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U.S. Coal Job Numbers Fall Close To 2016 Levels

Third-quarter 2019 data includes 529 mines that reported positive figures to MSHA. Third quarter 2019 reporting mines represent 99% of those that reported positive figures in the second quarter of 2019.
S & P Global Market Intelligence

Coal mine employment in the U.S. has fallen to nearly its lowest level since the industry began reporting it. The industry has lost 2,206 jobs since the start of this year, according to updated data from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA).

The current average number of coal mine employees sits at 52,310. That's down nearly half from 2012.

Taylor Kuykendall, coal reporter for S & P Global Market Intelligence, said there was no big drop in domestic coal production, but it has been steadily declining.

"Since late 2016, a lot of that's been covered up by a boom in export coal markets. That's starting to go away here in the third quarter," Kuykendall explained

He added the drop is also connected to the bankruptcy of Blackjewel LLC this summer, which left well over a thousand people jobless nationwide.

But Kuykendall explains the problem for coal jobs may continue as the challenge of oversupply with weakened demand remains. A report from Moody's Investors Service in October showed the Powder River Basin is expected to see a significant drop in production in 2020 with potential mine closures too.

Kuykendall said companies do have a little room to improve profitability, but continued struggles could lead to more dramatic efforts.

"That it might be time to shut down some of those mines. It's going to be complicated to see which of those mines might see that. Obviously, there's a good bit of uncertainty in the region right now," he said, adding there are several new operators along with a merger coming from Arch and Peabody.

"It's hard to tell if they're thinking about maybe rationalizing some production or if they have no other plans for that part of the basin. I think Arch and Peabody have demonstrated that, if they're not getting the prices that they want, they will pull back production," he said.

MSHA's Q4 data will likely show at least a slight rise in job numbers as Eagle Specialty Materials restarted operations at both of Blackjewel's mines in Wyoming.

Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Cooper McKim, at cmckim5@uwyo.edu.

Before Wyoming, Cooper McKim has reported for NPR stations in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and South Carolina. He's reported breaking news segments and features for several national NPR news programs. Cooper is the host of the limited podcast series Carbon Valley. Cooper studied Environmental Policy and Music. He's an avid jazz piano player, backpacker, and podcast listener.
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