Skip to content

Coal Mining: Jobs to Die For?

For every one to two jobs a non-miner dies each year.

[This post is coauthored with Carolyn Fischer at RFF].

If you open the papers it seems like the current administration thinks that coal is the next hot thing. As Governor Schwarzenegger put it, this is a bit like getting excited about the comeback of Blockbuster VHS rentals.

There are lots of promises of bringing back coal employment to the economically devastated areas in Appalachia, improving the quality of life in these former mining communities. There were popular claims that 43,000 mining jobs have already been added (which turns out to be not true) during this new presidency. I think we can all agree that higher employment in sectors that improve both the welfare of employees and society is a great and desirable thing. The problem with coal mining jobs – not the people holding these jobs – is that coal costs lives, both under and above ground.

First, coal mining is well known to be a higher-risk job than office work.  In the past 5 years, roughly 15 miners have died per year. That’s about .0001 miners per job (although Dept. of Labor statistics now include mining office workers as coal miners, so the real ratio is likely higher). But in a dismal science sense, coal miners are compensated for these extra risks with a “risk premium” that is reflected in the high wages offered in the coal mining sector. There is a massive literature on something called the “value of a statistical life”, which has this risk/reward notion as its underpinning.

The second problem is that the mining of coal results in the production of a highly carbon-intensive energy source. Some folks (or municipalities or states) care about these consequences, even though many of the damages from climate change occur half a world away. Of course, the current U.S. administration has looked at this tradeoff and clearly prefers American jobs over improving the global environment, as signified by its withdrawal from the voluntary and non-binding Paris Accord last month.

The third problem with coal has received less attention lately: energy generated from coal (and high-sulfur Appalachian coal in particular) is really bad for local air quality. Each ton of coal dug up from below ground will ultimately be burned somewhere resulting in damages to people, plants and animals near the point of combustion. (Also the mining process itself has some nasty consequences for the local environment.) Say what you will about climate change, but we still see broad agreement that local air and water quality are important to protect. After all, the EPA’s stated purpose by the current administration is “to ensure that all Americans are protected from significant risks to human health and the environment where they live, learn and work.”

Numerous studies have attempted to quantify the health consequences of coal combustion. If we knew the external costs from a ton of coal combusted, we could translate this into the external cost of a coal mining job. This sounds like a crazy calculation, but if we are using public policies to incentivize the creation of these jobs, we should think about the total societal costs of doing so.

For example, the IMF in 2014 calculated that the social costs of coal from air pollution (not including CO2) were $5.5/GJ of energy. There were about 50,000 jobs in coal mining last year in the US, more or less (more if you include related jobs, less if you just think miners). Each ton of coal contains roughly 22 GJ of energy. US production in 2016 was 738 million short tons. Put those together you get external costs of 1.79 million dollars per miner. Let that number sink in for a second. To the extent that these costs are not priced or regulated, they are considered as an implicit subsidy to fossil fuels, and that’s in a publication dedicated to Gary Becker (a famously conservative “Chicago” economist).

But those statistics are pretty impersonal. A more telling (and tolling) calculation comes from studies looking at the health – or rather death – consequences of pollution. A 2013 study from MIT found that pollution (specifically particulate matter, SO2, and NOx, an ozone precursor) from electricity generation causes 52,000 premature deaths annually, mostly from the fine particles associated with coal-fired generation. They have a nifty graphic showing that largest impact hovers over the east-central United States and in the Midwest, where the power plants tend to use coal with high sulfur content. This study only gets at how many people die every year from power sector emission and leaves out morbidity and damages to ecosystems, agricultural production etc.

Coal-fired generation creates on average 5 times the pollution of natural gas. At the time of the MIT study (2005), given the generation shares, roughly 90% of the power sector emissions were coming from coal. Put these numbers together and you can ballpark an estimate of what these studies suggest in terms of mortality alone. It’s very much back of the envelope and maybe we’ll write a paper to do this more precisely, but we were shocked by the outcome. Someone dies each year for every one to two coal mining jobs. Yes. You read that right. Let that sink in. To be completely fair here, we are assuming that coal is being replaced with some happy shiny non-polluting renewable energy source.

This fact is clearly not the fault of the miners. These are great jobs to have: they pay well and do not require hugely costly training. But, what this does mean is that if we keep on pushing the further extraction of dirty coal (clean coal is fiction and if you like fiction, call us, we have recommendations), we are implicitly subsidizing the deaths of the many people living within the range of power plant emissions. And this is not a good thing.

Why the focus on coal jobs? We are not political scientists by training, but even we understand these mining jobs are in politically important areas. But from a societal welfare point of view, we are making a huge deal out of a profession that is clearly dying out. The fast-food chain Arby’s now employs one and half times the number of people the US coal mining industry does. This does not mean we should subsidize hamburgers and fries. (Those may kill more people than coal, but that is for another blog.)

The issue, of course, is that something has to be done about the structural economic crises in the mining communities.  This is a global, not just a US issue. There is evidence from Poland that miners once unemployed stay unemployed for longer than people in other professions. The goal here has to be a way to train miners in these communities in jobs of the present or the future – not the energy equivalent of Blockbuster.

Maximilian Auffhammer View All

Maximilian Auffhammer is the George Pardee Professor of International Sustainable Development at the University of California Berkeley. His fields of expertise are environmental and energy economics, with a specific focus on the impacts and regulation of climate change and air pollution.

8 thoughts on “Coal Mining: Jobs to Die For? Leave a comment

  1. This is an excellent and provocative article, but I must note that subsidizing hamburgers would not help Arby’s, as they do not make burgers.

  2. Nice post. Lots of good data and you didn’t even mention the mercury that is emitted by burning coal. It is naturally present in the coal, and released when it’s burned. Nice potent neurotoxin. Also, your subtitle has a type. Minor should be miner.

%d bloggers like this: