Jobs? What mining jobs?
That strange noise coming from Appalachia’s coal fields is the sound that the truth makes when it is being mercilessly twisted.
In rallies and op-ed essays this spring, the “friends of coal” have focused on a consistent theme: Jobs. A good many Appalachian politicians, union leaders and business leaders are claiming that environmentalists are trying to take jobs away from coal miners.
These claims fall flat when contrasted with facts.
The rapid decline of coal mining jobs in Appalachia is due to clear economic trends, and not due to anything that environmental activists are doing or could do. Both surface and underground mining jobs are declining. In Appalachia, underground mining jobs today are one third of what they were in 1973, and there are only half as many surface mining jobs, according to Energy Information Administration statistics. (See Chart1)
This follows the long-term trend. From its national peak of nearly one million miners in the 1920s, coal mining employment nationwide fell to around 70,000 in 2003.
Meanwhile, coal mining itself is moving west. There is no growth in Eastern coal mining — all of the growth is taking place west of the Mississippi. (See Chart 2)
It’s not hard to see why coal mining is moving west. Productivity is six times higher for surface mines west of the Mississippi. Even underground mining is twice as productive in the west. (See Chart 3).
Interestingly, a second look at Chart 3 shows there is very little difference between underground and surface mining productivity in the east. A surface miner and an underground miner do pretty much the same day’s work. Therefore, the choice of mine types – underground or surface – has nothing much to do with jobs in Appalachia, and everything to do with other influences on profitability.
Another important fact: Historically, the influence of regulation — either to benefit worker safety in the 1960s or to benefit the environment in the 1970s –was only responsible for a temporary ten percent decline in productivity, according to the Energy Information Administration.
So when we hear politicians and others trying to blame environmentalists for the loss of coal mining jobs in Appalachia, it is clear that these claims are false, and they are looking for excuses for their own inept and myopic management. The long term trend is eroding the economic base of eastern mining, and the industry itself is undergoing enormous shifts of investment and emphasis.
The failure to acknowledge these well-known facts and create a new vision for the future is the true root of the current economic distress in Appalachia – not much-needed environmental regulation.
All this leaves open the question of what, exactly, environmentalists ARE trying to do, if they aren’t trying to take away jobs? We wonder if it would not be possible for some of these politicians and business leaders to simply acknowledge the truth — that environmentalists just want to protect the environment for future generations.
It is a generous and conservative impulse by people volunteering their time and effort, and it is supported by the vast majority of their fellow Americans.
Even if all the coal mines of Appalachia became museum pieces, conservation of the environment would still be the enduring source of jobs for Appalachia – jobs in eco-tourism, jobs that depend on renewable resources and clean water, jobs that depend on attractive and sustainable places to live.

Statistics from:
Coal Production in the United States
Energy Information Administration, October 2006


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