BOBTOWN, Pa. — When Nic Zmija applied for a job at the 4 West coal mine three years ago, he was tantalized by a fat raise and a secure future. Once hired, he was told that someday even his two young sons had jobs waiting for them.
“It all sounded good,” Mr. Zmija recalled with a tight smile while sitting at his kitchen table the other day. “They said my kids would be able to retire here.”
But right after New Year’s, management announced that the mine would have to close, leaving 370 workers scrambling to find new jobs. The Zmija family must now prepare to move in search of the next coal job.
The fateful turn of events in Appalachian mining towns like Bobtown, isolated between craggy bluffs and wooded hills 70 miles south of Pittsburgh, illustrate the seemingly relentless downturn of the coal industry. While President Trump has offered some regulatory relief to the industry, market forces still dictate a gloomy future — one largely shaped by the glut of cheap natural gas yielded by the drilling boom in shale fields near here and across much of the nation.
As aging coal-fired power plants are shut — roughly 20 of 380 have closed or are in the process of shutting since Mr. Trump took office — coal’s share of the nation’s power mix has plummeted from nearly half in 2008 to roughly a third today.
Last year, coal consumption in the United States fell by 2.4 percent, falling to its lowest level in nearly four decades. In the early weeks of 2018, national coal production has continued to decline from a year ago despite the frigid winter. A weather-related increase in exports last year yielded a modest gain in jobs, but it is not considered sustainable.
The decline in demand has forced a 38 percent drop in the nation’s coal production in a little less than a decade. Now only the most efficient mines containing the highest-quality coal are able to survive.
The 4 West mine, like many that produce coal for power utilities in Appalachia, is expensive to run. Its coal seam is thin and of lower quality than competing mines, and its traditional form of mining requires costly methods to stabilize roofs to protect against the kind of accidents that caused the deaths of two miners at 4 West over the last three years. Government fines and management turmoil also took their toll.
The most successful mines these days, particularly here in Appalachia, produce metallurgical coal for steel making in the United States and abroad. 4 West produces only thermal coal for a nearby power plant, which will now rely on other local mines.
“It’s just come to a point where the mine is not economical to continue,” said Brian Osborn, senior vice president for operations for Mepco Holdings, owner of the 4 West mine.
The stress is being particularly felt here in Greene County, where coal mines have been closing for years, chewing-tobacco advertisements adorn the sides of barns, and graffiti claiming that the Environmental Protection Agency has “ruined this country” defaces the road sign at the entrance of one abandoned mine.
Three coal mines are left here, after one closed nearly two years ago, laying off roughly 500 workers as its owner, Alpha Natural Resources, curtailed its operations while filing for bankruptcy protection. A total of 2,000 coal miners work in the county, but that number will be shaved by nearly 20 percent by June 1 after workers finish cleaning up the 4 West mine and remove equipment for the final closing.
Blair Zimmerman, the chairman of the Greene County Board of Commissioners, estimated that the county’s unemployment rate, currently 5.2 percent, will jump by 1.5 percentage points.
“It‘s a major impact — it’s tax revenue, it’s jobs, it’s the housing market,” said Mr. Zimmerman, a former coal mine worker and a Democrat. “If they can’t make the wages here, they’ll move away.”
Painful adjustments have already begun. Most of the miners said they would look for other mining jobs, and their company is giving them days off to go to interviews.
William Laviolette, a 26-year-old maintenance worker at the mine who made roughly $55,000 last year, said that if he didn’t find another mine job, he would go back to school to get his high school degree.
He said he had cut his daily two-pack cigarette habit to one to save money. His wife, Ashley, has taken part-time work as a custodian at a furniture store, and the family has canceled a vacation to Walt Disney World. He has even stopped buying wood to make toys for his two children.
“We just buy the essentials now, toilet paper and food,” Mr. Laviolette said. “I was told we have at least 175 to 200 years of coal. Now I have to keep my eyes out for other jobs.”
Business has already dried up at bars and restaurants where the miners used to eat, shoot pool and joke around after work. “This is going to kill this community,” said Debbie Bauza, a server at Huddle House, a favorite breakfast spot for workers getting off the overnight shift.
Mr. Trump won 68 percent of the county’s vote — 10 percentage points more than Mitt Romney four years before — with his promises to revive the coal industry. Most of the miners say they continue to support him despite their turn in fortunes.
“He’s trying his best,” said Rick Glover, a 4 West mine conveyor-belt attendant. “You can’t change the country overnight.”
Since taking office a year ago, Mr. Trump has renounced the Paris climate change agreement and sought to loosen a variety of regulations on mining and power plants. Some efforts have been delayed in court, and a recent administration effort to subsidize nuclear and coal-fired plants was shot down by regulators.
Nevertheless, coal executives say the issuing of federal permits for mining operations has become more certain and quicker.
“I would definitely say the Trump administration has benefited the industry,” said Rachel Gleason, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coal Alliance. “I don’t know if there are that many new policies, but many of the policies that were threatening the industry are no longer in play.”
Nationwide, there was a 1 percent increase in coal mining jobs last year, to just over 50,000, mostly because of an increase in mining metallurgical coal for export to Asia. There was a net increase of roughly 100 jobs in Pennsylvania, largely related to the opening of three new metallurgical coal mines.
Coal prices in Asia soared after a cyclone knocked out production in Australia early last year, producing an opening for American exports.
“I don’t think that President Trump, when he promised to bring about a recovery in U.S. coal mining, intended to do it by way of boosting Chinese steel production,” said Trevor Houser, a coal expert at Rhodium Group, an economic analysis firm. “That is what is driving the recovery.”
Energy experts say that coal exports should plateau this year, and that domestic consumption of thermal coal for electricity should continue its long decline.
Even many coal-producing states are switching to natural gas for power, in part because, like Pennsylvania, they produce increasing amounts of shale gas. The power-fuel mix supplying the PJM regional transmission electrical grid, which serves 13 states including Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Kentucky, went from 55 percent coal and 8 percent natural gas in 2006 to 34 percent coal and 27 percent gas last year.
The Energy Department projected this month that the price of natural gas would decline this year because of increased production and pipeline completions, and that its share of electricity generation would increase nationwide to 34 percent by 2019, from 32 percent.
Over the same period, coal is to decline to 28 percent from 30 percent. Renewable sources not including hydroelectric power, which currently account for 10 percent of energy supplies, are expected to climb to 11 percent.
At age 28, Mr. Zmija, like most of the coal mineworkers here, has not lost faith in the industry. He is considering applying for a coal job in Alabama, or he may return to his old mine job in Maryland, although it pays far less than the $106,000 he made last year at 4 West. A sign in his living room says, “I’m a proud coal miner.”
Still, he grumbles about the turn of fortune at 4 West, saying, “It feels like a slap in the face.”