Kentucky's coal production can be related to the nation's overall increasing demand for power generation. At the same time, specific events have had both short- and long-term effects on coal development, and these include sociopolitical, technological, and market influences.
Overall coal production in Kentucky has increased since the early 1900's. Increases in rate of production followed post-World War I expansion and post-World War II expansion. The largest increase in Kentucky coal production occurred after 1960. The significant, nationwide increase in demand for electricity spurred this production, coupled with the development of surface-mining techniques suitable for the steep topography of eastern Kentucky.
Prior to 1916, more coal was mined in western Kentucky than eastern Kentucky, but since that time, eastern Kentucky has produced significantly more. Currently, eastern Kentucky produces nearly 80 percent of Kentucky's coal. These trends are illustrated here.
In the early history of Kentucky, nearly all mining was by underground methods. Dragline mining significantly increased after 1940 in the low-relief areas of western Kentucky to produce the abundant near-surface reserves. For 30 years, surface mining was the dominant mode of production in this region. Surface production in western Kentucky increased yearly until 1970, and then decreased when near-surface reserves became depleted. Today, underground mining accounts for 78 percent of production in the Western Kentucky Coal Field.
In eastern Kentucky, dragline methods were originally not feasible because of the steep topography, and surface-mining techniques for contour stripping and mountaintop removal were not efficiently applied until after 1970. Surface production in eastern Kentucky increased dramatically after 1970, and high levels of surface production continue. Currently, 43 percent of eastern Kentucky production is by surface methods.