Trump is president, but coal jobs continue to disappear in Kentucky

A worker uses a large front-end loader to scoop coal in Harlan County to be loaded for transport.
A worker uses a large front-end loader to scoop coal in Harlan County to be loaded for transport.

Hopes for a quick rebound in coal jobs with an industry friend in the White House didn’t pan out in Kentucky in the first three months of the year.

Employment at Kentucky coal mines dropped 3.3 percent statewide from Jan. 1 through March 31, according to a report released Thursday by the state Energy and Environment Cabinet.

In Eastern Kentucky, the number of jobs dropped by 4.6 percent. The decline was 1.4 percent in the state’s western coalfield.

The report estimated there were 6,261 people employed in the state’s coal industry as of April 1.

Still, Tyler White, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, said the report was promising. Production increased, several counties added jobs, and the overall loss in employment was much lower than in earlier periods, White said.

In the first quarter of 2016, employment in the state’s coal industry dropped 17.9 percent, and finished down 24 percent for the year.

There is optimism in the industry that the steep slide in jobs and production that began in 2012 has bottomed out, White said.

“It’s definitely steps in the right direction.” he said of the first-quarter numbers.

Production edged up slightly — 0.76 percent in Western Kentucky and 0.23 percent in Eastern Kentucky. That made for an overall statewide increase of 0.56 percent.

That minimal increase follows a 30 percent drop in production for all of 2016.

President Donald Trump repeatedly promised during his campaign and after taking office in January that he will “put our miners back to work.”

Since taking office, Trump has moved to roll back several environmental rules imposed by the Obama administration, but industry analysts say coal mining jobs will likely continue to decline, largely because power plant owners continue shifting to cheaper natural gas.

President Donald Trump signed a sweeping executive order changing most of President Obama’s climate change policies, March 28, 2017. “My administration is putting an end to the war on coal,” Trump said.

White said coal’s decline developed over several years of Obama’s regulatory “assault” on the industry, and it will take time for the steps Trump has taken to show results.

“You don’t stop a coal train with 50 feet of track,” White said. “You don’t measure change over 100 days.”