Figures Show W.Va. Coal Jobs Up Under Obama
17 May 2012
By Ken Ward Jr.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- As West Virginia political leaders prepare
for another round of attacks on the Obama administration's coal
policies, state data show the number of mining jobs is at its
highest level in nearly 20 years.
Figures from multiple government agencies reflect the job
increases between 2009 and last year, offering a starkly different
picture than is frequently portrayed by industry officials and
coalfield political leaders.
"Any way you look at it, coal mining employment is at a two-decade
high," said researcher Ted Boettner, who recently analyzed the
figures for a blog published by his group, the West Virginia
Center for Budget and Policy.
Last week, Boettner reported that West Virginia Workforce agency
numbers showed nearly 22,700 mining jobs statewide in 2011, the
most since 1995. If support industry jobs were added, the 2011
employment was 24,500, again the most since 1995.
Separate figures from the West Virginia Office of Miners' Health,
Safety and Training show 22,300 direct mining jobs statewide in
2011, a nearly 8 percent increase over employment during 2009,
President Obama's first year in office. The mine safety office
figures show last year's mining employment was the highest in the
state since 1993.
Employment figures may drop off later this year, when recent
layoffs by a number of companies, including Alpha Natural
Resources and Patriot Coal, begin to show up in government
statistics, analysts say. But companies announcing those layoffs
have most frequently cited competition from low natural gas
prices, a warm winter and the sluggish economy -- not tougher
environmental rules -- as the central reasons for production
Late last week, for example, Alpha announced it was idling one
surface mine and cutting production at another, putting 133 miners
out of work.
"These two operations were caught in the downdraft of a declining
coal market, just like a number of other Eastern coal producers
that have announced recent production cuts and layoffs," said
Alpha spokesman Ted Pile.
Previously, Alpha had cited "unusually mild winter weather and
decade-low natural gas prices" when it announced a $29 million
first-quarter loss and revealed plans to idle 7 million tons of
Multiple government agencies keep track of coal employment numbers
in different ways, and sometimes numbers from the various sources
appear to contradict each other.
For example, average annual employment figures from the U.S. Mine
Safety and Health Administration show a reduction in Appalachian
coal jobs between 2009 and 2010.
Matt Wasson, who monitors coal data for the watchdog group
Appalachian Voices, said the average annual figures don't provide
as good of a glimpse at short-term trends -- such as employment
changes over a president's term -- as looking at quarterly numbers
that provide more data points, and show the trend between 2009 and
2011 as one of rising coal employment.
"In reality, declining demand for coal is the bottleneck for
production," Wasson told the House Natural Resources Committee
during a hearing in March.
Next week, a state-funded group called the Coal Forum has planned
a series of three events targeting what the industry calls Obama's
"war on coal."
Meetings in Charleston, Wheeling and Beckley are meant to
"increase awareness of the harmful impacts" of U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency policies "and to discuss strategies for
reversing them." Featured speakers include members of West
Virginia's congressional delegation and United Mine Workers
President Cecil Roberts.
The Coal Forum is an arm of the state Coal Mine Safety and
Technical Review Committee, charged by state law with conducting
"coal advocacy programs." Lawmakers have given the Coal Forum
about $60,000 in state money over the last two years.
West Virginia Coal Association vice president and lobbyist Chris
Hamilton, who is co-chairman of the Coal Forum, said he wasn't
aware that the number of mining jobs had increased in the state
under the Obama administration.
"I did not note that increase when I looked at the numbers I was
provided," Hamilton said Thursday. "The employment numbers are
good. We're glad to provide gainful employment."
Hamilton noted that coal production in West Virginia and across
the region is down so far in 2012, and said geological issues have
reduced Appalachian coal's per-miner productivity, and likely
played a role in the increased employment.
Since taking office, the Obama administration has sought to reduce
the environmental impacts of mountaintop removal, and has
expressed serious concerns about the growing body of evidence
linking the practice to a variety of adverse health effects for
Obama's EPA also has issued the first-ever limits on toxic air
emissions from coal-fired power plants, and proposed a rule that
would set the first limits on greenhouse gas emissions from such
Hamilton said if not for measures like these, West Virginia's coal
jobs might have grown even more. But projections by government
agencies and others suggest the industry is headed toward a
So far this year, coal production in West Virginia is down about 7
percent over the same period in 2011, according to the U.S.
Department of Energy's Energy Information Administration.
Earlier this year, DOE projected that annual Central Appalachian
coal production -- mostly consisting of Southern West Virginia and
Eastern Kentucky -- is expected to drop to about 86 million tons,
a decline of nearly 54 percent, between 2011 and 2035.
DOE cited slow growth in electricity demand, continued competition
from natural gas and renewable energy, and the need to comply with
new environmental regulations. The agency analysis, though, did
not include any impacts from EPA's air-toxics rules or greenhouse
gas limits, and DOE has said that the Obama crackdown on
mountaintop removal is not a major factor in projections for
future production declines.
Just last week, DOE projected that electrical generation
nationwide from coal would decline by about 15 percent this year
over 2011 generation. During the first quarter of 2012, coal's
share of U.S. electricity generation dropped to 36 percent, far
below the 50 percent still frequently cited by industry
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.