At the same time, the United Mine Workers union has praised Obama for putting former union safety director Joe Main in charge of MSHA and increasing enforcement efforts since the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster in April 2010. GOP leaders in Congress, meanwhile, have blocked new mine-safety legislation and are working against proposed MSHA rules aimed at ending black lung disease.
UMW spokesman Phil Smith said his organization is seeing employment gains by union members working at Northern Appalachian mines that produce coal for power plants and Alabama mines that produce coal for steel mills.
Most mountaintop-removal mines in Central Appalachia are non-union operations, and the UMW has not yet seen job losses at the few large surface mines where it represents workers, Smith said.
"That is because they are working at mines that have current permits," Smith said. "We'll see what happens when those permits need to be extended or new permits obtained."
One West Virginia operator, Alpha Natural Resources, is facing a specific federal court action to block one of its Logan County permits. However, Alpha told industry analysts early this month it's not worried now about any permitting problems.
"We feel pretty good about what we have permitted so far," Alpha CEO Kevin Crutchfield said. "There's nothing in 2012 that is contingent upon any sort of regulatory relaxation or need."
Last month, when the industry won an initial court victory over part of the EPA's permit crackdown, National Mining Association President Hal Quinn said, "with this decision, coal communities can get back to the business of producing affordable energy for Americans and put more Americans back to work."
New charts posted on the industry group's website, though, promote the fact that coal mining employment nationwide has increased by 8.5 percent since 2001.
"There is evidence that strictly regulated coal mining is producing more jobs while protecting the environment," West Virginia University law professor Pat McGinley told a House Natural Resources subcommittee Friday morning.
However, the current increase in jobs comes amid government projections that coal production in Central Appalachian -- meaning Southern West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky -- will decline rapidly through the rest of the decade.
McGinley told lawmakers that if they're concerned about coalfield jobs, they might spend their time examining why federal and state agencies have not enforced post-mining land development requirements for mountaintop-removal mining operations.
"When Congress enacted [the surface mining law] in 1977, it recognized a tradeoff -- flattened mountain ridges would be replaced by long-term economic development -- creating jobs in coal regions where the boom/bust economic cycle results in high unemployment and few opportunities," McGinley said. "For those who desire jobs in the coalfields, one must ask - why has [the surface mining act's] mandate been almost totally ignored?"
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.