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Despite Country's Largest Privately Held Coal Company Filing For Bankruptcy, Utah Coal Holding On

Stock photo of an underground mine shaft.
Murray Energy Corporation, the largest private coal company in the U.S., filed for bankruptcy on Tuesday.

The largest private coal company in the country, Murray Energy Corporation, filed for bankruptcy on Tuesday, leaving workers at its 15 active mines across the country — including one in Utah — wondering how the move will affect their livelihoods. 

But Brian Somers, president of the Utah Mining Association, said that here in Utah, miners are in a good place. 

“We're not back at the place that we were at the height of the coal age, but we do have a healthy [coal] economy,” he said. “And it's focused in rural Utah where it's providing some of the best, highest paying jobs that are available.”

Utah coal is unique, he said. It’s higher quality than coal from other states, burning at higher temperatures with fewer byproducts. Somers said that because of that, Utah coal, which is primarily sold and used within the state, sells for a premium on the international market, particularly in Asian countries like Japan and Korea. 

The bigger challenges, he said, are finding enough skilled workers to meet the industry’s demands and exporting the state’s coal abroad. 

Utah’s overall mining industry grew by 14% from 2017 to 2018, according to a report from the Utah Geological Survey. But Utah’s coal, like in much of the rest of the country, is mostly on the decline.

Lila Canyon Mine in Emery County, however, which is operated by Murray Energy subsidiary UtahAmerican Energy, has steadily increased its output since it opened in 2010, according to the report. Somers said he thinks it’s not likely to face a shutdown. 

Murray Energy has struggled with mounting debt from its many acquisitions around the country alongside a declining coal industry. CEO Bob Murray said in an interview with NPR that he hopes the bankruptcy filing will help keep the company operational and continue to employ its nearly 7,000 workers around the globe.

Republican State Senator David Hinkins, whose district includes Emery County, said that will not likely comfort the miners at Lila Canyon.

“I’m sure they’re worried,” he said. “But anybody that’s in the coal business better be worried because you know sooner or later these jobs are gonna be gone.”

Hinkins’ own company, Industrial Electric Motor Service, works with the Lila Canyon Mine and Hinkins said he is personally owed over $1 million from Murray Energy. He said the bankruptcy filing was not necessarily a surprise, but he hopes it will be a step towards getting that money repaid as well as putting the company back on solid ground. 

Even if Utah’s coal economy remains relatively strong, Hinkins said that with the changes in the global energy market, there will likely come a point when coal is phased out altogether.

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