Kentucky’s latest quarterly coal data continues a trend of bad news for the state’s coal industry.
The report released Monday by the Energy and Environment Cabinet shows in the fourth quarter of 2015, the state’s coal production dropped by more than 20 percent from 2014 levels. This puts Kentucky coal production at the lowest its been since 1954. Eastern Kentucky took the largest hit, losing a quarter of its capacity between 2014 and 2015.
With the decreased coal production came layoffs. More than 3,200 coal miners were laid off last year, with 1,000 losing their jobs in the fourth quarter of 2015 alone. As of December 31, 2015, there were only about 8,400 working coal miners in Kentucky.
And it seems unlikely that the industry has bottomed out. The report noted that most of Kentucky’s coal — 85 percent — goes to generate electricity at power plants in the Southeast. Three percent of that went to coal plants that retired in 2015. Another 13 percent went to plants that have announced their plans to retire units before 2019.
Both U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, a Republican who is seeking re-election and running for president, and Kentucky Coal Association President Bill Bissett released statements blaming the dismal report at least partially on President Obama and federal regulations that are making it more expensive to mine and burn coal.
Regulations such as the Environmental Protection Agency’s Mercury and Air Toxics Rule and the Clean Power Plan and the Office of Surface Mining’s proposed changes to the Stream Buffer Zone Rule have placed additional or anticipated burdens on the coal industry. But market factors are playing a large roll, too. Natural gas has hit record lows, and coal seams in some of Kentucky’s traditional coalfields are becoming thinner and less profitable to mine.
The coal industry has been shedding jobs for decades — and during every recent presidential administration except that of George W. Bush — and experts say it’s unlikely to ever employ as many people as it did in the past.
This story has been updated to clarify that the changes to the Stream Buffer Zone Rule have not yet gone into effect.