By Vicki Smith
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) — U.S. coal mining employment the past two years was the highest it’s been in 15 years, despite claims that President Barack Obama is waging war on the industry, an environmental group that studied federal data said Tuesday.
Appalachian Voices also said the average number of jobs was 15 percent higher under Obama’s first four years than under the eight years Republican George W. Bush was president.
In a press release touting an improvement in safety at U.S. mines earlier this week, the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration noted similar parallels. It said the number of coal miners working last year was the second-highest since 1994, even with the loss of about 6,000 jobs between 2011 and 2012.
MSHA said the number of mines operating fell from 1,973 to 1,865 during that period, while coal production dropped from about 1.1 billion tons in 2011 and to about 1 billion tons last year.
The number of working miners dropped to 137,361.
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Appalachian Voices released the numbers to defuse attacks expected Thursday at the confirmation hearing for Gina McCarthy, Obama’s nominee to head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Director of Programs Matt Wasson called the industry’s “war on coal” rhetoric an “utter fabrication.”
Wasson said several factors are contributing to the employment figures — an increase in coal exports and a decrease in the amount of coal mined per worker. As operators move away from surface mining, he said, they also create jobs in more labor-intensive underground operations.
But the West Virginia Coal Association dismissed what vice president Chris Hamilton called “a very shoddy analysis” by a “well-known environmental extremist group.”
Hamilton said he can’t predict whether there will be opposition to McCarthy but noted her hearing “provides a forum to talk about this agency’s anti-mining bias and its efforts to slow or stop mining in certain parts of the country.”
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Central Appalachia has lost 4,500 jobs since Obama took office, he said, nearly 2,500 of them in West Virginia.
“Our growth has been stymied because of the policies of this administration,” he said.
The National Mining Association points to new EPA regulations on coal-fired power plants as one example, saying the impacts are “only now being felt.”
Spokeswoman Nancy Gravatt said overseas demand for metallurgical coal mined underground surged in 2011 but “greatly receded” last year. Job creation also slowed as prices plummeted and layoffs began.
Kentucky alone lost 4,028 coal mining jobs last year, she said.
The Obama administration had nothing to do with the favorable export situation, she added.
“And if the sponsors of this ‘analysis’ have their way, it’s doubtful coal would be exported at all,” she said.
Appalachian Voices, however, said that in the longer term, the number of coal jobs has grown in Central Appalachia — from 28,552 in 2000 to 33,029 last year, and despite a 44 percent drop in production.
West Virginia remains the No. 2 producer, behind Wyoming, and leads the nation in coal jobs.
Employment under the Obama administration has averaged 22,626, Appalachian Voices said, compared with 17,976 during the eight years under Bush.
Kentucky is the nation’s third-leading coal producer and second in employment. Appalachian Voices says its employment has averaged 17,168 under Obama, compared with 15,826 under Bush despite a consistent, 12-year decline in production.
The trend held true in Virginia, where jobs averaged 4,943 between 2009 and 2012, and were slightly lower under Bush at 4,851. Total coal production there last year was the lowest since MSHA started keeping records in 1983.
Tennessee, however, averaged 508 coal mining jobs the last four years, compared with 565 under Bush.
Appalachian Voices said its recoverable reserves are running out, leading to a 50 percent drop in production between 2008 and 2012. Industry there is shifting toward surface mining.