U.S. Coal Jobs Down, but Still High in 2012

The State Journal
9 April 2013
By Pam Kasey

U.S. coal mining jobs came down a little in 2012 from their high in 2011 but remained higher than in any other year since 2000.

The number of coal mining jobs came to 88,962 in 2012, compared with 91,698 in 2011.

The numbers come from an April 9 report from the nonprofit citizens' group Appalachian Voices.

Using data from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, the organization found that the average number of coal mining jobs has been more than 15 percent higher under the Obama administration, at about 88,000, than under the Bush administration, at about 76,500.

While the data show some variations among coal-producing states, each of the top ten states has had more mining jobs on average under the Obama administration than under the Bush administration, the group noted. Nine of those states saw higher coal mining employment in 2012 than at any point during the Bush years.  

While job losses in coal in West Virginia over the past two years have drawn much attention, the 2012 total of 23,064 also came in higher than any year this millennium excluding 2011 at 23,941.

Appalachian Voices Director of Programs Matt Wasson pointed to two much-discussed factors to explain the continued high level of employment.

One is an increase in coal exports. According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency, coal exports in the fourth quarter of 2012 were higher than the previous five-year range, according to the group's media release.

The other is a decrease in productivity, or amount of coal mined per worker, due largely to harder-to-reach coal seams. Coal mining productivity nationwide has declined 30 percent from its peak in 2000, the group said. Increased underground mining explains some of the job increases, as it requires more workers per unit of production compared with mountaintop removal and other forms of surface mining.

The trend is particularly evident in Central Appalachia, the group noted, where coal mining jobs grew from 28,552 in 2000 to 33,029 in 2012, an increase of 16 percent, even as total coal production fell from 264 million short tons  to 147 million short tons, or 44 percent.

The group released its analysis prior to Thursday's scheduled confirmation hearing for the president's nominee to head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Gina McCarthy, where the agency's regulatory work over the past several years might be criticized as part of a "war on coal."