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Who Killed All the Coal Jobs? Who Killed All the Coal Jobs?

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The New Energy Paradigm

Who Killed All the Coal Jobs?

November 4, 2013

President Obama is tremendously unpopular in Appalachia, thanks in large part to his administration's treatment of the coal industry. But the industry has long been in decline, and it fared even worse under some of Obama's predecessors.

Coal miners reinforce an air shaft in a Pennsylvania mine in 2001.(Spencer Platt)

Sen. Rand Paul sees a "depression" in Appalachia's coal country, and he says there's one man to blame for it: President Obama.

The Kentucky Republican isn't alone in his fury over Obama's treatment of the coal industry. A bipartisan bloc of elected officials from across the region shares his views, including two influential West Virginia Democrats: Sen. Joe Manchin and Rep. Nick Rahall. The critics argue that by tightening rules on mountaintop-removal coal mining and imposing greenhouse-gas emission limits on coal-fired power plants, Obama and his allies are regulating the industry out of business—and putting legions of coal miners out of work.

The president's regulatory push has left Obama and his party deeply unpopular across the region: Bill Clinton won Kentucky and West Virginia in both of his presidential elections. Obama lost both states, twice, in landslides.

But for all the rage over Obama's environmental agenda, Appalachian mining jobs began disappearing in the region long before he entered the White House—including for reasons that have nothing to do with regulations now coming out of Washington.

Over the past three decades, the Appalachian coal industry has shed more than 38,000 mining jobs just in West Virginia and Kentucky, according to the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Under Obama, the two states' combined coal-mining job losses totaled 1,624 from 2009 to 2012, the latest year for which MSHA had final data. That's a reversal from the George W. Bush era, during which the two states added a combined 7,000 jobs. But Obama's record includes a far smaller decline than what occurred under the Clinton, first Bush, and Reagan administrations.

 

It's tempting to ascribe the drop in coal-miner payrolls in Appalachia to the industry's decline in the region, but a look at total coal production reveals a disconnect. The total coal output of the two states has held relatively steady over the past three decades, particularly when compared with the states' combined coal-miner employment.

So why are payrolls plunging while production holds steady? Part of the disparity stems from technology: Coal companies simply don't need as many workers to produce the same amount of coal.

The traditional images of coal mines—dark holes filled with men swinging pickaxes and pushing carts—are no more. Today, it is machines that are ripping coal from the mines' walls, and then automatic conveyor belts whipping the fuel back to the surface. And much of the production has moved above ground entirely, thanks to a practice known as mountaintop-removal mining, in which miners use controlled explosions to open mountains and mine the newly exposed coal seams.

Backed by these new practices, coal output per miner skyrocketed in the 1980s and 1990s. But the wave crested around the turn of the millennium, and per-miner output has been on the wane ever since.

One possibility for the decline is geology. As the states dig into their reserves, many of the richest, thickest, and most pure coal seams have been mined out, leaving the industry to turn to thinner seams that take more effort to develop yet yield smaller quantities of coal.

But while mining jobs have decreased in the region, they also appear to be getting more profitable, at least over the past decade.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics only has salary data for industry officials as a whole, rather than for miners specifically, but in West Virginia, coal-industry jobs have become much more lucrative. In 2002, nominal average annual coal-industry employee salaries in West Virginia sat at $48,000. By 2012, the average employee was taking home nearly $85,000.

The starring role of mechanization, however, does not mean that federal policies have no effect on the number of coal jobs.The region saw its fortunes reverse under George W. Bush, who in 2002 relaxed rules on mountaintop-removal mining to give companies more leeway to dump their leftovers into the region's waterways. From 2001 to 2008, West Virginia and Kentucky's combined coal industry experienced a mini-revival, adding an average of about 1,000 mining jobs per year.

Industry officials argue they could experience a renewed revival if only Obama would get out of the way, but today they face a new hurdle that had not yet fully taken off in the early 2000s. Today, they face stiffer competition from natural gas, which is both more abundant and less expensive due to the fracking boom.

 
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