Wyoming’s coal economy has stabilized since a devastating two-year downturn that swept nearly 1,000 miners out of work, but any lingering hope that jobs will return to their previous levels is likely snuffed by a report released Monday.
Wyoming coal companies only added five full-time jobs between the bottom of the bust in 2016 and last year, according the Wyoming State Mine Inspector’s annual report on the industry.
For many, the numbers are positive news. The coal sector is no longer sliding, and has found traction in a new normal. Production has improved and jobs have returned to some degree.
The job count reflects full-time jobs, employed directly by coal firms. The number of contract miners called in for reclamation jobs or blasting work did increase last year by 133. Contract workers make up a significant portion of the coal industry in Wyoming.
Travis Deti, executive director of the Wyoming Mining Association said the job numbers show what stabilization looks like.
“We’re pretty much where we were last year,” Deti said. “I think that’s just reflective that things have evened out a little bit, adjusted to this new environment.”
According to the Mining Association’s count last year, the coal industry lost more than 900 jobs during the downturn and about 300 returned. Whether those were part-time or counting contract jobs is less clear.
“I’m reluctant to get into how companies are adjusting,” Deti said. “I think you’ve seen some attrition, some retirements and some new jobs coming back.”
The report notes the one coal fatality of 2017, when part of a coal face rolled on Jaime Olivas at the Bridger underground mine in September.
Hours lost to injury across the industry remained stable over the last two years, an improvement from 2015, according to the report.
There were 81 lost-time accidents in 2015 — a tumultuous year of coal layoffs and low production — compared to 55 last year.
There appears to be a correlation between safety and instability in an industry, said Terry Adcock, state mine inspector.
“I spent a lot of years in a safety department and one of the main concerns when you have downturns and people are talking layoffs (is safety).” he said. “People aren’t focusing on the job; they’re worried about being at work next week.”
The improvements in the last two years are encouraging, however, Adcock said.
There’s been a slight increase in accidents from contractors versus full-time employees, from eight in 2016 to 11 last year.
The downturn may have affected contractors more than the company miners, he said.
“I think we saw more contractors being laid off, or reduced hours,” he said. “But we didn’t see a real spike or jump in injuries … overall I think the companies do a great job at safety compliance.”
Coal remains in a period of uncertainty going forward that is likely impacting job numbers, Adcock said.
The largest competitor for coal’s market in the electricity business is natural gas. Cheap to produce since the fracking revolution, natural gas’ proliferation has shifted the power market away from coal. Renewables coming online fast and hard with the assistance of federal tax benefits have also hit coal. Long-term customer preference for cleaner burning fuels adds a third constraint on coal’s potential future.
That uncertainty is likely depressing job numbers, experts say.
“When companies don’t see a lot of positive on the horizon, they’re always reluctant to hire again,” Adcock said. They turn instead to contractors or overtime to meet their demand, he said.
The major takeaway from the report, according to some close to the industry, is that the large contraction in the coal market seen in recent years may have done its worse for the time being.