CHARLESTON (AP) — New federal figures show West Virginia lost nearly 1,300 coal mining jobs in the second quarter of the year as the industry battled competition from other regions and low natural gas prices.
The Charleston Gazette says data from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration show that while employment fell about 5 percent during the period, coal still employs some 23,300 people.
Overall employment also remains about the same as it was four years ago at the end of President George W. Bush’s term.
And it’s up more than 8 percent, or by nearly 1,800 jobs, since the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency started to crack down on mountaintop removal mining operations in Central Appalachia. Those policies have made President Barack Obama deeply unpopular in the coalfields.
MSHA numbers show the increases occurred largely at underground operations.
Large employers in the region, including Virginia-based Alpha Natural Resources and St. Louis-based Patriot Coal, have struggled in recent months.
Patriot, which has 12 mining complexes in Appalachia and the Illinois Basin, has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, while Alpha announced this week it lost $2.2 billion in the second quarter.
In June, Alpha announced it was permanently closing two mines and a coal preparation plant in Logan County, and scaling back operations at two other southern West Virginia operations. Altogether, about 100 people were laid off, while another 80 accepted transfers.
Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, said he worries the layoffs are part of a new downward trend.
“We had more people working, and thank goodness we did,” he said, but recent job losses “are a concern, no question about it.”
Government agencies have long predicted a decline in production in the southern coalfields as reserves are depleted and competition grows from surface mines in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin.
Coal demand is also declining as old, inefficient coal-fired power plants are idled or converted to cheaper natural gas.
The share of U.S. electricity that comes from coal is expected to fall below 40 percent for the year — the lowest level since the government began collecting this data in 1949. Four years ago, it was 50 percent.