Utah coal industry employment in long-term decline

Employment in Utah’s coal mining and coal power industries has been declining for decades, due in part to shrinking demand for coal and improvements in mining technology. Policy changes promised by the Trump administration are unlikely to change that.

Those are among the conclusions of a new research report from Utah Foundation, the second in a series of three on Utah’s coal industry and on the communities that have depended on it for generations. The key findings include:

  • Approximately 1,000 people work in Utah’s coal mines. Many trucking and other kinds of jobs exist to support coal mining operations.
  • Productivity improvements resulted in increased coal production in the 20th century, particularly in the 1980s. At the same time, the number of coal mining jobs in Utah decreased.
  • Recent reductions in coal mine employment are due to a decrease in demand, the result of low natural gas prices and increased regulation of coal-fueled electricity generation.
  • Approximately 1,500 people work in Utah’s five coal-fueled power plants.
  • One coal-fueled power plant closed in 2015, another coal-fueled operation is projected to end by 2025, and another by 2030. This will mean a loss of jobs but could also decrease the demand for coal from Utah’s mines.
  • Trump administration policies may do little to “bring back” jobs for coal miners and coal-fueled power plants.

Changes in federal leasing policy may extend the lives of some coal operations in Utah, including the state’s only surface-mining operation, the Coal Hollow mine near Alton in Kane County. But a graphic included in the Utah Foundation report shows many mines have operated only intermittently in recent decades.

“Overall, coal mining and coal-fueled power plant jobs don’t account for much of the state’s employment,” said Shawn Teigen, author of the report. “However, those jobs alone account for about 5% of the employment in Utah’s coal mining and coal-fueled electricity producing counties. In addition, there are a lot of indirect coal jobs and related tax revenues that these communities rely upon, making coal of the utmost importance to residents.”

The first report in the three-part series looked at Utah’s dependence on coal as its primary source for electric power and the resulting low energy prices that have benefited the state’s economy. Natural gas, however, is increasingly used as a replacement for coal in power generation and renewable sources such as wind and solar are playing a more important role.

The third report in the series will look more closely at the rural communities that have depended on coal as an economic base. While there are fewer jobs in mines and power plants, they are often the best-paying jobs in the community.