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U.S. coal employment decline led by Appalachia

Coal mining employment in the U.S. has declined 42 percent since 2011 as coal demand has decreased. Appalachia has by far the largest share of coal miners among the three U.S. coal regions, but it has also seen the most dramatic drop in coal jobs, according to an article about one facet of the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s Annual Coal Report. Nationwide, U.S. coal mining employment fell from a high of 92,000 in 2011 to 54,000 in 2018. In Appalachia, it was almost cut in half, falling from 60,269 in 2011 to 30,620 in 2018.

“Appalachian mines tend to be smaller than mines in the Interior and Western regions and to use labor-intensive underground mining techniques, as opposed to machinery-intensive longwall mining and surface mining operations,” the report notes. “A slight increase in coal-mining employment in the Appalachia region from 2016 to 2018 corresponded to an increase in coal exports because this region is the dominant source of coal shipped overseas.” But most export coal is metallurgical, used in steelmaking, not thermal, which is burned in power plants to make electricity.

The number of operating coal mines has also declined over the past decade, with Appalachia also seeing the biggest drop. And though coal production declined nationally, and Western coal fields have long been the most productive, the production decline was concentrated in Appalachia, which lost almost half its production. “More than half of the region’s mines have closed since 2008, and production has fallen from 390 million tons in 2008 to 200 million tons in 2018,” the report says.

The Rural Blog is published by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.