2020 Hindsight: The Ohio Valley’s Decade In Data

6 January 2020 (Becca Schimmel - WKYU)

The year: 2009. A Senator from Illinois named Barack Obama has just made history upon taking the presidential oath of office. The national economy is at a low point in the Great Recession. And the Pittsburgh Steelers are the first NFL team to win six Super Bowls.

Ten years later, as 2019 gives way to a new decade, the country is a radically different place, and the Ohio Valley is no exception.

The region’s economy improved, but more slowly and more modestly than for the nation as a whole. Coal, the Ohio Valley’s bedrock industry, declined sharply, bringing turmoil and uncertainty to the communities that had long depended on mining and burning coal for jobs. And an addiction crisis just coming into view in 2009 took a terrible toll on the region as it became a nationwide epidemic.

The Ohio Valley ReSource took a look at the trends that have shaped the region over the past ten years, and the data behind those trends in the Ohio Valley’s economy, environment and health.

Slow Growth

Population has grown across the region, but only Kentucky has seen a substantial increase since 2009. The Commonwealth has grown by about 4 percent. Ohio and West Virginia have seen slower population growth at about one percent.

A closer look at population change on a county-by-county view of the three states reveals a stark difference between rural and metro areas. Population loss is primarily in the rural regions, especially those that have been dependent on coal for employment. And population gains are primarily in the more urban areas.

Individual incomes have increased in Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia, but they still lag behind the rest of the country. The type of work that offers the most money has shifted in some parts of the region and, as the coal industry continued to decline, other forms of energy arose.

All three states are behind the national average in wage growth. Of the three states, West Virginia saw the highest wage increases at 7.4 percent. Kentucky is increasing the slowest at 4.8 percent, and Ohio workers have seen a 6.3 percent increase from 2009 to 2018.

But an economist warned that those numbers have to be put in perspective.

University of Kentucky economist Michael Clark said he was surprised to see incomes growing more slowly in Kentucky than in West Virginia, where he says the state is facing an isolated recession.

“That's really masking a lot of the problems that West Virginia has faced,” Clark said, “because they've been seeing a decrease in the number of jobs and a decrease in total wages.”

In West Virginia, the mining industry remained the employer that pays the most, even as that sector saw sharp declines in employment. In comparison, Kentucky moved from mining to finance and Ohio went from information to finance as the best-paying sectors.

Energy Shift

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone living in the Ohio Valley that there have been a lot of losses in the mining industry over the past decade. Overall, the Ohio Valley experienced a 50 percent decrease in mining employment since 2009 and data from the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration show that between 2009 and 2018, the region’s coal production fell by almost half, outpacing coal’s decline nationwide. Ohio has been hit hardest with a 68 percent decline, followed by Kentucky at 63 percent and West Virginia with a 30 percent decline.

While some dubbed the Obama administration’s focus on greenhouse gas emissions a “war on coal,” experts say the writing was already on the wall for coal’s decline.

The main reason: natural gas.

“When you look back at what did we know in 2009, what did things look like,  I think there was a clear indication that the decline of the coal industry was upon us,” said Jamie Van Nostrand, director of West Virginia University’s Center for Energy and Sustainable Development. “Fracking was really ramping up in the Marcellus shale and so you started to have natural-gas-generating plants displacing coal and a huge number of wells being drilled.”

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the federal government’s independent, nonpartisan energy statistics arm, about 93 percent of mined coal is used for electric power generation.

Some regulations did increase the cost of burning coal, including the 2011 Mercury and Air Toxics Standards which caused some older coal plants to close rather than choosing to make costly pollution control upgrades. But Van Nostrand said the falling cost of natural gas and renewable energy are the main drivers of coal generation displacement seen over the last decade.

“I know the term is used too often, ‘a game-changer,’ but it really did fundamentally change how we generate electricity in the United States,” he said.

In addition, mining productivity was dropping, “because basically all the cheap coal has already been extracted.”

Between 2010 and the first quarter of 2019, U.S. power companies announced the retirement of more than 546 coal-fired power units, totaling about 102 gigawatts of generating capacity nationwide.

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