The good news: Letcher County didn’t lose any coal mining jobs during the first quarter of 2016. The bad news: The county didn’t gain any mining jobs, either.
Despite no gains in coal mining employment, Letcher County, where only 87 miners now work, was one of only two eastern Kentucky counties which experienced an increase in coal production during the three-month period beginning January 1 and ending March 31, state statistics show.
The Kentucky Quarterly Coal Report, a publication produced by the Kentucky Energy Cabinet, shows that Letcher County mines produced 34,105 tons of coal during the first quarter of 2016, an increase in production of 13.8 percent. Knox County is the only other mountain county that experienced a production increase of production. That county’s first-quarter production of 57,152 tons represents an increase of 124.1 percent.
Despite Letcher County’s production gains, the tonnage mined here in the first three months of 2016 was dwarfed by the neighboring counties of Perry (1,055,713 tons), Pike (1,022,947 tons), Harlan (812,880 tons), and Knott (388,081 tons). However, each of the four neighboring counties suffered steep production declines during the quarter, as tonnage fell 17.7 percent in Perry, 21.5 percent in Pike, 14.6 percent in Harlan, and 19 percent in Knott.
The state’s quarterly report also includes these findings:
• Eastern Kentucky coal production decreased by 21.6 percent during the first quarter of 2016. Production decreased most substantially at surface mining operations, by 26.7 percent.
• Underground mining techniques were the leading method of coal extraction in eastern Kentucky during the first quarter — accounting for 54 percent of production. Surface mining techniques accounted for 46 percent of production.
• Preliminary data indicate that Pike County was displaced as eastern Kentucky’s leading coal producing county during the first quarter of 2016 by Perry County. Pike County held the spot as Kentucky’s leading coal-producing county between 1978 and 2011 until it was displaced in 2012 by Union County in western Kentucky. Current production rates in Pike County are 89 percent lower in 2016 than during peak production of 35.6 million tons in 1996 and make it Kentucky’s 5th highest producing county.
• During the first quarter of 2016, there were 3,981 persons employed at eastern Kentucky coal mines, a decrease of 21.6 percent from the fourth quarter of 2015. Coal mines in western Kentucky decreased total employment by 405 jobs or 12.2 percent.
• Pike County lost 298 mining jobs during the first quarter of 2016, and now has 987 miners working.
• Perry County lost 205 jobs during the first quarter of 2016, and now has 607 miners working.
• Harlan County has lost 103 mining jobs since the last quarter of 2015, leaving it with 795 mining jobs at the end of the first quarter of 2016.
• Knott County suffered a loss of 64 mining jobs by the end of the first quarter of 2016, dropping its total mining employment to 163.
• Western Kentucky mined nearly 6.8 million tons during the first quarter of 2016, 89 percent from underground mines and 11 percent from surface mines.
• Western Kentucky coal production decreased by 5.7 percent during the first quarter of 2016. Union County increased production by 3.6 percent and remained Kentucky’s leading coal producing county. Western Kentucky began producing more coal than eastern Kentucky in 2013 for the first time since 1911.
• Preliminary data indicate that Kentucky coal mines reduced on-site employment by 1,501 workers, or 17.9 percent of their workforce, during the first quarter of 2016. As of April 1, an estimated 6,900 persons were employed at Kentucky coal mines, which is the lowest level recorded since 1898 when there were an average of 6,399 coal miners.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Energy Information Administration released a report showing that from 2007 to 2015 the amount of coal burned to make steam to generate electricity fell in every state except Alaska and Nebraska, after peaking about a decade ago.
According to the publication ClimateWire, the EIA said “combustion of steam coal reached its apex in 2007, but it has declined nationwide 29 percent since then.”
“ The swoon was particularly sharp in the Midwest and the Southeast. Six states — Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania in the Rust Belt and Alabama, Georgia and North Carolina in the South—accounted for nearly half of the national decline,” ClimateWire said.
Ohio has seen a drop of 49 percent and Pennsylvania 44 percent, most likely because the proximity of the states to inexpensive natural gas, said Mike Ferguson, director of energy infrastructure ratings at S&P Global Ratings, Benjamin Hulac and Elizabeth Harball write in ClimateWire. The amount of coal burned has also dropped by 53 percent in Georgia, 51 percent in North Carolina and 44 percent in Alabama. Two of the nation’s biggest coalmining and -burning states, West Virginia and Kentucky, have seen the amount of coal burned drop by 26 percent and 16 percent, respectively.
Brian Park, an economist at EIA’s oil, gas and coal supplies office, said that in Northeastern states “falling gas prices most likely have played a bigger role in crimping coal demand than the regional carbon-trading market, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative,” Hulac and Harball write. “And pipelines in the Northeast and Southeast have already been erected, Park added.”