Over at Coal Tattoo, Ken Ward has a must read piece on why state politicians and the media avoid having a balanced discussion regarding the impact of the coal industry. One of the central reasons why our state is unable to have a rational discussion is the propaganda and inflammatory rhetoric coming from the coal industry.
According to the narrative, there has been a growing “war on coal” ever since President Obama took office in 2009 and the EPA began cracking down on mountain top removal mining permits. According to industry front groups such as Faces of Coal, West Virginia is smack in the middle of “Obama’s NO JOB ZONE,” as see in this billboard along Interstate 64.
While the Obama administration and the EPA may be taking a harder look at mountain top removal mining permits, a quick look at coal mining employment in West Virginia reveals that since Obama took office in the winter of 2009 coal mining employment has grown by over 1,500 jobs or by 7.4%. If we measure from the end of the national recession in June 2009 (or the 2nd Quarter of 2009) to the third-quarter of 2011 (the latest available data), employment in the coal mining industry has grown by 3,100. For comparison, total employment in West Virginia has only grown by 2.9% over this period.
Looking over the last two decades, annual West Virginia coal mining employment was higher in 2011 than at anytime over the last 17 years, according to Workforce West Virginia. In 1995, there were 22,669 workers employed in coal mining (SIC Code 12) compared to 22,693 during the first three quarters of 2011 (NAICS Code 2121). If you include coal mining support activities (NAICS 213113) – which are separated out when the Census switched to using NACIS Codes in 2001 – employment in coal mining was at 24,515 in 2011 compared to 22,669 in 1995. Any way you look at it, coal mining employment is at a two-decade high.
This all being said, the rise in coal mining jobs has very little to do with the actions of the Obama administration and the EPA. The rise in coal mining employment over this period is due more to the recent spike in coal prices from 2005 to 2011, steady decline of productivity, and the counter-cyclical nature of the energy industry during recessions. While there is a good chance that coal employment will be lower in 2012 do to a decline in customer demand for West Virginia coal – which is reflected in the 2012 drop in coal spot prices – this again will not be related to actions by the Obama administration.
As Ken notes in his blog, if we can move past the rhetoric and political confusion regarding the plight of the coal industry in our state we might be able to chart a better economic course for our future. However, this will only happen if we first look at the facts.