Coal miners suffer as U.S. production of natural gas increases

As U.S. becomes the No. 1 producer of oil and natural gas, coal-mining towns like Harlan, Ky., see unemployment spike.
CBS News

(CBS News) HARLAN, Ky. -- Anyone old enough to remember the gas lines of the 1970s during the Arab oil embargo might be surprised by the Wall Street Journal report which says the U.S. has overtaken Russia as the number one producer of oil and natural gas.

But the increase in natural gas production has had a devastating impact in coal country.

Charity and Scott Duncan
Charity and Scott Duncan CBS News

For more than a 100 years, Harlan County, Ky., has been fueled, fed and funded by coal.

In the past two years, unemployment has gone from 9.8 percent to 17.2 percent. In eastern Kentucky overall, 42 percent of miners have lost their jobs.

Scott Duncan is one of them.

"It's been rough trying to figure out how to pay your bills, take care of your kids, just how you're going to make it," he says.

Duncan worked in mining for 18 years. He and his wife Charity have three teenagers. He was making $80,000 a year, but now his family is on food stamps.

"Drastic change, I mean, I don't know how to talk about it, it's just unreal" he says.

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"Our vehicle is 10 years old, it's payed for, and we pawned the title to the Jeep for $250 so we could buy some groceries," Charity says. "That lasted about three days."

The downturn in eastern Kentucky's coal fortunes has been fueled, in part, by the boom in U.S. natural gas production and new federal limits on greenhouse gases.

The only mines still operating in Harlan are run by C.V. Bennett's family. Five years ago, Bennett had 500 employees. Today it's 100.

C.V. Bennett
C.V. Bennett CBS News

"Coal miners are family, they're an extended family," he says. "You kind of feel like you got an obligation to keep them working."

But Bennett says he can't do that.

Charity says she doesn't see coal mining coming back.

"I wish I did, but I just don't think so," she says.

After we spoke with the Duncans, Scott told us just Wednesday he received a new job offer. It is 400 miles away.