Coal-mining jobs are holding steady under Trump's watch — that could become harder this year

Key Points
  • Coal miners have kept employment steady at about 51,000 to 53,000 positions during President Donald Trump's first two years in office.
  • A surge in U.S. exports has offset the continued closure of American coal-fired power plants during that time.
  • It could become harder to hold the line on employment, because U.S. coal exports are expected to fall over the next two years.
US President Donald Trump salutes his supporters after speaking at a political rally at Charleston Civic Center in Charleston, West Virginia on August 21, 2018.
Mandel Ngan | AFP | Getty Images

President Donald Trump's campaign trail vow to revive the coal industry may not have come to pass, but two years into his presidency, the miners have at least halted the plunge in employment over the last 30 years.

Since Trump took office, coal miners have kept employment steady at about 51,000 to 53,000 positions. Over the next two years, it could become harder for the industry to hold the line, as a surge in U.S. coal exports is expected to lose steam.

In February, the industry employed about 52,800 workers, figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed on Friday. That's up from a reading of 50,900 in February 2017.

However, because of the way BLS measures employment, the bureau's economists have not been able to say whether employment actually rose or fell significantly throughout much of the last two years. Instead, they usually say employment held steady.

Still, that is a welcome reprieve for the coal-mining industry, which has shed more than 100,000 jobs over the last three decades.

Trump has taken steps to ease regulations on the coal industry, reversing the trend under the Obama administration. Some of the regulations passed over the last decade hastened the closure of coal-fired plants slated for retirement.

But the bigger driver for coal-mining jobs is market forces at home and abroad.

Coal-fired power plants have continued to shut down under Trump's watch, eliminating a major source of demand for the nation's miners.

Continuing the long-term trend, markets are turning to cheap, cleaner-burning natural gas and wind and solar farms to generate electric power, pushing coal out of the energy mix.

But American coal miners have gotten a boost from foreign markets in recent years. Coal exports jumped over the last two years, driven by healthy demand in Europe and Asia and disruptions in coal supplies from Australia, Indonesia and China.

But over the next two years, the outlook for the industry looks tougher.

After rising in 2017, U.S. coal production dipped 3 percent last year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. EIA expects output from the nation's mines to fall another 4 percent this year and 6 percent the following year.

The reason: EIA not only expects the nation to burn less coal to generate electricity, but it also sees the export bump ending. The bureau expects exports to fall by 13 percent this year and another 8 percent in 2019.

That could mean Trump will find himself in the same position as many of his predecessors: presiding over another period of job losses in the coal-mining industry.