Coal Country’s Decline Has a Long History

A loss of jobs in the coal industry is not a recent development. Employment in this sector has been declining steadily for the past 30 years.
National Journal
Patrick Reis
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Patrick Reis
Oct. 31, 2013, 4:06 p.m.

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 him 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, min­ing jobs began dis­ap­pear­ing in the re­gion long be­fore he entered the White House, for reas­ons that have noth­ing to do with reg­u­la­tions now com­ing out of Wash­ing­ton.

In fact, coal min­ing jobs in Ap­palachia fared far worse un­der the Re­agan, Clin­ton, and George H.W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tions than they have un­der Obama.

Ac­cord­ing to em­ploy­ment counts from the Mine Safety and Health Ad­min­is­tra­tion, from 1983 — the earli­est year for which MSHA had data — to 1989, com­bined coal jobs in West Vir­gin­ia and Ken­tucky fell from 79,000 to 64,000.

In the fol­low­ing four years un­der the first Pres­id­ent Bush, coal jobs in the two states fell to 56,000. And by the fi­nal year of the Clin­ton ad­min­is­tra­tion, the states’ com­bined total of min­ing jobs had fallen to a nadir of 33,000.

By com­par­is­on, West Vir­gin­ia and Ken­tucky coal-min­ing payrolls have been re­l­at­ively stable dur­ing Obama’s first four years in of­fice: In 2009, there were just un­der 43,000 coal miners in the two states com­bined. In 2012, the latest year for which MSHA has fi­nal data, the count totaled just over 41,000.

So what’s driv­ing the de­cline? First and fore­most: changes in the in­dustry.

Des­pite min­ing em­ploy­ment be­ing cut nearly in half since 1983, the two states’ com­bined coal out­put has ba­sic­ally held steady, drop­ping from 245 mil­lion short tons in 1983 to 240 mil­lion short tons in 2011.

Ad­vances in min­ing tech­no­logy have made miners more ef­fi­cient.

In­deed, 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.

For the miners and oth­er in­dustry em­ploy­ees who still hold jobs, the in­creased pro­ductiv­ity has paid off. Ac­cord­ing to the Bur­eau of Labor Stat­ist­ics, nom­in­al av­er­age an­nu­al coal in­dustry em­ploy­ee wages in West Vir­gin­ia sat at $54,000. 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 Pres­id­ent 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.

But as in­dustry of­fi­cials ar­gue they could ex­per­i­ence an­oth­er such re­viv­al, 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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