Coal Tattoo

About the jobs: Is there a war on coal?

The Daily Mail’s Jared Hunt had an interesting story this morning. Headlined, “State jobs data less than positive,” the story explained that despite a drop in unemployment, the number of West Virginians working or looking for work has dropped to its lowest level since 1993.

If you read further down into the story, you get to this part:

But the president of the state Chamber of Commerce says that the state’s dwindling workforce should be a sign to lawmakers that it’s time to get serious about fostering economic growth in the state.

“We simply can’t continue doing all the things we’ve been doing and rest on our laurels,” said Chamber president Steve Roberts. “We’re hard as hell on manufacturing, so we keep losing manufacturing employment. We have a national policy that is very anti-coal, and we’re holding our breath that Marcellus shale may help us in the future, but right now we don’t know for sure.”

He said it’s time that the state Legislature — particularly the House of Delegates — got around to adopting policies to counter the state’s traditionally low rankings in business friendliness.

The Daily Mail pitched this as a story that dug deeper into the numbers than state officials wanted the public to see … But unfortunately, the story didn’t do much digging into Steve Roberts’ remarks.

And doing so wouldn’t have required looking very far … Take Friday’s installment of the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy’s blog, headlined “The War on Coal“?  In it, Sean O’Leary writes:

If you’ve read a newspaper, visited an airport, or driven on the highway lately, you’ve probably noticed a billboard or advertisement or two blaming the EPA for destroying coal jobs or creating a no job zone through environmental regulations. The supposed effects of the “war on coal” are not limited to Appalachia either, as U.S. representative Mike Simpson of Idaho recently claimed that, ” … the overregulation from EPA is at the heart of our stalled economy.”

But if EPA regulations are creating a “no job zone” in Appalachia and stalling economic growth, then one would expect to find some serious declines in mining employment. But that isn’t the case. In fact, according to the BLS numbers, in the past 12 months, the mining sector has seen the largest increase in employment in West Virginia.

This issues has been raised before, by the group Appalachian Voices, which reported on its Front Porch Blog back in May:

According to the Energy Information Administration, there are about 34,000 mining jobs in all of Central Appalachia (southern West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, Virginia, and a few counties in Tennessee) as of 2010. This includes “…all employees engaged in production, preparation, processing, development, maintenance, repair shop, or yard work at mining operations, including office workers.” This employment number is on the rise over the last decade even though coal production has plummeted in the region. Why? Because companies are relying on underground mining for an increasingly large share of their coal. Underground mining employs more people than mountaintop removal.

And Joe Lovett, executive director of Appalachian Mountain Advocates, testified to Congress just last month:

Mountaintop removal destroys coal mining jobs – as well as mountains. Underground mines, on the other hand, create 52% more job-hours than mountaintop removal mines for every ton they produce and employ nearly two thirds of the miners in Central Appalachia while producing just over half of the coal. Although the overall production from mountaintop removal mines declined by 25% between 2007 and 2010, employment at Central Appalachian coal mines increased. Claims by coal companies that more stringent permitting of mountaintop removal is causing an economic crisis in Central Appalachia are wrong. Since 2007, as production in Central Appalachia has shifted away from mountaintop removal and back toward underground mining, the increase in employment at underground mines has more than offset declines at other types of mines. Although mountaintop removal may benefit the bottom lines of big coal operators, it does not increase the number of coal mining jobs.