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Global Coal Use Falling Fast, Arch Coal Could Face Bankruptcy

Energy

Listen to congressional Republicans and you would think that President Obama’s regulations are behind the nosedive the coal industry has taken this year. Alpha Natural Resources filed for Chapter 11 this summer, Arch Coal may follow next. Its stock, which traded as high as $3,600 in 2011 dipped to $1.50 this week.

Elk Creek Mine, located near Somerset in Gunnison County, Colorado. Photo credit: Pam Morris / Flickr

There’s no question that the president’s Clean Power Plan and his other air pollution regulations cloud the future of the industry. But coal’s bleak present has much more to do with other factors; chief among them the low price of natural gas and bad business decisions that the country’s biggest coal companies made in recent years. “These are undoubtedly difficult, if not unprecedented, times for the coal sector,” Glenn Kellow, CEO of Peabody, the world’s largest coal company, reportedly said on the company’s recent earnings call.

Both Arch Coal and Peabody Energy paid billions of dollars to acquire metallurgical coal mines when prices of this type of coal, which is used to make steel and other metals, were soaring. The price has since collapsed, leaving the companies swamped in debt and their stock prices a small fraction of what they used to be. In Arch’s case, it spent $3.4 billion in 2011 to buy International Coal Group, Inc., acquiring 13 mines in the eastern U.S. At the time, the only company more invested in metallurgical coal was Alpha National Resources, (remember that name), which was buying Massie Energy for $7.1 billion. That same year, Peabody shelled out $5.2 billion for metallurgical coal mines in Australia.

The companies borrowed to buy these metallurgical coal mines, with the expectation that Asia, especially China, would gobble up all the metallurgical coal they could produce. What they didn’t count on was the price of metallurgical coal spiraling downward due in part to increased supplies of metallurgical coal from other countries and slower growth in China. Now U.S. metallurgical coal sells for less than half what it did in 2011.

Arch’s debt comes due next year. Scrambling to avoid bankruptcy, Arch tried to get creditors to renegotiate its debt, but the effort collapsed at the end of last month. Peabody has until 2018 and yet its stock has fallen from more than $1,000 in 2011 to less than $13 this fall.

The West is largely a bystander to this high drama, except that the companies that produce the most coal in the West are caught in the middle of it. Profitable mines owned by these companies in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin likely still will operate under whatever slimmed-down companies emerge from bankruptcy or under new ownership. But underground mines, where it costs more to extract the coal, may be less lucky. Peabody’s Twentymile mine in northwestern Colorado reportedly already has experienced significant reductions in production.

Mines in the West are not immune from the other main factor vexing the coal industry: low natural gas prices. Coal’s share in electricity production dropped from 50 percent in 2005 to 39 percent in 2014 and natural gas overtook coal as the biggest electricity producer for two months this year. The Energy Information Agency expects an eight percent decrease in total coal consumption in 2015 compared to 2014, mainly driven by electric companies shifting to low-cost natural gas. Retirement of coal-fired power plants due to the Obama administration’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards contributed, but to a lesser degree, according to the Energy Information Agency. “The big story here is gas and how cheap it is,” says Robert Godby, associate economics professor at the University of Wyoming who focuses on coal.

The drop in demand for coal by the U.S. electric power sector combined with reduced exports has resulted in surpluses and has pushed prices down.

Overtime, this trend will push out less profitable operations. Bowie Resource Partners earlier this fall announced it was scaling back its workforce and evaluating the market for the coal from a mine near Paonia, Colorado. This will only get worse as the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan kicks in. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency projects its first-ever regulation of greenhouse gases for existing power plants will drive coal’s share of electricity production down to 27 percent by 2030.

But coal’s prospects will deteriorate much more if world leaders make the deeper cuts in greenhouse gases that scientists say will be needed in coming decades to avoid the most catastrophic consequences of climate change. “The elephant in the room is climate change,” says Godby. “The Clean Power Plan is just the beginning. It doesn’t get close to what you need.”

Exports won’t likely take the place of domestic demand, Godby cautions. China has committed to leveling off and then reducing its emissions and is considering moving its coal-fired electricity generation to the interior of its country to limit air pollution in its coastal cities. It could locate its new power plants near its own stores of coal. Transporting even Powder River Basin coal that far likely would be cost prohibitive. India also has sources of coal closer to home.

Communities like Gillette, Wyoming and Craig, Colorado, have grown up around coal mines and their decline could have dramatic impacts on local economies.

“The projections are quite grim,” says Adele Morris, who focuses on the economics of climate change at the Brookings Institution think tank. “Any kind of serious climate policy dramatically reduces coal.”

Morris is gathering experts to brainstorm policies that might alleviate the economic pain for coal miners and their communities. “It behooves us not to solve our environmental problems in a way that kicks people when they’re down,” Morris added.

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"We've moved the needle a lot, especially on environmental justice and upping Biden's ambition," said Sunrise Movement co-founder and executive director Varshini Prakash, a member of the Biden-Sanders Climate Task Force. "But there's still more work to do to push Democrats to act at the scale of the climate crisis."

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Sanders said that while the "end result isn't what I or my supporters would've written alone, the task forces have created a good policy blueprint that will move this country in a much-needed progressive direction and substantially improve the lives of working families throughout our country."

"I look forward to working with Vice President Biden to help him win this campaign," the Vermont senator added, "and to move this country forward toward economic, racial, social, and environmental justice."

Biden, for his part, applauded the task forces "for helping build a bold, transformative platform for our party and for our country."

"I am deeply grateful to Bernie Sanders for working with us to unite our party and deliver real, lasting change for generations to come," said the former vice president.

On the life-or-death matter of reforming America's dysfunctional private health insurance system—a subject on which Sanders and Biden clashed repeatedly throughout the Democratic primary process—the Unity Task Force affirmed healthcare as "a right" but did not embrace Medicare for All, the signature policy plank of the Vermont senator's presidential bid.

Instead, the panel recommended building on the Affordable Care Act by establishing a public option, investing in community health centers, and lowering prescription drug costs by allowing the federal government to negotiate prices. The task force also endorsed making all Covid-19 testing, treatments, and potential vaccines free and expanding Medicaid for the duration of the pandemic.

"It has always been a crisis that tens of millions of Americans have no or inadequate health insurance—but in a pandemic, it's potentially catastrophic for public health," the task force wrote.

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, a former Michigan gubernatorial candidate and Sanders-appointed member of the Healthcare Task Force, said that despite major disagreements, the panel "came to recommendations that will yield one of the most progressive Democratic campaign platforms in history—though we have further yet to go."

 

Observers and advocacy groups also applauded the Unity Task Forces for recommending the creation of a postal banking system, endorsing a ban on for-profit charter schools, ending the use of private prisons, and imposing a 100-day moratorium on deportations "while conducting a full-scale study on current practices to develop recommendations for transforming enforcement policies and practices at ICE and CBP."

Marisa Franco, director of immigrant rights group Mijente, said in a statement that "going into these task force negotiations, we knew we were going to have to push Biden past his comfort zone, both to reconcile with past offenses and to carve a new path forward."

"That is exactly what we did, unapologetically," said Franco, a member of the Immigration Task Force. "For years, Mijente, along with the broader immigrant rights movement, has fought to reshape the narrative around immigration towards racial justice and to focus these very demands. We expect Biden and the Democratic Party to implement them in their entirety."

"There is no going back," Franco added. "Not an inch, not a step. We must only move forward from here."

Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.

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