FEATURE: MINE Magazine – Mining Illinois: is it time up for coal mining?

The Illinois coal basin is one of the oldest and most productive in the US, but as the coal market continues to slump, and new mine closures are being announced, many are beginning to wonder, can the industry overcome this latest challenge? Heidi Vella investigates. 

Coal was first mined along the 400-mile-long Illinois coal basin, which covers parts of Illinois, Indiana and western Kentucky, by settlers in the 1800s. According to the Illinois Coal Association (ICA), by the1900s, coal was being produced in at least 52 of the region’s 102 counties, nine of which were producing more than one million tons a year. Overall, it’s thought more than 7,400 mines have operated in Illinois.

The basin, which has the second largest coal reserves in the US, is known for producing cheap, sulphur-rich, bituminous coal. In recent years, this soft, highly polluting type of coal has lost much of its market due to emission restrictions put on US power plants under the Obama administration. According to the ICA, these regulations saw around 25% of coal power plants close down, creating a massive decline in demand for the coal mining industry.

Despite investments in new mines and increased production announced by mining companies Foresight Energy, Peabody and Alliance Coal in 2012, and later the election of US President Donald Trump, who promised to ‘put coal workers back to work’, the Illinois coal mining industry continues to be plagued with challenges – and even tragedy.

New Challenges for Illinois mining 
Amid already challenging market conditions, in early 2019, historic floods caused by a so-called ‘bomb cyclone’ battered the Rockies with snow and the Midwest with rain, impeding Illinois-operating coal companies’ ability to move their product along the Mississippi river.

“Logistically the floods have taken a toll on miners and producers, particularly those trying to reach the export market,” says Ellie Potter, energy and mining reporter at S&P Global Market Intelligence.

Five months on, miners are still feeling the impacts of the floods, she says, with some having to reroute their usual course.

In July, the industry was shaken further by the death of Illinois’s “King of Coal” Christopher Cline, a billionaire coal tycoon and founder of Foresight Energy. Cline, who was well known for his efforts to revive Illinois’ mining industry, tragically died in a helicopter crash in the Bahamas along with his daughter.

Foresight Energy, which Cline founded in 2006 to manage his Illinois Basin coal rights, published losses in its last quarter earnings in August. The company highlighted one of the biggest challenges facing Illinois miners today – weakening demand due, in large part, to a flood of cheap natural gas in the market.