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U.S. Coal Sustains Employment Free Fall

By Taylor Kuykendall and Neil Powell

A free fall in U.S. coal mining employment that began after a near-term peak in the final quarter of 2011 has extended into 2014, with first-quarter employment dropping by more than 5,700 jobs, or a decline of about 7%, compared to the same quarter a year ago.

US-Coal-EmploymentAn SNL Energy analysis of average coal employment data from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) shows the average number of employees in the one-year period ended March 31 fell about 8.3% year-over-year to 79,658 employees. For the first quarter, the analysis found the average employee count at U.S. coal mines was 76,012, the lowest level since at least Q1 2009. The analysis shows about 1,574 fewer average coal jobs between Q4 2013 and Q1 2014.

Starting in the first quarter of 2009, coal mine employment dropped for about a year before rebounding over about two years to a near-term peak by the end of 2011. However, since coal mining employment hit the recent high of 93,084 jobs in the fourth quarter of 2011, the industry has consistently posted quarterly declines in total employment, while fluctuating levels of production have generally trended downward.

New greenhouse gas limits on existing coal-fired power plants announced by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on June 2 project that coal production for use in the domestic electric power sector will decline roughly 25% to 27% in 2020 from base-case levels. In 2030, the EPA projects the use of coal by the power sector will decrease roughly 30% to 32%.

The EPA’s projected impacts of the rule on coal extraction jobs are between 10,900 and 14,300 job-years in 2016-2020, and as high as 18,000 job-years lost in 2026-2030, compared to the base case.

Coal companies’ struggles in recent years have shown up in a variety of other measures: companies’ market capitalization has shrunk to fractions of their former value; capital expenditures are down significantly; and market analysts worry that the industry faces a serious liquidity crunch. Meanwhile, the industry has struggled with a number of bankruptcies while operators zero in on either diversifying their holdings or cutting costs.

Appalachia Continues to Lead Employment Drop
The Central Appalachian region continues to be the hardest hit by a decline in coal mining production and employment. SNL Energy’s analysis shows that employment in the region fell 13.8% in the first quarter compared to the same period a year ago. Southern Appalachia, a smaller producing region nearby, also saw significant employment declines. For the 12-month period ended March 31, the region saw average employment fall 15.7% to 4,080 jobs compared to the year-ago period.

Under pressure from both natural gas competition and other coal basins, the Central Appalachia basin also struggles more than others under more than a decade of declining productivity, a measure of coal produced by employee per hour.

In a recent interview with SNL Energy, Nick Carter, president and COO of Natural Resource Partners LP, said he expects that Central Appalachia will continue to see employment declines. “You’re seeing a lot of Central Appalachia coal miners move to the Illinois Basin for jobs and they will not come back,” Carter said. “They will always be residents of southern Illinois, southern Indiana or western Kentucky. We’ve lost the better educated, harder working group of people from Central Appalachia who had the capability and the skills to earn the best wages in the industry, the best wages in the area. We’ve seen those people move somewhere else in order to get a job.”

Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, said demand that is down domestically and around the world is putting a lot of pressure on Central Appalachia. He told SNL Energy that the region’s situation is further complicated by a challenging reserve, competition from natural gas and increasing regulation. “It’s continued pain, just piling on pain,” Raney said. “We hope that it’s bottomed out. We’re optimistic in West Virginia. We still have some of the best coal in the world.”

Bill Bissett, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, represents mine operators from two different coal basins that are faring quite differently. He said eastern Kentucky, which took an early hit to production and employment, is finally starting to see some relief. “I think what you have here is the rest of the Appalachian coal basin catching up with what Kentucky has faced for the past two years,” Bissett said.

In western Kentucky, where operators dig coal from the Illinois Basin, things are less grim. An SNL Energy analysis shows that employment in the Illinois Basin increased 167 jobs to 12,203 in the first quarter compared to the year-ago quarter.

“I think we’re going to see continued expansion of existing mines and the opening of new mines in the short-term,” Bissett said of western Kentucky. “But as threats continue to the domestic market, we’re concerned the day will come when western Kentucky begins to have problems as well.”

Average mine employment in the Powder River Basin has declined modestly, falling 3.8% in the 12 months ended March 31. Northern Appalachia also has staved off larger employment losses; average employment in the same 12-month period fell 2% to 17,942.

The southern Wyoming and Northern Lignite coal mining regions, both relatively small by production, recorded an increase in average employees in the period ended March 31 compared to the year-ago period. The Uinta Basin, Four Corners and Western regions lost a large share of their coal employment in the same period, declining 9.5%, 11% and 9.8%, respectively.

This article was provided by SNL Energy. Readers should note that SNL’s analysis excluded 33 mines that had not yet reported data for all the periods analyzed.