Prove your humanity

Matt Owens stands at the bottom of a freshly dug hole, about the size of a football field, cut 120 feet deep into a hillside in Somerset County. The pit will soon become the entrance to the Acosta Deep mine.

Owens, safety manager at the mine, points to the wall of the pit.

LISTEN: Trump Touts a New PA Mine. But is Coal Actually Rebounding?

“The coal seam’s right there at the bottom,” Owens says, pointing to 43-inch thick band of black rock. The mine will follow that coal seam thousands of feet and produce 400,000 tons a year of metallurgical, or ‘met’ coal, the kind used in steelmaking.

“Once we’re up to full capacity we’ll end up with three shifts,” says Owens, 43, of New Centerville, Pa. “They’ll work ‘til Saturday afternoon usually, and we’ll shut down for one day, then we’ll come back out Sunday night, they’ll start working again.”

Matt Owens, the safety manager for the Acosta Deep Mine in Somerset County, watches over work to prepare the mine’s opening. (photo: Reid R. Frazier)

The mine is opening as the coal industry in general has gone through layoffs and bankruptcies. And it has at least one big fan — President Donald Trump.

When President Trump announced the U.S. was pulling out of the Paris climate agreement, he said he was doing it to protect American workers. He gave a shout out to the coal industry, and gave a surprise mention to the Acosta Deep mine.

“A big opening of a brand, new mine. It’s unheard of. For many, many years that hasn’t happened,” he said.

Coal mines have been shutting down for about a decade.

Why is this one opening up?

Lauren Fraley, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, says state records show the first day of blasting to excavate the site occurred on November 8, Election Day.

The mine, owned by Canonsburg-based Corsa Coal Corp., received a $3 million grant from the state’s Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program, a fund the state gives to “regional economic, cultural, civic, recreational, and historical improvement projects.”

Coal industry consultant Art Sullivan says the reason for the mine opening has to do with the price for metallurgical coal. Met coal has surged in the past year, thanks to events outside of the U.S.

China cut back its own production, and a cyclone hurt the coal industry of Australia, the world’s largest exporter of met coal. Trump’s decision to put a hold on Obama-era regulations on carbon dioxide has much more to do with steam coal–the kind used in power generation–than met coal.

Sullivan says this mine opening is about market economics, not politics.

“With the disruptions in Australia and continuing high level of demand in China, there has been this upsurge in the U.S. with the planning, development and production from metallurgical coal mines,” Sullivan says. “It’s quite certain the president’s election and any of his policies have had absolutely nothing (to do) with that new mine.”

Company officials have said as much.

“You could actually feel the difference in the atmosphere the day after the election. People just felt hopeful again. There’s hope back in this country where there was no hope before.”

Still, regulars at the nearby Coal Miner’s Cafe think Trump is having an effect on the local coal industry.

One of these regulars, Dave Berkey, owns an excavating company that had done work with the mines. But that work slumped. Coal mining jobs in traditionally coal-rich Somerset County declined from 1,049 in 2012 to 539 in 2015, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry.

“But now it’s coming back and actually people in the area are happier right now because there’s jobs comin’ into the area,” Berkey says, as he finishes up his breakfast. He is sitting with a group of other local business owners, all of whom supported Trump. He says his business from coal mines began picking up “literally” the day after the election.

“You could actually feel the difference in the atmosphere the day after the election,” says Tom Altman, who owns a local company that makes lighting. Trump won 76 percent of the vote in Somerset County. “People just felt hopeful again. There’s hope back in this country where there was no hope before.”

Workers prepare a ventilation system for the opening of the Acosta Deep Mine, in Somerset County, Pa. (Photo: Reid R. Frazier)

That optimism may be real, but energy analysts caution that most coal in this country is used to make electricity, and it still faces big challenges, namely competition from cheap natural gas.

“Natural gas is the big reason why coal use for electric power has declined,” says Jay Apt, a professor of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business. Apt says natural gas from the fracking boom has replaced coal on the electric grid; natural gas recently overtook coal as the largest source of electricity in the country.

Coal production reached a 30-year low in 2015, and the number of U.S. coal miners fell from 90,000 in 2012 to 50,000 in 2016, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The number of U.S. coal mines dropped from 1,831 in 2006 to 1,159 in 2015, according to the Energy Information Administration.

James Stevenson, director of the coal team at IHS Markit, says the metallurgical coal boom has helped the coal industry rebound. The rest of the coal industry has also benefited from higher natural gas prices.

“I think that the broad-brush characteristic is that things have really improved from the bottom,” Stevenson says. “We really saw the bottom of the U.S. coal market in early 2016.”

Since then, the industry has picked up a bit. Several large coal companies have begun to emerge from bankruptcy.

Still, the overall direction for the industry is downward, Stevenson says.

“There’s not a whole lot a government can do to change economics, so we don’t really expect a whole lot of change to the coal demand outlook from what any administration really can do,” says James Stevenson. “Most analysts would agree [Trump’s pro-coal policies] are probably a case of slowing the decline [rather than generating] any real upside.”

Whoever or whatever is causing the Acosta Deep mine to open, the end result is the same for Matt Owens. As he inches a white pickup truck up a road out of the mine pit, he remembers worrying about losing his job, as his company weathered layoffs over the last few years.

“I was hopin’ it didn’t come to that. It crossed all our minds–we didn’t know what was gonna happen. It definitely makes us feel good knowing that we’ll have jobs for a while.”