- Dan Firth works on mining, water quality and solid waste issues across Tennessee and the greater AppalachDan Firth works on mining, water quality and solid waste issues across Tennessee and the greater Appalachia region. ia region.
During the 2020 legislative session, the Tennessee legislature passed and the governor signed a bill allowing the state to assume authority for regulating surface coal mining here. Reasons given for this bill being necessary include reversing the decline in coal production and jobs that the bill’s supporters blame on over-regulation. In addition, state Rep. Dennis Powers stated on the House floor that “Kentucky should never be beating us at coal mining …” and said that obtaining primacy would put Tennessee on the road to bringing back the coal industry in this state. The decline of coal mining in Tennessee was never the result of regulation, as the same declines are affecting all coal-producing states. Tennessee assuming authority just means that the state is putting itself on the hook for cleaning up after the mining industry.
Coal production has declined dramatically in Tennessee. In 1987, Tennessee produced just shy of 5 million short tons of coal, according to OpenSourceCoal.org. Never again has the state produced as much. By 2020, coal production had decreased from this peak by 98% to just 91,000 short tons. No coal was mined in Tennessee in the last three-quarters of 2020 or the first quarter of 2021.
National trends follow the same trajectory, with national coal production peaking at 1,172 million short tons in 2008 before decreasing 55% by 2020, while jobs decreased from 86,000 to 42,000 over the same time. That includes states with very pro-coal policies. Meanwhile, in central Appalachia, coal production and jobs were already decreasing. Coal production peaked in 1997 at 296 million short tons before declining by 84% by 2020. Jobs declined from 36,000 to 12,000 in 2020.
Tennessee a minor player in the coal industry
The effects of these national trends appear more dramatic in Tennessee because there was relatively little coal production in the first place. When Tennessee was producing 5 million tons at its peak in 1987, Kentucky produced 109 million short tons. Like Tennessee, Kentucky’s coal production has decreased over 90% from its peak. Tennessee has always been a minor player in the coal industry. The only coal race with Kentucky that Tennessee looks likely to win is a race to the bottom.
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The coal industry nationally, regionally and within the state has declined for decades, though the peaks in production occurred at different times. The cost of coal production is likely the overarching reason for the earlier decline in central Appalachia and Tennessee. With the advent of larger surface mining equipment requiring fewer employees and larger mines, mining the large western mines became more cost effective than mining the smaller Appalachian mines, which are more labor intensive. Nationally the number of coal jobs peaked in 1984 at 180,000. Later, inexpensive natural gas coupled with increased regulations and public pressure to address climate change drove the national coal production declines.
The thermal coal industry, nearly 75% of recently produced coal in Tennessee, will continue to decline as electric utilities continue to close aging costly and polluting power plants as TVA is doing in the Tennessee Valley. These power plants cost more to operate than it costs to build utility-scale solar plants. Tennessee does not have the coal reserves necessary to compete with the large western mines or even the larger eastern mines on a cost basis.
State will bear responsibility for cleanup
Recently, more than 20 Tennessee permits held by five companies began the forfeiture process, meaning the mine regulator is assuming responsibility for cleaning up the sites. If the Tennessee legislature and the governor have their way, the state will bear the responsibility for cleaning up these sites, including covering any cost overruns.
Tennessee obtaining primacy for regulation of coal mining will place taxpayers at risk for significant costs well into the future as the coal industry continues to collapse and coal companies continue to go bankrupt and forfeit their permits. Fees from fewer or, as it currently appears, zero operating coal mines will be insufficient to cover the costs of the program, leaving the taxpayers holding the bag.
Dan Firth works on mining, water quality and solid waste issues across Tennessee and the greater Appalachia region.
Read More:Time for Tennessee to move beyond coal