Mining News

Coal Crashing in Kentucky

Posted by Alana Wilson on 11/27/2013 4:59:10 PM

By Dr. Kenneth P. Green

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Kris Maher and Tom McGinty reveal the economic devastation landing in the U.S. Appalachians as a result of economic and regulatory shifts in coal mining:

Unprecedented pressures on the U.S. coal industry and nearly two years of mine closures and layoffs are reshaping the heart of the Central Appalachian coalfields in ways that many experts believe could be permanent.

While the coal industry overall is losing market share to abundant natural gas, mines in Central Appalachia have become increasingly uneconomical. Natural gas is cheaper, and so is coal mined in two other big coal basins centered in Wyoming and Illinois.

A Wall Street Journal analysis of Mine Safety and Health Administration data reveals that the picture is bleakest across a swath of 26 counties in Kentucky's eastern coalfields, where coal has been the lifeblood for more than a century.

The effects on employment, made personal in the article via a profile of now-unemployed coal miner Everett Napier, has hit the region hard:

The number of coal-mining and related jobs in the region remained fairly steady between 2000 through 2011, fluctuating from one quarter to the next by an average of about 400 jobs, but never dipping below 11,400. Since 2011, the area has seen an unrelenting decline that left eastern Kentucky with just 8,000 mining jobs in the second quarter of this year. State officials say there are now fewer miners working in Kentucky than any other time in records dating to the 1920s—a decline largely driven by the eastern slice of the state.

Miners, and mining company executives blame (at least in some measure) new regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency that has made coal less attractive as a power source:

In interviews with more than two dozen unemployed miners, nearly all blamed President Barack Obama and the Environmental Protection Agency for their plight. They cited a series of regulations to tighten emissions rules for coal-burning power plants, which they said amounted to what has popularly been called a "war on coal."

"Obama's starving us out. He ain't got a clue," said Paul Swanson, 46, of Cawood, Ky., who was laid off the day before Thanksgiving in 2012 from a mine with a 27- inch-thick coal seam, which requires miners to work on their knees. After his lengthy unemployment, he said he no longer can afford a phone.

Most coal industry executives see the situation as more complex. They say the stepped-up regulations have exacerbated a market depression brought about by new fracking technologies that have revolutionized natural gas drilling and made it possible to tap massive reservoirs of gas from deep shale layers.

"We're in a structural shift as a result of the regulatory environment," said Kevin Crutchfield, chief executive of Alpha Natural Resources Inc. of Bristol, Va. "I don't think the scale would be nearly as great" without increased regulations.

The EPA disavows responsibility for Kentucky’s coal crash, saying its “regulatory approach toward the power sector seeks to ensure a clear path forward for coal.”

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