Kentucky slides to 4th in coal production as nearly 1 in 4 jobs disappear

Coal industry employment in Eastern Kentucky was 3,742 in 2016, while the total for Western Kentucky was 2,629.
Coal industry employment in Eastern Kentucky was 3,742 in 2016, while the total for Western Kentucky was 2,629. Photo provided

There was a slight uptick in coal production in Kentucky in the last three months of 2016, but for the year, production and employment continued the steep slide that’s been going on since 2011.

Production fell so much that the state dropped to the fourth biggest coal producer in the nation. Kentucky led national coal production from 1971 to 1988 and had been the third-biggest producer since 1994, but Illinois took over that spot in 2016, behind Wyoming and West Virginia.

Kentucky’s mines turned out 42.5 million tons of coal in 2016, a drop of 30.7 percent from 2015, according to a report published Tuesday by the state Energy and Environment Cabinet.

Production dropped 40.6 percent in the state’s eastern coalfield and 22.4 percent in Western Kentucky.

Jobs were equally anemic.

As of Dec. 31, estimated employment in the state’s coal industry was 6,371, down 24.2 percent compared to the last quarter of 2015.

Employment in Eastern Kentucky was 3,742, while the total for Western Kentucky was 2,629.

If there was a bright spot in the report, employment edged up in the last three months of the year — 0.7 percent in Eastern Kentucky and 0.8 percent in Western Kentucky. In addition, production went up 6.6 percent compared to the prior three months.

The upswing was driven by increases in the price of natural gas and of coal, said John Mura, spokesman for the Energy ad Environment Cabinet.

Tonnage and jobs have gone up slightly in some other periods since 2011, but the overall trend has been steadily and sharply down.

In 2011, the state’s estimated annual coal employment was 18,069, and production topped 109 million tons.

The state’s coal industry has been hurt by a number of factors, including efforts to enact tougher federal rules to protect air and water quality and competition for power-plant customers from cheap natural gas and cheaper coal.

President Donald Trump has pledged to roll back regulations on the industry.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other Republicans took a step this week toward killing the last major coal-related environmental rule from the Obama Administration.

That rule, known as the stream protection rule, would create greater restrictions on mining through streams or filling them with waste from mining. Environmentalists generally supported the rule, though some wished for an even stronger measure.

McConnell introduced a measure to overturn the rule, calling it an attack on coal families that jeopardizes jobs and undermines state primacy over enforcing mining rules.

“As we start repealing some of these rules, we are confident it will start creating an environment for coal to compete in the free market,” said Tyler White, president of the Kentucky Coal Association.

Analysts have projected no significant revival of coal production in the region that includes Eastern Kentucky, even in the absence of some rules the Obama Administration pursued, because of factors that include depletion of many thick coal seams and relatively high mining costs.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration projects that without Obama’s signature plan to cut carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants, there will be a slight increase in Central Appalachian production from 52 million tons this year to 70 million in 2022, followed by a long gradual decline to 35 million in 2050.

The EIA projections without the power-plant rule are almost the same.

The projection did not include an estimate on how production would change without the stream protection rule.