Coal Tattoo

New report: Mining support jobs facing huge decline


Coal miners exit the elevator leaving the North River No. 1 Mine some 700 feet underground after finishing their shift, Jan. 5, 2006 in Berry, Ala. Photo by AP.

A new report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics paints a grim picture for the mining industry.

The report lists “Support activities for mining” among the 10 industries expected to have the largest employment declines over the next decade.  Employment in that sector (see here for definition, as it’s not just coal mining support activities) is projected to decline by nearly a quarter, from 328,000 to 252,000, by 2018.

I noticed this report mentioned on The Huffington Post, which did a slide show about the numbers.  Some of you may be interested to note that the “newspaper publishing” sector is also expected to take a bit hit, also with a projected jobs decline of about 25 percent between 2008 and 2018.

The Department of Labor summary report does not  go into detail about why mining support services is projected to be hit so hard. Certainly, folks in the industry will attribute this to the Obama administration’s “war on coal,” or to efforts to limit greenhouse emissions or more strictly regulate strip mining.

But working miners — as well as political leaders who care about them — might want to consider other likely reasons.

We’ve discussed the concept before here of “Peak Coal,” and the inevitable declined of the industry in the perhaps not-too-distant future.  As I wrote in one post, Peak Coal might be coming to Appalachia sooner than you think. See other previous posts here, here, here, and here.

Take the new Consensus Coal Production Forecast for West Virginia that was recently published by West Virginia University. It projects that Southern West Virginia steam coal production will fall by 60 percent between now and 2030.

The report does note that:

Mountaintop mining regulation and permitting issues continue to be a challenge for coal producers in the region.

But it also offers other significant factors in this projected decline, such as the deteriorating regional labor productivity, marginal and costly steam coal reserves, increased use of scrubbers that eliminate the need for low-sulfur compliance coal, and potentially abundant supply and moderate prices for natural gas.

Some experts see the possible deployment of carbon capture and sequestration  as one way to try to blunt these projected production declines. But experts also tend to think CCS is not likely to be deployed widely unless some sort of limits on greenhouse emissions give utilities an economic incentive to act.

But suppose that doesn’t work out … what’s the plan then for the economy in the Appalachian coalfields?