantly looking at ways to improve our quality of life, it’s easy to forget that a natural resource like coal remains a valuable commodity.

“As an industry we’re producing 53 percent of the generated electricity in the U.S.,” said Oxbow Mining Executive Vice President Jim Cooper.



According to the Colorado Mining Association, 71 percent of the state’s electricity needs are provided by coal.

Oxbow’s Elk Creek Mine is one of the top underground coal mines in the United States, with around 6.5 million tons of coal production.



The mine employs 300 workers and utilizes the longwall mining technique, which is a high-production mining method.

Tennessee Valley Authority is one of Oxbow’s main customers. Shipping Colorado coal to Tennessee may not seem efficient, but there’s a good reason. Even though there’s plenty of coal in many states in the South and East, the coal from Colorado and other Western states is coveted because it’s low in sulfur.

The TVA mixes the coal mined at Elk Creek with other coal so they can lower the amount of sulfur emitted into the air.

Federal emissions standards require power plants to meet strict guidelines when it comes to sulfur emissions. Colorado’s coal is often called “clean coal” because of its low sulfur and ash content. In 2004, the Colorado Geological Survey found that 67 percent of Colorado coal was shipped to states like Tennessee, Kentucky, Texas, Mississippi and Illinois. Colorado has 13 power plants that consumed nearly 19 million tons of coal in 2004.

There are alternatives to coal-fired power plants, mainly nuclear, which Cooper said currently accounts for 17 percent of the power plants in the U.S.

But not everyone is comfortable with nuclear power and its drawbacks, Cooper said.

“Nuclear power is the only other answer, but that’s still a ways away. Right now, people need to realize that coal is the answer,” Cooper said.

The Mineral Information Institute (www.mil.org) in Golden, Colo., has developed estimates on all of the minerals, metals and fuels that every American born will use. According to its 2004 estimates, every American will use 573,056 pounds of coal in a lifetime. That compares to some of the other items like 1,390 pounds of copper, 29,336 pounds of salt, just over 20,000 pounds of clay and 65,000-plus pounds of cement. The largest estimate is for the combined total of 1.55 million pounds of stone, sand and gravel.

Elk Creek Mine Superintendent Randy Litwiller said people take for granted certain things that coal provides.

“Without coal you wouldn’t have the lights, the computer or heat. A lot of the basics we all need come from coal,” he said

“People need to know how important coal is,” Cooper said.

Litwiller estimates that there’s enough coal in the U.S. to last another 200 years.


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