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Decreases in energy production affect employment in Appalachia

The Appalachian Regional Commission released new research in January that showed coal production in Appalachia fell by nearly 45 percent from 2005 to 2015.

The report analyzed how other Appalachian industries were affected directly or indirectly by a decline in coal production and employment. The research is one of the first to analyze how decreasing coal production has affected the Appalachian region, Wendy Wasserman, communication and media relations director for the Appalachian Regional Commission, or ARC, said. 

“We’re really excited about this study because it’s one of the first comprehensive ones that we’ve seen that looks at the impact of the changing coal economy along the supply chain,” Wasserman said. “We talk about everything we can do with trains, education, energy production and even … what jobs are available for folks who are transitioning out of (the coal production industry).”

Mike Cope, president of the Ohio Coal Association, said that much of the unemployment and resulting poverty in Appalachia is because of Ohio’s shift away from coal.

“Decreasing coal production, without a doubt, has hurt people that were dependent on coal mining,” Cope said. 

The report found that highly paid coal miners have limited re-employment opportunities in their area of residence with the same pay and scope of employment. Many who work in the coal industry struggle to find equivalent occupations in other industries. 

Counties, such as Athens County, labeled as distressed by the ARC have many options to rehire coal industry workers, Wasserman said. 

“Really strategic, thoughtful and well-planned-out economic development is always a good place to start,” Wasserman said. “That can start at a very individual level at a business or an entrepreneur and work its way all the way up to federal funding.”

The coal industry employs about 3,000 people in Ohio, according to the Ohio Coal Association. From 2005 to 2015, however, coal industry employment decreased by 27 percent. In coal mining counties, unemployment remained high as energy consumption moved away from coal, according to the ARC report. 

The decline in production is because of a decline in international demand for coal, a decrease in the price of natural gas and an increase in the cost of coal, according to the ARC report.

Electric power generation in Appalachia also fell from 74 percent in 2005 to 53 percent in 2015. Appalachia is more dependent on coal than the rest of the U.S., where only 35 percent of electric power generation is from coal, according to the ARC report.

Ohio’s shift away from coal production is because of the emergence other means of energy production, such as fracking, shale plays and other natural gas and oil operations, Mathew Roberts, info and outreach director at environmental group UpGrade Ohio, said in an email. 

Although Ohio is shifting toward those industries, Roberts said renewable resources will continue to grow as an energy production industry. 

“Ohio’s deregulated electricity market and clean energy standards have ... helped aid the development of renewable energy power production and lower electricity prices,” Roberts said in an email. “Renewable energy prices are falling every day all over the world. Renewables are outpacing natural gas and will soon be the best option anywhere on Earth.” 


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