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Today in Energy

November 8, 2022

Most U.S. coal is mined in the West, but most coal mining jobs are in the East

U.S. coal production (1950&2021)
Data source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Annual Coal Report; U.S. Department of Labor, Mine Health and Safety Administration

In 2021, 60% of the country’s coal was produced in the western United States, but only 28% of workers in the coal mining industry worked there, based on data from our Annual Coal Report. This difference is related to the technologies used in the East and West; surface mines in the West can use massive mining equipment to extract large amounts of coal with relatively fewer workers.

In our Annual Coal Report, we separate the United States into two regions, East and West, divided by the Mississippi River.

Prior to the 1970s, the vast majority of U.S. coal came from the East. Starting in the 1970s, coal production expanded significantly in the West for several reasons, including:

In the United States, coal is primarily used for electricity generation. The Clean Air Act of 1970, and subsequent amendments in 1977 and 1990, restricted sulfur emissions from coal-fired power plants. One way for plants to meet the emissions regulations was to burn low-sulfur coal, most of which is found in the West. The resulting growth in demand for low-sulfur coal expanded western coal production, especially in the Powder River Basin.

In 2021, on average, every coal worker in the West produced 16 tons of coal per hour. In the East, the average worker produced 4 tons of coal per hour. Mining productivity, or the amount of coal produced per employee hour, is greater in the West because most western coal mines are large, open-pit operations that tap thick coal seams that are close to the surface. This setup allows western mines to use super-sized draglines, shovels, and trucks, which allows them to extract more coal with fewer workers.

U.S. coal mining productivity (1950&2021)
Data source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Annual Coal Report

The majority of mines in the East are smaller, underground operations with thinner coal seams that are deeper and more difficult to access. Despite deploying sophisticated technology such as longwall mining systems, eastern mines are more labor intensive and have a lower productivity rate.

The new business environment in the railroad industry following U.S. railroad deregulation encouraged railroads to innovate, introducing dedicated unit trains (long trains that usually carry a single commodity directly to its destination). These unit trains allow coal from western mines to be shipped economically to power plants across the country. Previously, western coal could be mined more cheaply than eastern coal, but it had farther to travel to get to buyers and so the shipping cost made it less competitive.

U.S. coal production peaked at 1.2 billion tons in 2008. Coal production has fallen significantly since then as the United States has shifted toward natural gas and renewables for electricity generation. In 2021, 577.4 million tons of coal were produced in the country, less than half the amount produced in 2008.

Employment in the coal mining industry also fell, and most of the job losses were in the East. Since 2008, coal mining employment shrunk by:

  • 59% in the East, down from 68,605 employees in 2008 to 28,314 employees in 2021
  • 39% in the West, dropping from 18,114 employees in 2008 to 11,115 employees in 2021

You can find additional information on coal production and employment in our Annual Coal Report. Data from the Annual Coal Report are also available on our Coal Data Browser.

Principal contributor: Elesia Fasching