WV Center on Budget and Policy > Blog > Economic Development > As Production Declines, Could Coal Jobs Grow?

As Production Declines, Could Coal Jobs Grow?

The projected decline of Central Appalchian coal production is one of the biggest challenges facing the state in the near future. While there are many reasons for the decline, some are irreversible, as much of the easy to reach coal has been mined out. This has prompted a great deal of concern in the state, chiefly regarding the potential loss of coal mining jobs, as it is assumed that as coal production falls, so will employment.

But that may not necessarily be the case. Some numbers suggest that while there may be an initial decline in employment, the job numbers may  bounce back, and actually increase in the future. The reason? Falling productivity.
 
As Ted points out in his post, and again in the 2012 SWWV when mining productivity falls, employment can actually go up, as it takes more miners to mine the same amount of coal. And coal mining productivity has been falling in West Virginia as easy to mine coal is mined out. In 2000 the state mined 10,000 tons per worker, while in 2010, productivity had fallen to 6,600 tons per worker.
 
The EIA measures mining productivity in short tons per miner hour, and includes productivity projections in their assumptions for their coal production projections. In 2010, coal productivity in Central Appalachia was 2.27 short tons per miner hour. However, they also predict a steep decline in productivity, falling all the way down to 0.84 short tons per miner hour in 2035.
 
Central Appalachian Projected Coal Mining Productivity

 

2010

2015

2020

2025

2030

2035

Short tons
per

miner hour

 

2.27

1.57

1.28

1.08

0.94

0.84

Source: U.S. EIA, Assumptions to the AEO 2012

As the table shows, mining productivity in Central Appalachia falls steadily over the next two decades. But coal production doesn’t follow the same pattern. As we’ve shown before, coal production is projected to fall sharply in the next 5-8 years and then level off for the foreseeable future.
 
 
 So while production remains basically flat in 2020 and beyond, productivity continues to fall, meaning that it will take more “miner hours” to mine the same amount of coal. So what does this mean for employment? We can use these two projections to make an educated guess.
 
According to the EIA, in 2010, total coal employment in Central Appalachia was 35,408, and those workers mined 184.44 million short tons of coal. And as I mentioned above, the EIA measured productivity as 2.27 short tons per miner hour. Doing the math, that averages out to 2,319.6 hours of mining per miner in 2010.
 
If we assume that each miner continues to average 2,319.6 hours of mining per year, we can reverse the calculation and estimate total employment using the projected coal production and productivty numbers, which I did below.
 
Central Appalachian Projected Coal Employment

 

2010

2015

2020

2025

2030

2035

 

Employment

 

35,408

36,191

25,190

29,156

39,047

45,405

Source: WVCBP analysis of EIA data

While employment falls along with production in the first part of the projection, employment starts growing again in the second part, as production stabilizes but productivity continues to fall. In fact, there may be 10,000 more coal jobs in Central Appalachia in 2035 than there were in 2010, despite production falling by 100 million tons, because of falling productivity.
 
Below I’ve done the same calculations, this time for Northern and Southern WV, using Northern and Central Appalachian productivity projections, and our projections for production based on WV’s share of Appalachian production. And as the chart shows, in Southern WV, employment falls, but then begins to rise as production stabilizes and productivity falls. In Northern WV, there is no projected decline to production, and so it continues to increase, along with employment.
 
WV Projected Coal Employment

 

2010

2015

2020

2025

2030

2035

Northern

WV

5,060

6,577

7,658

8,686

9,164

9,816

Southern

WV

16,031

16,386

11,405

13,200

17,679

20,557

Total

21,091

22,963

19,063

21,887

26,843

30,373

Source: WVCBP analysis of EIA data
 
Again, the same trend occurs. Employment falls with production until 2020, then as production stabilizes and productivity declines, employment goes up, and is higher in 2035 than in 2010.
 
Granted, these are really rough estimates, but it does demonstrate that there are a lot of factors at play regarding the future of coal in West Virginia, and we really don’t know how it will all shake out. The mix of falling production and falling productivity may eventually increase jobs, but even in that case it takes years for the initial losses to come back.
 
It’s also important to note that the type of coal being mined in Central Appalachia is also changing. In 2010, about 51 of the 186 million tons, or 27%, of coal mined in Central Appalachia was premium or metallurgical coal, which is used to make metallurgical coke for steel making, as opposed to steam coal, which is used for electricity generation. However, the EIA projects that premium coal’s share of total Central Appalachian production is going to increase, reaching over 50% of total Central Appalachian production in the next few years. 
 
And premium coal is sold at a much higher price than steam coal. In 2010, the minemouth price of premium coal in Central Appalachia was $100.94 per ton, compared to Central Appalachia’s average price of $77.10 per ton. And the price of premium coal mined in Central Appalachia is projected to continue to increase, reaching $184.16 per ton in 2035, while Central Appalachian steam coal prices stay flat.
 
This means that even if production costs rise in Central Appalachia due to falling productivity with more miners mining less coal, it may be feasible to mine Central Appalachian coal at a profit, due the growing prominence of the more valuable premium metallurgical coal.
 
The coal industry in WV, particularly southern WV, will be dramatically changing, and soon. That’s why it is so important to ask questions like “what is the effect on employment?” and prepare for that transition. While no one knows if these projections will occur as predicted, it is vital that the we take action, like our suggestion for the state to form a coal mining transition taskforce to help communities look for viable ways to ease the possible impact and search for viable economic alternatives and the creation of a Future Fund that ensures that communities and the state build assets from depleted coal resources.

One Response to “As Production Declines, Could Coal Jobs Grow?”

  1. Jim Skeens says:

    Very good analysis. What is the status of your suggestion for the state to form a coal mining transition taskforce?

Leave a Comment