Environment

After years of coal industry decline, Kentucky has fallen from the nation’s third largest coal producer to the fifth. Federal data released last month shows the 42 million tons of coal the commonwealth produced in 2016 was eclipsed by Pennsylvania and Illinois. Wyoming and West Virginia have long been above Kentucky in coal production.

But despite Kentucky coal’s dismal 2016, the state’s latest quarterly report is giving the industry hope that things may have steadied somewhat.

During the first three months of this year, Kentucky coal production had a barely perceptible increase — 0.56 percent.

Kentucky Coal Association president Tyler White said the fact that there wasn’t another drop in production is a good sign.

“We’ve always said that a realistic approach to the industry is that we needed to stop the bleeding,” he said. “And that’s what we see over this first quarter is we seem to be stopping the downward trend that we’ve seen over the past eight years.”

There wasn’t a corresponding increase in employment; statewide, 216 coal workers were laid off during the first three months of 2017. White said that despite the fact that coal companies may not be hiring additional workers now, he’s heard anecdotally that current workers are able to pick up additional shifts, increasing their take-home pay.

During his campaign and in his first months in office, President Donald Trump mentioned the nation’s struggling coal industry several times, promising to put miners back to work. White said even though the first-quarter numbers don’t show that promised miraculous rebound, that’s OK. He said the coal industry’s decline came over years, and any improvement will take time, too.

“We need to have positive production and at least stable employment where we haven’t lost any jobs,” he said.

And that doesn’t mean a short-term boom.

“We definitely don’t want to find ourselves in a position where if production or demand drops off, we’re essentially in a place where we’ve grown so fast that we end up having to downsize people at all of these mines,” White said.

Kentucky coal production has dropped 44 percent since the first quarter of 2008. There are a number of factors that have worked against the coal industry, even though politicians blame the drop solely on President Barack Obama’s environmental regulations.

A recent analysis from Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy found nationwide, increased competition from cheap natural gas is responsible for 49 percent of the decline in coal consumption. Lower-than-expected demand accounts for 26 percent of the decline, and the growth of renewable energy is responsible for 18 percent.

The adverse effects of environmental regulations accounts for the rest — about 7 percent.

Erica Peterson reports on energy and the environment for WFPL. She is also Enterprise Editor.