Last year, Southern Coal operations controlled by the Justice family produced about 4.6 million tons of coal and employed 1,500 workers in West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and Alabama, according to company data reported to the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration. Production was about equally split between surface and underground operations, according to the data.
As of the third quarter of 2012, Southern Coal listed 750 fewer miners, reflecting layoffs and mine closures at more than two dozen small operations, according to the MSHA data.
Southern Coal's Tuesday announcement comes three weeks after President Obama's re-election victory, despite the coal industry's public relations campaign alleging the administration had carried out a "war on coal" aimed at destroying the industry.
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.
But the industry has struggled, and a series of layoffs since the first of this year has hit Appalachian coal communities hard. 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 kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.