The number of coal jobs in Kentucky sank to a new low in 2018, according to a state report.
Coal employment varies from month to month, but the average for the entire year was 6,409, according to the state Energy and Environment Cabinet.
The total as of Dec. 31 was better, at 6,569, but the number of jobs hovered around 6,300 in the first half of 2018, dragging down the annual average.
The 6,409 average for 2018 compared to 6,610 for 2017, the year President Donald Trump took office pledging to roll back Obama-era environmental initiatives and bring back coal jobs.
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There has been an increase in coal jobs nationwide since Trump took office, from 50,800 in January 2017 to a preliminary figure of 52,700 in January 2019, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Kentucky has not had sustained growth in coal jobs, however, in part because the state doesn’t have as much metallurgical coal, used in steelmaking, as neighboring West Virginia.
Coal from Eastern Kentucky also is relatively more expensive than coal from elsewhere in the country used in generating electricity.
Coal jobs in Kentucky started dropping quickly after 2011, when the annual average was 18,069, and have continued down since, except for a bump up in 2017 that didn’t last.
At the end of the year, there were 3,995 coal jobs in Eastern Kentucky, according to the report. That was down from the same time in 2017, but a 2 percent increase from the prior three months in 2018.
The number of coal jobs in Pike County, the biggest producer in the state’s eastern coalfield, was down more than 18 percent from the same time in 2017.
There were 2,574 jobs in the coal industry in Western Kentucky, up 3 percent from the 2017 year-end figure.
Union County, in Western Kentucky, remained the state’s largest producer for 2018 with 9.7 million tons — nearly as much as the three largest counties combined in Eastern Kentucky.
The number of jobs in Union County at the end of 2018 was 20 percent higher than the year before, and several other counties in the region saw employment growth as well.
Gary Brent Slone, a miner from Knott County, said he knows several miners who moved to Western Kentucky for work after losing jobs in Eastern Kentucky.
Slone, 35, didn’t want to leave, however, so he got by on unemployment payments and lesser-paying jobs before finding employment a few months ago at an underground mine in Pike County , a 45-minute drive from his home.
He was out of a coal job for more than two years.
“The mining jobs ain’t like it once was around here,” Slone said.
The downturn has hurt not only families, but also reduced tax revenue for schools and local governments, which have had to make cuts.
The sheriff of Martin County recently announced a temporary end to law enforcement services because of a lack of money, and there has been a partial government shutdown in Knott County.
Revenue to Eastern Kentucky counties from a tax on mined coal dropped from $34 million in fiscal year 2012 to $6.7 million the most recent full fiscal year.
Total coal production in 2018 was 39.5 million tons, down 5.2 percent from 2017, according to the report.
Federal analysts do not project a comeback for coal in Eastern Kentucky, and in fact lowered projected long-term production in its latest annual forecast.
In a forecast in early 2018, the U.S. Energy Information Administration estimated that coal production in Central Appalachia, which includes Eastern Kentucky, would be 39.8 million tons in 2040 and 40.2 million tons in 2050.
In the newest forecast released late last month, the agency upped the estimate on production for this year and 2030, but reduced the 2040 estimate slightly and made a big cut in the 2050 figure, to 27.4 million tons.
The agency also projected that while coal production will grow over the next 20 years in the basin that includes Western Kentucky, the total will be less than thought just a year ago.
The agency cut its 2050 projection from 205 million tons to 153 million tons.
The reason for the lowered projections is the likelihood that natural gas and renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power will capture a larger share of the market for generating electricity, the agency said.
The projected drop in coal production “is directly attributed to reduced demand for coal in the electric power sector” because of low natural gas prices, according to David A. Fritsch, an analyst at EIA.