UPDATE: Arch lays off hundreds; White House says coal has future in energy economy
Arch Coal's tipple in Perry County. (photo by Bailey Richards)
HAZARD --Nearly 750 people in the Appalachian coalfields were laid off from their jobs at Arch Coal last week, in what became the latest round of layoffs from Arch dating back to December.
Arch announced on June 21 that they would be laying off around 600 people from their Kentucky mines alone. Just the Perry, Breathitt and Knott County mines account for around 500 of those jobs.
The company noted in a statement released last week that due to lack of demand for coal-based electricity, these major reductions became necessary.
“We deeply value our people, and the decision to reduce personnel was made only after exhaustively reviewing other options and exploring opportunities to avoid this measure,” said John W. Eaves, Arch’s president and chief executive officer.
An estimated 1,500 total coal jobs have been lost in Kentucky so far in 2012, according to Bill Bissett, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, though he noted that since it is hard to get an accurate measure on just how many jobs have been lost, that is probably a low estimate.
Bissett said that much of this is due to changes in the regulations on not only the coal industry, but the power industry. As new regulations go into place for power plants to help reduce emissions, they can use higher sulfur coal since these chemicals will be filtered out. This coal can be found in other coalfields, and at a cheaper rate than Appalachian coal.
The official numbers from the Office of Employment and Training regarding this latest round of reductions by Arch note that Perry County is scheduled to lose 49 jobs at the Arch Rowdy Gap Mine. Knott and Breathitt Counties have been much harder hit, losing 259 at the Raven Complex in Knott and 131 at the Flint Ridge Mine in Breathitt County.
Arch went on to state that they are going to be completely shutting down three mining complexes and temporarily idle the Flint Ridge Complex. The complexes that will be permanently shut down are the East Kentucky, Eastern and Knott County Complexes. Arch said that they expect all of these changes and details of the new streamlining plans for Arch Coal to be finalized in July.
Bissett said that part of the problem for him and other industry analysts is understanding the difference between shut downs, layoffs and temporary action to reduce costs.
“How do we calculate the impact thus far?” he said. “One of the things we are dealing with is the difference between a mine closure, a layoff, a temporary furlough, and an extended vacation.”
Such large layoffs happening more frequently have been a cause for alarm for many politicians in Kentucky. Governor Steve Beshear, a Democrat, said in a statement that while these layoffs are devastating, they are not completely unexpected, given the current coal climate and onslaught of federal regulation.
“As unfortunate as this news is, it cannot be said that it was wholly unexpected,” Beshear stated. “Demand for coal is at a 20-year low, thanks to a rapidly shifting energy market and high inventory. Unpredictable federal regulation processes have also hindered legal mining efforts, and we will continue to fight the unfair regulatory changes that effectively delay or halt our mining projects.”
Other officials are laying the blame for job loss in the coalfields squarely at the feet of President Barack Obama, whose energy policy, they say, is unfair and constitutes an attack on the coal industry.
“This is another devastating blow to Kentucky’s mining community and the families who rely on coal for their livelihoods,” said Republican Senator Mitch McConnell in reaction to last week's layoffs. “Our coal miners are some of the hardest working Americans, and it’s heart-breaking that the Obama Administration’s war on coal has yet again contributed to more job losses in this industry.”
The White House responded to a request for comment from the Herald on Monday, noting that President Obama supports clean coal initiatives as part of an overall energy policy that also includes other methods of production.
"The President has long made clear that clean coal has an important role to play in our energy economy and it will in the future, which is why this administration has worked to make sure that moving forward we can continue to rely on a broad range of domestic energy sources from oil and gas, to wind and solar, to nuclear, as well as clean coal," said White House spokeswoman Joanna Rosholm. "That focus has included specific flexibilities for clean coal in standards put in place by this Administration, as well as historic investments in clean coal technologies. In fact, the President spoke directly to this in last year's State of the Union Address when he laid out a bold goal of generating 80 percent of our energy from clean sources by 2035, specifically highlighting clean coal as a fuel source that must be part of this long-term plan."
Rosholm did admit that the president and the EPA have been critical of surface mining permits in order to achieve this goal of making coal a cleaner energy source. She went on to say, however, that since President Obama took office, coal mining jobs have increased by 7.4 percent across the nation.
While these statistics do show job growth in the industry in some areas of coal mining, many believe it does not prove that the current administration is not trying to specifically target one type of mining in one particular area with these investigations. Bissett said he believes that federal regulations are hurting the coal industry in Eastern Kentucky and Appalachia more than other coal producing areas.
He added that since federal regulation is often difficult to change, it is hard to say if a new administration would have much of an impact of the current coal industry.
“No doubt you are dealing with the federal government, which it is giant entity,” said Bisset. “The question becomes would a new administration treat us much better?”
For many local residents in Eastern Kentucky, the realities of living without a lucrative job are just beginning to set in from some of the recent layoffs. Jamie Slone, a resident of Ashcamp in Pike County, said that her family is learning to live with much less since her husband was laid off a month ago.
“My husband got laid off about four weeks ago from Cam Coal. It has turned our world upside down,” said Slone. “We haven’t been out of the house to do anything because we are scraping our nickels and pennies.”
Slone said that sadly her family, like many others looking for work, is considering leaving the area.
Meanwhile, Governor Beshear said that he is working with the Education and Workforce Development Cabinet’s Rapid Response Teams to help laid off coal miners find new opportunities.
“I have authorized the mobilization of our Education and Workforce Development Cabinet’s Rapid Response Teams to assist these employees in the transition from their jobs to beginning a search for new work, starting new workforce training or enrolling in classes to prepare them for the next stage of their careers," Beshear said. "These teams will also ensure the families are aware of assistance available from state and federal services during this difficult time."