The local "newspapers" and state politicians, with a few exceptions, continue to blame most of coal's decline on President Obama and the EPA. It's the easy thing to do but it compounds the problem of turning the state around because simply voting "for coal" in the next election will do nothing to change the market forces that started long before Obama was elected president and those same forces will still be with us regardless of who wins the next election. Many West Virginians, cheered on by the Ogden newspapers and politicians who fear for their own political future, refuse to accept the notion that most of the rest of the country and a good deal of the developed world are moving away from coal. From time to time I've noted what is happening outside of the state of West Virginia. Most of this gets little, if any, attention from the local media. Here's a sample of what I've found recently.
Reasons for coal's decline
Yesterday's USA Today had a lengthy story on the declining fortunes of coal in Appalachia. Here's a sample from "Coal's demise threatens Appalachian miners, firms as production moves West:"
The reasons for coal's troubles are many. The rise of natural gas during the oil and shale rush tops the list. Then there's China's reduced use of coal and heavy debt accumulated through a wave of industry consolidation and a corresponding borrowing binge in recent years. Finally, costs associated with environmental regulation have made it prohibitively expensive for certain mines to remain in operation, leading some to simply shut down altogether.
Add to that aging Appalachian mines that make extraction difficult and expensive. The result is the displacement of an industry that, in many ways, defined a region and provided thousands of jobs to its residents.
Natural gas, not "war on coal," caused Peabody Coal's bankruptcy
Last week Energy & Environment Publishing did a lengthy analysis of Peabody's financial problems:
Cheap and plentiful natural gas, as well as an oversupplied market of inexpensive coal -- not environmental regulations -- are the primary forces behind Peabody Energy Corp.'s bankruptcy and others in the U.S. coal industry, a wide range of financial experts said.
"The kind of collapse that we're seeing in the coal industry right now" is primarily due to natural gas competition, said Anna Zubets-Anderson, who covers the coal industry for Moody's Investors Service. Coal prices are too low for many mining companies to survive, and overseas competitors are closer to countries where demand is high, she said in a recent interview.
"That's the critical issue for Peabody, and that has nothing to do with the Clean Power Plan," she said of natural gas. "It's not really a question of a specific rule."
Last month, the New Republic's Emma Foehringer Merchant asked "Is It Game Over for Coal?" The article began by noting that the state of Oregon recently became the first state to phase out the use of coal for electricity generation (by 2035). While the article questioned how many states would follow Oregon's lead, it did suggest that change is coming.
In the article, Merchant quotes Bob Keefe who is executive director for E2 which is a partner of the Natural Resources Defense Council:
But according to Keefe, rhetorical assaults designed to boost coal are a waste of time. “If I’m a coal state politician, instead of harping about some other party’s ‘war on coal’ I would be trying my best to help those workers,” he said. “Getting them some worker retraining programs and more importantly getting more clean energy … in my state.”
While Keefe may be biased toward renewables, his point about retraining makes sense.
Merchant concludes by examining the implications of coal's decline in the upcoming presidential election:
In the short term, Clinton is correct—coal will remain part of the energy mix in both the U.S. and around the world. But market trends imply that won’t be the case for much longer, even if a President Trump does everything in his power to prop up Big Coal.
From the war on coal miners
While it isn't West Virginia, we may see something similar to this piece of Kentucky legislation popping-up in next year's legislature. An editorial last month in the Lexington Star-Leader details an effort by the Kentucky senate to undermine safety in Kentucky's coal mines:
The spoils of the Kentucky Senate’s war on coal miners became clear last week in an amendment that Sen. Chris Girdler attached to industry-dictated legislation ending the state’s safety inspections of coal mines.
Under Senate Bill 297, which cleared the Republican-controlled Senate along largely party lines, the state employees formerly known as mine-safety inspectors would become political appointees.
Yes, you read that right. Girdler has touted his bill as relief for a declining coal industry already subject to federal regulation. But Girdler, R-Somerset, and his fellow Republicans also are out to make a soft place for friends, family and political donors to land.
What could possibly go wrong? Fortunately, the bill died in a House committee.