Kentucky coal production and employment fell by the smallest amount in nearly two years, according to new data.

The state’s coal mines produced 6.5 million tons in the first three months of 2021, according to the Energy and Environment Cabinet, a decline of 9.6% from 2020.

Jeff Young | Ohio Valley ReSource

Coal being barged up the Ohio River.

Total employment fell by 14.6% to 3,983 workers.

Western Kentucky continued to outpace Eastern Kentucky in production, with 4.3 million tons mined in the west and 2.3 million tons mined in the east.

One western Kentucky county, Union, produced more coal than the entire eastern coalfield.

Total employment remained higher in the east, with 2,366 workers. Western Kentucky mines employed 1,617 workers.

Kentucky ranks fifth nationwide in coal production, behind Illinois, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Wyoming.

A decade ago, Kentucky coal mines produced more than 27 million tons every three months and employed more than 18,000 workers.

Demand for coal to generate electric power has declined, primarily because utilities have switched to cheaper natural gas. Meanwhile, wind and solar energy have also become cheaper.

Coal shipments to power plants declined 22% in 2020, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, reflecting a drop in electricity demand due to the coronavirus.

Natural gas generated 40% of the nation’s electricity in 2020, twice the share generated by coal. Last year, both nuclear and renewable power surpassed coal nationwide.

Plans to decarbonize the electric power grid could further erode coal’s share.