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Consol: Industry must improve safety to compete

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A Consol Energy executive says he is concerned about the Obama administration's take on coal, but he also called for the industry to focus on safety.

The company logged three coal mining fatalities last year. A Consol miner also died Feb. 12 of this year.

"We suffered tragic fatalities ourselves within our company, recently at Robinson Run Loveridge mine," said Nick DeIuliis , president of Consol Energy. "Frankly, those fatalities have tested our spirit. It's forced us as a team to look inward for answers."

DeIuliis noted "great progress" with the company's efforts to reduce mine safety incidents, but he added that severity of incidences continue to "remain an obstacle." He said the problem will take a collective approach between industry, labor and government.

"When a fatality occurs in the coal industry … it's not just a statistic. It rips through families, communities and the entire industry," DeIuliis said.

One problem, DeIuliis said, is finding a way to incentivize employees to report problems without fear of backlash from fellow co-workers or mine management.

"Safety … is not about large mines or small mines, or union mines or union-free mines, or eastern or western, it's not about that," he said. "Safety remains primarily first and foremost about attitude and mine site decision making."

DeIuliis said fatalities and other industry accidents also threaten the reputation of the coal industry as a whole. He said accidents remind people of the "relic" of times when fatalities were accepted as part of "doing business" in the coal industry.

"How our industry deals with severity and severe accidents going forward is going to have a tremendous effect on the future of the industry," DeIuliis said. "The reality is that safety is rapidly improving every year."

Consol, he said, is now trying to maintain a steady pace of incident reduction but is also focusing on reducing accident severity. Despite record setting lows of mine safety incidents, DeIuliis said there is still much work to be done at the company in terms of safety.

"Statistics are very positive," DeIuliis said. "The statistics are heading in the right direction, but of course, you know, that's not enough, because you can't be satisfied with just incremental improvements. … We still suffered tragic fatalities during those years."

DeIuliis said the only acceptable statistic should be "zero fatalities." He said that getting to zero will largely depend on overcoming the challenge of instilling personal safety in the miner. Process and planning of the mine, he said, is a supporting role, but personal decision-making is the ultimate key to reducing fatalities.  

DeIuliis said responsibility for safety spans across Consol – from the mine face to his own office.

"We learn most from the mistakes that end up hurting the most," DeIuliis said. "All the safety improvements and milestones achieved are not going to bring back the friends we lost. We all know success in this very important area is not to be measured by trophies and awards. It's ultimately going to be measured by checking in and out after every shift and looking out for your brother and sister."

DeIuliis was mostly optimistic about the future of coal in West Virginia during symposium, calling the current coal market climate "challenging, but very interesting as well."

He opposed a statement by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg who called coal a "dead man walking."

"I think his advisors and limousine liberal friends in Manhattan missed a couple of facts," DeIuliis said. "The first and most important is that coal is going to continue to produce 35 percent of America's electricity needs for at least the next 30 years."

DeIuliis said that coal markets are also continuing to look at world energy trends, where coal use is increasing. That doesn't mean, however, the industry isn't challenged. He said currently, coal is at a "crossroads" due to an "ideological assault" on the industry.

"There's a very bright future for West Virginia coal, but we're going to have to push forward with the evolution of our safety culture if we hope to fully participate in that future," DeIuliis said.

The Consol president added that data "clearly" show there is an "insatiable demand for energy worldwide." He looked at growing markets in China and India as potential customers for American coal.

"There's going to be a massive buildup in demand for coal," DeIuliis said, later adding domestic markets also look promising.

"The reality is that our baseload electricity needs are still going to be tilted toward coal for the foreseeable future and West Virginia, and West Virginia coal can continue to compete for a share of the pie."