University of Pittsburgh


Mining for Energy

Maps help in the search for new resources and talent

Written by Holden Slattery

Wearing a hard hat, safety glasses, and coveralls, a Pitt junior goes to work 400 feet below the Earth’s surface. Jim McCaffrey, a mining engineering major, is spending his summer with CONSOL Energy, a coal and gas company south of Pittsburgh. For the rest of the season and later, on weekends and vacations, McCaffrey mines coal, builds roof supports, and installs conveyor belts. He uses his wages to pay his Pitt tuition.

That was the summer of 1975. Three years later, with an engineering degree from the University, he was hired by CONSOL as a mining engineer, charged with improving the company’s mining methods. He’s still with the company today, after rising through the ranks during his 32-year employment. His current position is senior vice president of CONSOL’s material and supply chain management group and CNX Land Resources, a subsidiary.

Not too long ago, McCaffrey’s company sent him back to school as a volunteer instructor at Pitt, teaching an introductory course in mining engineering. He’s also an unofficial ambassador for his profession, sparking interest in mining careers among a new generation of student-engineers. The world has changed a lot since McCaffrey was an undergraduate and mining engineering was in its heyday. In the 1980s, an economic downturn pummeled the coal mining industry, research funding waned, and the University phased out its mining engineering courses. Today, CONSOL and other coal companies face a workforce generation gap.

At Pitt, McCaffrey is bridging the gap by reaching out to talented young people who can help lead CONSOL and other mining and energy production companies into the new world of 21st-century energy production. Mining engineers across the globe are pursuing ways to produce affordable energy and to meet the demands of rapidly emerging industrialized regions without jeopardizing the Earth’s environment.

By partnering with CONSOL to revive interest and resources in mining engineering, Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering is leading the way to help solve the energy riddle. Their collaboration is important—more than 50 percent of electricity in the United States and 25 percent of the world’s energy is generated from coal, a resource that is abundant in the Northeast and Midwest.

Engineers at CONSOL and elsewhere are working to develop technologies to capture and store carbon dioxide emissions from burning coal. Developing the technology will require hiring people, as well as acquiring about $2 billion in funding over the next six to 10 years.

CONSOL and Pitt are poised to be at the forefront of this new wave. The energy firm and the University have been collaborating to create new mining engineering classes at Pitt. McCaffrey assisted in teaching those classes. Also, the Swanson School has developed a plan that would enable students to earn a certificate related to mining engineering. The certificate courses are part of the Swanson School’s energy and sustainability initiatives. The school has also revived classes in nuclear engineering and power and energy engineering. Proposals have been submitted for similar certificate programs in these fields, too.

CONSOL’s partnership with Pitt goes back more than a decade. In 1991, the CONSOL Energy Mining Map Collection began as the company made its first donations to the University Library System of what is now a priceless compilation of 8,000 vintage engineering maps and photographs. The maps, some of which date to the 1850s, display in great detail the underground veins of coal mines and their depths, evidence of the rich history of mining in this area. Many of these colorful, hand-drawn maps are also works of art.

In January 2005, a mine blew out in McDonald, Pa., a rural hamlet in Washington County. Every minute, up to 10,000 gallons of water and mine drainage gushed from the 1930s-era Nickel Plate Mine. Streets were flooded and homes were threatened. Because the Environmental Protection Bureau of Abandoned Mine Reclamation had studied mining maps from the Pitt collection, environmental and safety officials found a location to build a permanent gravity drain system, which included an overflow area, to control the mine discharge and keep homes and residents safe. The accident revealed just how important the collection of such maps could be and led to the modernization of mining map collections, including the one at Pitt.

Now, the U.S. Office of Surface Mining is searching for old maps to digitize and post on its Web site. The department has found maps at universities, historical societies, and in private homes. Pitt is providing metadata on the maps in its collection to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), which is storing the digital files. Pitt will link to the state’s DEP maps Web site when it is completed. Recently, the state DEP and the Office of Surface Mining agreed to provide $81,242 to support the map project, and CONSOL committed $100,000 over five years to clean, repair, catalogue, and better preserve the maps at Pitt.

Meanwhile, in the hills of Appalachia, McCaffrey has taken a group of students on a field trip to Enlow Fork, one of the longest coal mines in the region. The students walk underground and watch CONSOL’s miners and managers work. McCaffrey stands nearby watching the students, looking for those who might not mind the hands-on work of going deep into the Earth to harvest energy for a new generation.