CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- As West Virginia political leaders prepare for another round of attacks on the Obama administration's coal policies, state data show the number of mining jobs is at its highest level in nearly 20 years.
Figures from multiple government agencies reflect the job increases between 2009 and last year, offering a starkly different picture than is frequently portrayed by industry officials and coalfield political leaders.
"Any way you look at it, coal mining employment is at a two-decade high," said researcher Ted Boettner, who recently analyzed the figures for a blog published by his group, the West Virginia Center for Budget and Policy.
Last week, Boettner reported that West Virginia Workforce agency numbers showed nearly 22,700 mining jobs statewide in 2011, the most since 1995. If support industry jobs were added, the 2011 employment was 24,500, again the most since 1995.
Separate figures from the West Virginia Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training show 22,300 direct mining jobs statewide in 2011, a nearly 8 percent increase over employment during 2009, President Obama's first year in office. The mine safety office figures show last year's mining employment was the highest in the state since 1993.
Employment figures may drop off later this year, when recent layoffs by a number of companies, including Alpha Natural Resources and Patriot Coal, begin to show up in government statistics, analysts say. But companies announcing those layoffs have most frequently cited competition from low natural gas prices, a warm winter and the sluggish economy -- not tougher environmental rules -- as the central reasons for production cutbacks.
Late last week, for example, Alpha announced it was idling one surface mine and cutting production at another, putting 133 miners out of work.
"These two operations were caught in the downdraft of a declining coal market, just like a number of other Eastern coal producers that have announced recent production cuts and layoffs," said Alpha spokesman Ted Pile.
Previously, Alpha had cited "unusually mild winter weather and decade-low natural gas prices" when it announced a $29 million first-quarter loss and revealed plans to idle 7 million tons of coal production.
Multiple government agencies keep track of coal employment numbers in different ways, and sometimes numbers from the various sources appear to contradict each other.
For example, average annual employment figures from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration show a reduction in Appalachian coal jobs between 2009 and 2010.
Matt Wasson, who monitors coal data for the watchdog group Appalachian Voices, said the average annual figures don't provide as good of a glimpse at short-term trends -- such as employment changes over a president's term -- as looking at quarterly numbers that provide more data points, and show the trend between 2009 and 2011 as one of rising coal employment.
"In reality, declining demand for coal is the bottleneck for production," Wasson told the House Natural Resources Committee during a hearing in March.