Coal Tattoo


I recently came across a fairly new study that uses geographically represented data to question the common notion that mountaintop removal coal-mining operations are good for the economies of the communities where they are located.

The study is called “Mountaintop removal and Job Creation: Exploring the Relationship Using Spatial Regression,” and it as published in the peer-reviewed Annals of the Association of American Geographers (subscription or membership required). It was written by Brad Woods of Penn State University and Jason Gordon of Mississippi State.

Basically, the authors took GIS data about strip-mine permit boundaries and compared it to population and economic data to see if being located near a larger mining operation made a community more likely to have large numbers of residents employed by the coal industry.

Their answer?

Contrary to pro-MTR arguments, we found no supporting evidence suggesting MTR contributed positively to nearby communities’ employment.

The study said:

Our research question was straightforward: Is there a relationship between the size of MTR mining and employment, which justifies the ‘coal means jobs’ mantra?

The results of the overall model suggested insufficient evidence to support a positive relationship between mine size (either MTR mining or underground mining) and percentage of the working population employed in coal mining. This finding casts doubt on the pervasive and dominant argument of MTR advocates.

The study outlined several caveats that are worth considering. First, the study looked at West Virginia — and an examination of other Appalachian states where mountaintop removal is practiced could produce different results. Second, the study looked only at direct employment by the mining industry, not other local occupations that service that industry.  In addition, the authors called for more research on various factors that affect coal industry employment in the region:

… Future research should examine other factors that might affect coal mining employment, such as the influence of shifting coal markets, which make coal from central Appalachia less attractive. As regulations associated with the extraction and burning of coal tighten, and West Virginia’s most accessible seams are exhausted, larger and easier to extract coal seams in Wyoming and abroad will likely displace Appalachian coal to meet energy demands. In turn, this will likely result in shifting employment patterns in the West Virginia mining sector.

Still, the authors concluded:

Neither a rise nor decline in employment was found for underground or MTR mining. The lack of a statistically significant relationship between coal mine size and mining employment suggests that reliance on new methods of coal mining for job growth is tenuous at best. This supports previous literature, which has rejected favoring increased numbers of MTR projects an limited regulatory oversight of such projects.  The lack of any statistical relationship between coal mining and job creation raises questions concerning coal mining’s role in developing local economies.


Future research employing a variety of methods and study sites will further illuminate the social and economic implications of MTR. Repetition of the study in various locations and using multiple variables will assist policymakers in critically analyzing the use of MTR coal as an energy source. Advocating a questionable extraction technology, which brings with it potentially widespread and severe environment outcomes, fails to acknowledge long-term needs of communities, states and nations.

So … do you think this study will be on the agenda for discussion at Thursday’s hearing on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform’s Subcommittee on Regulatory affairs? The hearing is called  “EPA’s Appalachian Energy Permitorium: Job Killer Or Job Creator?