U.S. Geological Survey


In general, the coal produced in Virginia is of the highest quality produced anywhere in the Appalachian region (figs. 1, 2; table 1). The calorific value of Virginia's coal is about 25 .7 million Btu/ton. Average sulfur contents are about 1.1 percent, and ash yields are commonly less than 10 percent (EIA, 1994). About half of Virginia's coal production is estimated to be sold in metallurgical markets. About 40 percent is exported, chiefly for metallurgical markets; of the coal sold in the United States, about one-third is for metallurgical markets. Much of the remainder is shipped to coal-fired powerplants in Virginia and neighboring States.

Diagram showing location of southwestern Virginia

Figure 1. Location of the southwestern Virginia coalfields (red).

This report uses current trends in historical production and reserve depletion to construct long-range projections of coal production from the southwestern Virginia fields. We use the near-normal distribution of the historical production curve for Pennsylvania's anthracite deposits as an analog for projecting Virginia's coal production into the next century. Pennsylvania "blue coal," hot and smokeless, was the environmentally preferred fuel of choice for residential and industrial purposes in the northeastern United States prior to World War II. Both of these mining areas are relatively small in comparison with the nearby Appalachian Plateau coalfields, and both contain low-sulfur, high Btu coals. In each of these coalfields, initial expansion was followed by a rapid growth in production that reflected the great demand for these high-quality resources. We anticipate that Virginia's coal production decline rate will be similar to its growth rate but in an opposite sense.

For the purposes of this report, previous coal resource and coal reserve estimates of governmental agencies, both State and Federal, are used as a starting point for production rate projections for the bituminous coalfields of Virginia. Prediction of future production rates for Virginia depends to a large extent on a reasonable approximation of the amount of coal in that State or region that may be produced economically. Coal reserve estimates for Virginia, based on the last national coal resource estimate made by the U.S. Geological Survey (Averitt, 1975) and on 10- to 20-percent recoverability factors determined generally from subsequent coal availability studies (Sites and Hostettler, 1991) and coal recoverability studies (Rohrbacher, and others, 1994; Staff,Intermontain Field Operations, 1995; Scott, 1995) are shown in table 1. Coal recoverability studies done in 14 quadrangles in the central Appalachian coalfield showed that 12 had a recoverability of 8.2 percent or less, one had a recoverability of 16.9 percent, and another had a rate of 26.4 percent.

Because availability and recoverability data are limited in amount and geographic distribution, they provide only the most general guidelines for regional reserve estimates. Reserve estimates made in this way have a low degree of geologic assurance and must be regarded as hypothetical. Furthermore, the Clean Air Act has had a significant negative impact on the competitiveness of high-sulfur coal in the U.S. steam coal market, and low sulfur coal deposits, such as Virginia's, are likely to be more competitive and preferentially mined during the next several decades than are the deposits of higher sulfur coal in the northern part of the Appalachian basin (Energy Information Administration, 1997).

Graph showing sulfur content of Virginia's coals

Figure 2. Sulfur content of Virginia's coals (lb sulfur/MM Btu) (data from Energy Information Administration).

Table 1. Hypothetical coal reserve estimates for Virginia (in billions of tons) based on Averitt (1975) and extrapolated using 10- and 20-percent recoverability factors of remaining resources

Estimated ultimate recovery includes cumulative production of 2.09 billion tons as of 1/1/96. Estimated ultimate recovery ranges from about 24 to 30 percent of the estimate for Virginia's original resources]

  Original resources (Averitt, 1975) Remaining resources Hypothetical coal reserves
(10 percent)
Hypothetical coal reserves
(20 percent)
Estimated ultimate recovery
Tons (millions) 11.7 7.5 0.75 1.50 2.84-3.59

More recently, EIA (1996) has published coal reserve estimates, by State and by sulfur content. Virginia's data are shown in table 2.

Table 2. Hypothetical coal reserves (millions of tons) by sulfur content (lb/MM Btu) (EIA, 1996)
[Coal mined and lost in mining during 1995 was about 65 to 70 million tons, so that EIA's total remaining (hypothetical) reserves for Virginia, recalculated to January1, 1996, would be about 1.36 billion tons. {lb/MM Btu, pounds per million Btu}]

S (lb/MM Btu) <0.41 0.41-0.60 0.61-0.83 0.84-1.67 1.68-2.50 >2.50 TOTAL
TONS (millions) 0.195 0.632 0.403 0.133 0 0 1.36

Original coal reserve estimates range widely for the southwestern Virginia coalfields (table 3). Milici and Campbell (1991, 1992) estimated the amount of coal that ultimately will be produced in Virginia (hypothetical coal reserves) by using coal availability and coal recoverability data along with an analysis of historical data and trends to modify previous detailed coal resource estimates (Brown and others, 1952; Englund and Thomas, 1991; Campbell and others, 1991). They (Milici and Campbell, 1991) estimated that the amount of original reserves in the southwest Virginia coalfield could range from 3.67 to 5.96 billion tons as of 1/1/89 (table 3).

Table 3. Comparison of recent hypothetical coal reserve estimates (billion tons) for Virginia
[Remaining reserve estimates are recalculated to January 1, 1996. [bt, billion tons]

Authors Milici and Campbell (1991) VCCER
(Randolph and others, 1990)
EIA (1995) Milici and Campbell (this report)
Recalculated as of 1/1/96 1/1/96 1/1/96 1/1/96
Original resources (bt) 3.67-5.96 3.91-4.02 3.46 3.8
Remaining resources (bt) 1.53-3.82 1.81-1.92 1.33 1.7

Similarly, the Virginia Center for Coal and Energy Research (VCCER) (Randolph and others, 1990) estimated that Virginia's coal reserves range between 2.05 and 2.16 billion tons (as of 1/1/90), whereas EIA (1996) estimated Virginia's coal reserves at 1.362 billion tons as of 1/1/95. Used as a basis for calculating original coal reserves, EIA's data indicate an original reserve of 3.46 billion tons, whereas VCCER's estimate yields an original reserve value that ranges from 3.91 to 4.02 billion tons (table 3). The projection used herein is based on an assumed near-normal distribution for Virginia's coal production life cycle and an ultimate production (original reserve) of about 2 times peak production of about 1.9 billion tons in 1990, or 3.8 billion tons. The hypothetical remaining coal reserve for Virginia is calculated as 1.7 billion tons as of 1/1/96 (table 4).

Table 4. Production, cumulative production, and hypothetical remaining reserve (tons) for the southwestern Virginia coalfields
[Data from EIA and the Virginia Division of Mineral Resources]
Year Annual production
(millions of tons)
Cumulative production
(billions of tons)
Hypothetical remaining reserves
(billions of tons)
1990 46.92 1.90 1.90
1991 41.95 1.94 1.86
1992 43.02 1.98 1.82
1993 39.32 2.02 1.78
1994 37.13 2.06 1.74
1995 34.10 2.09 1.70

For this study, two regions were selected for comparison: the anthracite-producing region of Pennsylvania and the bituminous coalfields of southwestern Virginia. Each is in a different stage of its overall life cycle. In spite of large amounts of technically recoverable coal in the ground, Pennsylvania's anthracite is essentially depleted, and current production rates are 5 percent or less of maximum production rates. In contrast, Virginia's bituminous coalfields are at or only a few years past peak production.

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For more information, please contact Robert C. Milici
Last revised 9-16-97 (Kathie Watson)