Whitesburg KY
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Region reeling from new coal layoffs

More than 2,000 coal mine workers are being laid off or are at risk of losing their jobs because of the ongoing downturn in the markets and increased government scrutiny of power plants.

In recent days, several subsidiaries of Murray Energy Corp., the country’s largest privately held coal mining company, said they were laying off more than 1,000 workers in Ohio, Illinois and West Virginia.

The company said it may idle the Monongalia County mine in the Mountain State, jeopardizing at least some of the facility’s 589 workers by the end of July.

Murray in a statement said the workforce reductions were “due to the ongoing destruction of the United States coal industry by President Obama, and the increased utilization of natural gas to generate electricity.” CEO Robert Murray is an ardent critic of the White House’s environmental and energy policies.

Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America, called the new layoffs “very bad news” and said they would “devastate dozens of communities” if they were long-lasting.

The UMWA has been lobbying Congress for legislation meant to shore up the union’s pension and health care benefits program, which has been under increased strain because of the downturn (E&E Daily, May 20).

In a separate announcement earlier this year, Murray said it was laying off 200 employees and contractors from West Virginia mines. The company has also blamed severance taxes in the state.

Murray has been trying to position the company to be an industry leader after the downturn and the ongoing spate of coal-fired power plant shutdowns. It bought mines from Consol Energy Inc. in 2013 and Foresight Energy LP this year.

Still, the downturn’s persistence has undercut industry efforts to slash costs and focus on strengths. Even exports have taken a hit amid a global coal glut.

James Stevenson, director of North American coal for the research organization IHS Energy, said earlier this year that 2015 may be the “worst year in years” for the industry.

Last week, Alpha Natural Resources Inc., a company that has been through several staff cuts, announced 71 job losses in Kentucky and Virginia. And the company said it expected to idle the Camp Creek mine in Wayne County, W.Va., potentially affecting more than 400 more workers.

“This is an unprecedented time in the coal industry, and Alpha continues to take difficult but necessary actions to ensure that our production is aligned with the reduced market demand we see today and anticipate in the future,” said Alpha CEO Kevin Crutchfield.

Coal country politicians reacted with alarm and also pointed fingers at the White House.

“We recognize market forces play a large role in these decisions; however, the market is also being forced to react to overreaching regulations,” said West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin (D).

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) said, “The administration’s continued overreach has contributed to thousands of coal miners losing their jobs in West Virginia and our neighboring states, harming local economies and families.”

The administration’s defenders say the White House is not on an anti-coal crusade, and that forecasters had long been predicting mining drops in Appalachia. The region is competing not only with natural gas but also with cheaper mining elsewhere.

At the same time, the U.S. Energy Information Administration has said U.S. EPA’s new mercury rules are to blame for many coal power plant retirements.

And last week, EIA said the agency’s proposal to cut carbon emissions from existing power plants would more than double those retirements (EnergyWire, May 22).

Litigation and campaigning from environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, have also added to the coal industry’s bur- dens and encouraged coal plant shutdowns.

Both Alpha and Arch Coal Inc., another major coal producer, are trying to avoid being delisted from the New York Stock Exchange because of low share prices. Arch has tapped restructuring advisers to help the company reduce its debts, The Wall Street Journal reported.

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