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No ‘Trump Bump’ Yet For Kentucky’s Beleaguered Coal Industry

Erica Peterson

New numbers from the first two quarters of this year show both coal production and employment are continuing to decline in Kentucky, despite President Donald Trump’s promises that miners would be going back to work.

Overall, Kentucky saw a nearly 10 percent decline in coal production between the first and second quarters of 2017. The industry shed 200 jobs during the same time period.

“Obviously, an almost a 10 percent decrease since last quarter is not what we’d like to see,” said Kentucky Coal Association President Tyler White. “But I’ve always said that you don’t turn this industry around in a one or two quarter measurement.”

The state’s coal industry has imploded over the past decade, falling from a recent high of nearly 19,500 jobs in the beginning of 2009 to about 6,300 jobs now. Analysts point to a variety of factors that played into the decline, including government regulations, mechanization, declining accessible reserves and competition from cheap natural gas.

White said he’s cautiously optimistic about the industry, but realistic.

“As Kentucky and as the Kentucky coal industry, we didn’t expect some monumentous rebound overnight,” he said.

Some states, like West Virginia, have seen gains in coal employment since Trump took office, but White said that’s largely because of the state’s vast reserves of metallurgical coal and a rebound in prices in that niche market. Kentucky doesn’t have large amounts of met coal.

White said President Trump and Congress haven’t yet enacted any pro-coal legislation or policies that could have a noticeable effect on Kentucky coal jobs or production. Rather, a lot of the steps Trump has taken have headed off perceived “anti-coal” regulations that hadn’t yet gone into effect, like theClean Power Planand the Stream Protection Rule.

But with this coal report, state regulators have changed the way they present the data, seemingly to emphasize gains in the industry.

The Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet has been publishing the quarterly coal report since 2012. This quarter, for the first time ever, the state included the “year over year” change in its numbers, comparing this quarter against the same quarter in 2016.

That comparison paints this quarter in a more positive light. Or, as the report puts it:

“While second quarter production declined by 9.94 percent from the first quarter, year over year production increased by 4.12 percent.”

Cabinet spokesman John Mura said the agency feels this kind of comparison more accurately reflects what’s happening quarter to quarter, and “will very likely be the methodology we use going forward.”

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