As the coronavirus pandemic crushed demand for coal throughout the U.S. and around the world, output from some of the top coal mines in the Northern Appalachian region in the eastern U.S. saw precipitous declines.
The top 25 coal mines in the region by production volume produced 14.0 million tons in the second quarter of 2020, according to an S&P Global Market Intelligence analysis of industry-reported data collected by the U.S. government. Output from these mines during the quarter fell 27.0% from 19.1 million tons produced in the previous quarter, when reports of novel coronavirus infections were beginning to trickle into the public domain, and dropped 45.8% from 25.7 million tons produced during the same period in 2019.
National coal production dropped into a free-fall during the second quarter as shuttered economic activity resulted in diminished demand for electricity and steelmaking materials in the U.S. and abroad, an impact exacerbated by rock-bottom natural gas prices. Overall production in the Northern Appalachian region dropped roughly 28.2% from the prior quarter and operators reduced their labor forces by about 12.2%.
The destruction caused by the pandemic was pronounced at Consol Energy Inc.'s Enlow Fork mine in Pennsylvania. Once one of the largest mines in the region, the asset produced only 243,000 tons of coal in the second quarter, diving 89.8% from 2.4 million tons produced in the previous quarter and 90.1% from 2.5 million tons of output in the prior-year period. Consol announced it would lay off 233 workers at Enlow Fork following the conclusion of the quarter, asserting it was difficult to determine when production would return to prepandemic levels.
Consol also ran its Bailey mine in Pennsylvania on an as-needed basis during the quarter in response to the decline in demand resulting from the pandemic. The asset produced 1.0 million tons during the quarter, dropping 64.1% from 2.8 million tons produced during the prior quarter.
"From a demand perspective, the second quarter of 2020 was the worst quarter that I've seen in my 40-plus year career and the most challenging market conditions we've experienced in the 30-plus year history of the Pennsylvania mining complex," Consol CEO and President Jimmy Brock said on an Aug. 10 earnings call.
Of the top 25 mines, 13 saw double-digit percentage declines in production compared to the previous quarter, and 17 of the 25 saw such dips in output compared to the second quarter of 2019.
The top producing Northern Appalachian mine for the quarter was the Murray Energy Corp.-operated Marshall County mine in West Virginia, which produced 1.9 million tons of coal in the second quarter. The total was a 12.0% decline from 2.2 million tons produced in the previous quarter and a 44.4% drop from 3.4 million tons in the prior-year period.
The second-largest producer in the region was Alliance Resource Partners LP's Tunnel Ridge mine in West Virginia, which produced roughly 1.7 million tons in the second quarter, a 9.1% decrease from its first-quarter output of 1.8 million tons. Alliance has taken a rosier view of the coal sector's state amid the pandemic. On a recent earnings call, the company highlighted figures indicating coal burn and electricity demand substantially increased month over month in June, a potential indication that coal shipments have reached their bottom.
"Although uncertainties remain, these favorable trends for [Alliance Resource Partners'] coal and minerals businesses support our cautious optimism that the second half of this year will be better than the first," President and CEO Joseph Craft said on a July 27 earnings call.