Soviet Union Table of Contents
For about 150 years, coal was the dominant fuel in Russian and later in Soviet industry, and many industrial centers were located near coal deposits. In the 1960s, oil and gas replaced coal as the dominant fuel when plentiful, accessible supplies of these fuels were discovered. But coal remained an important energy source much for of Soviet industry. Total coal reserves, estimated in 1983 at 6.8 trillion tons, were the largest in the world, and since 1980 expanded coal production has been a standard goal of industrial planners. In the mid-1980s, approximately 40 percent of coal went to power-plant boiler units (steam coal) and 20 percent to metallurgy (coking coal). The rest went for export, to other industries, and to households. Shaft mines provided 60 percent of total production, surface mines the remainder.
Historically, the most important coal region has been the Donbass, on which the metallurgical industry was centered because of the cheap, plentiful coking coal it offered. Other traditional coking-coal centers were the Kuzbass in western Siberia and the Karaganda Basin in the northern Kazakh Republic. As deeper excavation and reclamation operations raised the cost of Donbass coal, other centers challenged its position as chief producer of coking coal. The second largest coal center in the European sector of the Soviet Union was the Pechora Basin, where shaft mines were less deep and labor productivity much higher than in the Donbass. In most of the European sector, shaft mines had to be dug deeper, seams were growing thinner, and methane concentration was higher. Despite these conditions, in the late 1980s shaft mines were still providing 75 percent of high-quality coking coal.
The highest cost factor in Soviet coal production was transportation. Even when extraction was very expensive, regions such as the Donbass and the Moscow Basin remained practical because they were so close to the metallurgical centers they served. Conversely, Kuzbass coal extraction was cheap, but its high-quality coking coal had to be transported long distances to industrial centers (for example, 2,200 kilometers to the Magnitogorsk metallurgical center). Transport distance also required that new thermoelectric plants be located near the coal and water resources that fueled their steam boilers. In the late 1980s, Soviet coal experts called for gradually less reliance on the Donbass and increased emphasis on the Kuzbass. Increased investment at the Donbass had failed to maintain production levels, indicating the necessity of this step. But rail transport costs from the Kuzbass and Siberia would rise steeply with added volume. Experimental slurry lines were opened in 1988 to provide possible alternative long-distance coal transport to the west.
Future growth in coal production must come from east of the Urals, where an estimated 75 percent of the country's reserves lie. Most Siberian coal can be strip-mined, making production costs much lower and labor productivity much higher than shaft mining. Between 1977 and 1983, production in the Soviet Union's European basins fell by 32 million tons annually, and by the 1970s rail movement of coal westward across the Urals had doubled. To minimize transportation costs, major new power stations were built in the Kansko-Achinsk and Ekibastuz coal basins, whose low-quality brown coal, a cheap fuel, breaks down rapidly if transported over long distances. Coal from those mines required extensive processing before being burned in thermoelectric plants. By the year 2000, Kansko-Achinsk may be the most productive Soviet coal basin, with a planned yield of 400 million tons per year. The largest Soviet strip mine, Bogatyr, is located at Ekibastuz.
In the mid-1980s, low coal quality was still a major problem because efficient processing equipment was scarce. Huge reserves remained untapped in Siberia because of remoteness and low quality, but in the 1980s the South Yakut Basin in eastern Siberia was being developed with Japanese technical aid.
Data as of May 1989
Soviet Union Table of Contents