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W.Va. coal mining loses about 900 jobs

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The number of coal-mining jobs in West Virginia dropped by nearly 900 during the third quarter of the year but remained larger than when the Obama administration began a series of new regulatory initiatives, according to new data from the U.S. Department of Labor.

West Virginia's coal employment dropped to about 22,500 during the period from July to September, according to the most recent figures reported by coal companies to the department's Mine Safety and Health Administration.

The numbers show the continued impacts of coalfield layoffs fueled by a variety of factors, but also indicate mining employment remains at higher levels that when the Obama administration began a series of regulatory actions to reduce coal's environmental impacts.

Nationwide, coal employment dropped 5 percent during the quarter but remained higher than at the start of the recession in 2007 and than when a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency crackdown on strip-mining permits began in early 2009.

The regular quarterly release of the MSHA data comes at the end of a heated and close presidential race in which coal issues played a significant role, especially in relatively small rural communities in the swing states of Ohio and Virginia.

Republican Mitt Romney worked those areas hard, campaigning on his promise to loosen Obama's rules on the industry.

But while coal company officials and regional political leaders blamed coal's problems on the Obama administration, the number of miners working in Appalachian actually rose during the first three years of Obama's term.

And the latest MSHA data showed that coal employment in Ohio remained essentially flat during the quarter, while Virginia lost 200 jobs during the period.

Matt Wasson, who follows coal jobs data for the group Appalachian Voices, said that the third-quarter MSHA data are a bit confusing at the national level, perhaps in part because of unusual swings in employment reported by operators in Indiana. Companies reported a second-quarter jump in coal employment of 932 jobs, then a third-quarter drop of 959 jobs, accounting for about one-fifth of the swing in national employment figures.

Industry experts and analysts have pointed to factors other than new regulations as playing much larger roles in the decline of Appalachian coal: cheap natural gas, competition from other coal basins and the mining-out of the best and easiest-to-reach reserves.

Government and private forecasts have for years projected a decline in Southern West Virginia production, fueled by quality reserves being mined out and increasing competition from giant surface mines in Wyoming's Powder River Basin.

More recently, advances in natural gas drilling resulted in extremely cheap prices, prompting many power producers to switch fuels. Additionally, new EPA efforts to reduce toxic air emissions have forced some utilities to speed up plans to close older, inefficient coal plants that couldn't meet the EPA standards.

The latest data from the federal Energy Information Administration show that utility demand for U.S. steam coal has dropped 17 percent this year, in large part because of competition from natural gas. EIA is projecting the lowest coal consumption by the U.S. electricity sector in at least 20 years.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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