Part 3: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow – A Three-Part Series on the State of Pennsylvania Anthracite

The Future of Pennsylvania Anthracite

Anthracite, and Pennsylvania anthracite in particular, is not just coal. Anthracite has structural and chemical characteristics that have taken it to markets not reached by or available to other forms of coal:

  • The high heating value, consistent and smokeless burning (very low particulate emissions) have made it a popular fuel for space heating and now for pizza ovens. There is test evidence to suggest that a modern anthracite burning appliance has a more favorable particulate emissions footprint than wood stoves and that they can outperform the 2020 emission standard for wood stoves as well.
  • The high carbon content, low sulfur, ash and volatile content allow it to be used as a coke replacement in electric arc furnaces for steelmaking as well as in lime kilns for other metallurgical and refining applications. When compared to metallurgical coke, anthracite yields a more favorable carbon footprint than coke, mainly because it can be used without converting it from its natural form, as is required to produce coke from metallurgical coal.
  • The pore volume and structure of anthracite have made it a valuable and enduring medium for municipal water filtration around the world. These same properties have allowed its use as a last step in the cleanup of polychlorinated biphenyls in the Hudson River and elsewhere.
  • As a feedstock in the production of activated carbons, anthracite could contribute to applications ranging from volatile emissions capture from vehicles to adsorption of mercury from industrial stack gases, to CO2 capture and sequestration.
  • The mineral makeup of anthracite provides indications of possible applications in agriculture and as a soil amendment to assist in retaining moisture in drought prone areas, or for urban applications like “green” rooftops.

Beyond the cited applications, these and other characteristics of anthracite like its highly “aromatic” chemical structure, its “graphitic” layering and conductivity properties make it an interesting candidate as a feedstock for emerging carbon applications. Also, the current interest in the presence of Rare Earth Elements (REE) in anthracite and related materials (ash, refuse and mine water) has fostered a number of projects aimed at evaluating the potential for recovering these materials from regional resources as well.

All of these are future possible applications where anthracite could play an important role, but none of this can benefit us here in Pennsylvania unless we maintain a healthy, sustainable mining presence, and find ways to encourage, finance and partner with academia, economic development and government agencies to participate in these exciting efforts. Collectively, these future applications could result in significant demand growth for this valuable resource – an outcome that would greatly benefit the commonwealth.

Some would like to see mining disappear. They look backward and focus on the legacy issues mentioned earlier without realizing that if active mining was phased out, the region would be destined to live with all of the environmental, safety and health issues that plague the region today. If mining slows or ceases, the open pits, refuse piles, slopes, shafts and drifts, and acid mine drainage will become a permanent part of the landscape, and have an unending impact on quality of life in the region. If the cogeneration facilities cease to operate, the refuse piles that are still prevalent, will remain, threatening the safety and quality of life in the region.

The sources of financing and skills and equipment necessary to reclaim the land and restore water quality will be lost as well as the reclamation tax revenue sources required to assure that reclamation continues. Also, the potential that exists by growing demand and reaching new and exciting markets with this unique mineral – capturing the value of this precious and rare resource to help rebuild the economy and serve as a bridge to a more robust and sustainable future – will not be realized.

In the last ten years, there have been important changes in structure of the industry. Existing and new investors have spent approximately $300 million to acquire, develop, modernize and grow capability in the region. There has been significant effort working with academia, economic development organizations like Ben Franklin Technology Partners and government agencies like DCED to foster growth and identify new and exciting uses for anthracite.

The vision we at Blaschak, and others in the industry share does not return production to the heights of 100 years ago. Rather, we see a significant remaining reserve of a valuable resource continuing to serve existing markets, and grow as those markets grow. We also see new markets emerging; markets where the characteristics and properties of anthracite can provide unique quality and performance features. As demand grows, we envision an acceleration of mining activity that will in turn, accelerate the realization of the environmental restoration, community safety, economic growth and quality of life benefits sorely needed in the region. This renaissance of anthracite can be a catalyst to bring new industries to the region and assure the sustainable health of much of northeast Pennsylvania.

So, dreaming for a moment; imagine an industry:

  • Operating at five times current production levels
  • With direct employment of 3,500 employees earning family sustaining wages
  • Supporting 5,000 or more jobs servicing the needs of the industry and employees
  • Providing the world’s finest anthracite to numerous energy and non-energy markets around the globe.
  • While the pace of mining will have accelerated, so will the pace of reclamation
  • More land reclaimed and brought back to pristine condition and made available for other forms of economic and community growth
  • Development of concepts that could increase tourism in the area (like the Anthracite Outdoor Adventure Area in Shamokin, PA has done)
  • Drawing new investors from other industries to generate a sustainable, diverse economy for the anthracite region

With proper support and encouragement, such a dream is possible. Anthracite is a Pennsylvania treasure – a unique resource with a place in the future. The legacy from past mining certainly needs to be reversed, and the most efficient, cost-effective and timely way to do that is to finish the job of capturing this valuable material and using it in responsible ways.

There is no doubt that dependence on a single industry is a path to decay. That is what the region is experiencing today. There is also no doubt that the development of new technologies for energy and other market applications is an important priority. Capitalizing on this precious resource as a foundation for diversified development can be an important bridge to attract and establish a broader investor base in the region. Northeastern Pennsylvania is unique in that it is the only place in the United States that enjoys the benefits of commercial anthracite reserves. The potential for new market applications is an exciting prospect that could potentially pay for the work to renew the land while capturing the value buried in our anthracite reserve and building a more diverse and sustainable local economy.

Posted on 10/24/18