Monday's coal mining accident at the Upper Big Branch Coal Mine in West Virginia, where at least 25 miners were killed in a methane gas explosion, has brought considerable attention to the extremely dangerous conditions in which coal miners work, as well as to the broader themes of mine safety and the economics of coal.
One aspect of the economics of coal that has been under-explored by the mainstream media, however, is that these 25 underground miners who lost their lives at the Upper Big Branch Mine were not representative of the typical, modern-day American miner -- because the typical, modern-day American miner isn't even a human being.
Why is this important? One of the principal arguments coming from the coal industry is that moving away from coal as a fuel source would crush the economies of states like West Virginia, Kentucky and Virginia. And while that may have been the case 75, 50 or even 25 years ago, it is no longer the case today.
The graph above shows the changing coal employment context in the coal-producing areas of West Virginia, Virginia and Kentucky in the last 25 years. As you can see, concomitant with the rise of surface mining is a sharp decline in mining jobs starting in 1985. Where these three states had 60,000 workers employed mining coal in 1985, only half as many could claim the same occupation 25 years later.
On a national scale, it's the same story. Coal productivity per miner has roughly tripled since 1985 in the U.S. which, on the surface--and in purely economic terms--sounds like a "good" thing. But thanks to bigger and more powerful machines, and the onslaught of surface mining operations including the devastating practice of mountaintop removal mining.
"Coal has been a declining part of the Appalachian employment picture for more than half a century," write Bill Bishop and Tim Marema write at the Daily Yonder. "As the industry mechanized, it needed fewer miners. When more coal was mined from the surface, beginning in the early 1960s, the industry needed fewer miners still."
And the long-term statistics behind this pattern of mechanization are truly amazing:
In the United States, coal mining jobs peaked in 1920 when there were roughly three-quarters of a million coal miners producing 658 million tons of coal annually. By 2006, coal production ballooned to 1.16 billion tons annually, but the number of coal miners shrunk to 82,000.
So while the price of coal remains cheap because of industry-wide mechanization and the proliferation of mountaintop removal mining, the socio-ecological cost of coal continues to soar.