Using a technology developed at Virginia Tech to extract coal fines (and possibly rare earth metals) from the massive piles of preparation-plant refuse found all over Appalachia. One way or another, he’s determined to find a way to extract a profit from the black rock.
As a teenager E. Morgan Massey worked a summer job in the West Virginia coalfields as an assistant “field man.” He traveled around with Stuart Andrews (father of the late state Senate Finance Chair Hunter Andrews), keeping tabs on coal mining operations represented by his grandfather’s coal sales company, the Richmond-based A.T. Massey Coal Company. That was during World War II, before Massey enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps, graduated from the engineering program at the University of Virginia, and began mining coal, not just selling it. At 91 years, he has seen more ups and downs in the coal industry than a Kings Dominion roller coaster, and he thinks the market may be turning again.
Not only has Massey lived through more booms and busts in the coal industry than just about anyone alive, he made more money than most. He built A.T. Massey Coal into the fourth largest coal producer in the country before he retired some 25 years ago at 65, and Massey Coal went public as Massey Energy. Vowing not to compete with his old colleagues, he proceeded to pioneer the development of the South American coal industry and become the first American to invest profitably in a Chinese coal enterprise. The key to his success was a philosophy articulated when he ran Massey Coal under a joint partnership of the Fluor Corp. and Royal Dutch Shell. He steered the company’s capital into highly productive mines that would remain profitable even during the inevitable downturns in coal prices. To boost output during the good times, he leased out marginal coal reserves to sub-contractors who would bear the brunt when prices tumbled.
The coal industry has taken a walloping the past decade as tighter federal environmental regulations have penalized coal as an electric power source, the fracking revolution has undercut coal as a boiler fuel, and solar and wind power have begun displacing fossil fuels generally. While a market remains for high-quality Central Appalachian coal in the metallurgical market (in which coal is processed into coke and used to make steel), the steam coal market seems to be shrinking with no let-up in sight. The situation has become so bad that the Charleston Gazette-Mail headline has proclaimed that coal’s decline is “imminent” with or without President Trump’s recently announced regulatory rescue.
When I’m not blogging for Bacon’s Rebellion, I’ve been working with Massey on writing a corporate/family history of the Massey family and the A.T. Massey Coal Company, and I’ve had the benefit of his thinking. Coal has survived the demise of its market as a fuel for railroad locomotives, steam ships, a home-heating fuel, cheap oil, and abundant nuclear power. Coal has always found new markets. Even if no new markets materialize any time soon, the depression in coal prices and production has been so severe that Massey thinks the time may be opportune for some bottom fishing.
Despite his age, Massey still has the entrepreneurial bug. While he’s not interested in opening any new coal mines, he still sees a future in the fuel. With the help of 80-year-old Stan Suboleski, a former head of Virginia Tech’s mining engineering program, he’s launching a new venture, the Minerals Refining Corporation. This time around, he’s “mining” coal using a technology developed at Virginia Tech to extract coal fines (and possibly rare earth metals) from the massive piles of preparation-plant refuse found all over Appalachia. One way or another, he’s determined to find a way to extract a profit from the black rock.