President Donald Trump promised a revival in coal jobs on his watch, but Kentucky didn’t see significant improvement his first year in the White House.
An estimated 6,503 people had jobs in the state’s coal industry at the end of 2017, up 0.7 percent over the figure from late 2016, according to a report released Wednesday by the state Energy and Environment Cabinet.
However, the state’s eastern coalfield fared better.
Pike County, the biggest producer in the region, saw jobs increase 23 percent over 2016, while Perry County had an increase of 14.4 percent, according to the report.
Overall, jobs in Eastern Kentucky were up 6 percent in 2017 over the year before.
Martha Davis, who with her husband Deanie runs a trucking business based in Floyd County that primarily hauls coal, said they’ve seen improvement.
“There’s been more mines open up,” said Davis, a Trump supporter. “At the end of 2015, we couldn’t buy a load of coal to haul.”
Davis said since Trump took office, she’s bought three tractor-trailers, replacing three she sold earlier because there was no work for them.
Job losses in Western Kentucky offset gains in the eastern coalfield, however.
Employment dropped by 7 percent in Western Kentucky in 2017, compared to the 6 percent increase in Eastern Kentucky. Both ends of the state saw coal jobs drop in the last three months of 2017.
An estimated 4,055 people had coal jobs in Eastern Kentucky at the end of the year, with 2,448 employed in Western Kentucky.
Total production in the state also edged down in 2017 to 42 million tons, a drop of 1.6 percent from 2016.
As with jobs, a production decline in Western Kentucky of 8.8 percent canceled a 9.4 percent gain in Eastern Kentucky. Still, Western Kentucky produced 57 percent of the state’s output.
Several factors have combined to sap Kentucky’s coal industry, including competition for power-plant customers from cheap natural gas; efforts in the Obama Administration to toughen environmental rules; and the rise of renewable energy such as solar and wind power.
Relatively high mining costs also help explain why losses in coal production have been especially deep in Eastern Kentucky and southern West Virginia, according to a recent study commissioned by the Appalachian Regional Commission.
“After aggressive mining in Central Appalachia for more than a century, the remaining coal is more expensive to extract, compared to other coal-producing regions, because it tends to be deeper in the ground and/or seams tend to be thinner,” the study said.
Jobs have plummeted in the region since 2011.
Employment in Eastern Kentucky averaged 13,679 in 2011, compared to an estimate of just 4,042 last year, according to the cabinet’s report.
Many people in Eastern Kentucky blame Obama-era environmental rules for crippling the region’s coal industry, and strongly supported Trump, who vowed to roll back regulations.
The Trump Administration pulled back from a rule aimed at keeping rock and dirt from surface coal mines out of streams and from the Clean Power Plan, which would have required cutting carbon-dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants that have been a key market for Kentucky coal.
Recent reports project that there won’t be a resurgence of coal production in Eastern Kentucky.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration projects that after an upturn in coal production in Central Appalachia in 2017, production in the region will generally decline through 2050.
The agency estimated production in the region will be 58.6 million tons this year, dropping to 43.5 million tons in 2030 and to 40.2 in 2050.
The agency said getting rid of the Clean Power Plan would not make a significant difference in production, projecting 43.5 million tons in 2030 without it and 43.4 million tons with it.
Central Appalachia includes Eastern Kentucky, southern West Virginia, western Virginia and northern Tennessee.
The coalfield that includes Western Kentucky would see a much bigger impact without the Clean Power Plan in place, according to EIA projections — 171.6 tons of production in 2030 without it compared to 129.8 tons with it, for instance.
The Trump administration has not yet put forth a replacement for Obama’s proposal.
The ARC study, conducted by researchers at West Virginia University, reached the same conclusion as the federal Energy Information Administration.
Eastern Kentucky is expected to see “little, if any, appreciable gains in production” in coming years, the study said.
One reason is that it has relatively little of the type of coal used in steel making, called metallurgical coal.
West Virginia has more metallurgical coal, which helped drive greater job increases there in 2017 than in Kentucky.
Central Appalachia will likely see some increase in metallurgical coal production to feed the global steel market, the report said.
“However, the overall long-term trajectory for Central Appalachian coal in general remains down because of its higher costs compared to other coal-producing regions in the U.S. and abroad, plus the fact that natural gas and other fuels continue to account for a growing share of baseload electricity generation domestically and internationally,” the study said.