The big problems for "coal country" now are weak export markets, especially China, and competition from natural gas, the price of which has fallen 85 percent from pre-recession peaks.
The EIA full-year 2015 data projections expect that China, the world's largest coal consumer, imported less than 0.5 short tons (MMst) from the U.S., down from 8.3 MMst from the United States in 2013, about 7 percent of total U.S. coal exports that year. In 2014, U.S. coal exports to China decreased to 1.8 MMst. Based on Census Bureau data through September 2015, and estimates for the remainder of the year, EIA expected total U.S. coal industry exports of 77 MMst, a 21 percent decline from the previous year.
In places like these, the challenge is to help people find other work to do — often by leaving their hometowns, Deskins said. It has been easier for Kentucky, which has seen strong growth in services employment around Louisville and Lexington. It's a challenge he faced himself, coming from a Virginia county that borders coal-producing country in southern West Virginia, he said.
McDowell County West Virginia, in the heart of coal country, has dwindled to 20,000 people, losing 7.5 percent of its population since 2010 and more than 80 percent since 1950, according to census data. The less-trained workforce in West Virginia also kept it from benefiting as much from fracking for natural gas, as many workers had to be imported from states like Oklahoma, Deskins said.
"When I was 18, there was no question I would leave," he said.
About 73,800 people work in the coal business nationwide, out of 143.3 million overall workers, at an average wage of $55,740, according to the Labor Department. That includes not only the 16,000 miners classified as working in "extraction" but also people who work transporting the coal, finance and administrative people at coal companies, and about 2,200 executives. The EPA estimates the plan will force elimination of about 15,000 coal-industry jobs, as the percentage of electricity coming from coal slips to 27 percent.