Free falling: Coal crashes throughout Trump’s America in 2020

Though Trump promised to save America’s coal industry, the latter appears to be in worse shape than ever. Over a dozen coal companies have filed for bankruptcy over the past two years and as investors pour resources into green energy instead, the U.S. Energy Information Agency now projects that renewables will overtake coal this year for the first time. However, cheap fracked gas is flooding the coal space. During the presidential campaign America’s gas burn has soared. In the second piece of an on-going series, our lead blogger, L. Michael Buchsbaum, looks at coal’s collapse in the United States.

Many US coal companies have filed for bankruptcy in the last years. (CC BY 2.0, James St. John)


Sinking Ships

The corona pandemic and the worsening financial depression it’s caused have pushed down electricity consumption throughout America. Already struggling to compete against renewables and fracked fossil gas, coal-fired generation nationwide has collapsed a staggering 30% through June — according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).

The fall of America’s coal has been dramatic. A decade ago, nearly half the country’s electricity was still produced by burning black diamonds. But by the end of 2019, coal was only firing about a quarter. Some analysts now predict its share could fall to just 10% in five years.

Saving coal was obviously another empty promise. Since Trump was inaugurated, as the New York Times reports, some 145 coal-burning units at 75 power plants have been idled, eliminating 15% of the nation’s coal-generated capacity, comprising the fastest decline in coal-fuel capacity in any single presidential term.

Without a single coal plant over 30 MW even in the planning stage, and nothing under construction, the industry “is in terminal decline,” said Global Energy Monitor’s Dr. Christine Shearer in an emailed exchange. “For a long time Republican lawmakers said coal was in decline because of regulations implemented under the Obama administration. But annual coal plant retirements have actually increased under Trump, compared to Obama.”

On the first of September, the EIA reported that from a peak of 314 GW in 2011 through June of 2020, over 95 gigawatts (GW) of coal capacity had closed or switched to another fuel. Going forward, another 25 GW is slated for shutdown by 2025, pushing total capacity below 200 GW.

In September Texas-based generator Vistra announced its intention to shutter its entire coal fleet in Illinois and Ohio by 2027 as the company transforms into a predominantly renewables-based generator. Totaling 6.8 GW of capacity, five of the seven coal plants Vistra named are in coal-producing Illinois. Since 2016 the company has shuttered or announced the closure of 19 coal plants totaling more than 16 GW. “Vistra’s commitment to our transformation to a low-to-no-carbon future is unequivocal,” said Curt Morgan, president and CEO.

Even energy industry titan General Electric, with its historical roots in coal-fired electricity generation and support, is abandoning it. “GE’s exit from building new coal-fired power — after decades as a leader in this space — is an acknowledgement that growth in the energy sector will no longer be in coal,” said Kathy Hipple, a financial analyst at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.

Just the same, GE is still reaping the fruits of its investments in “natural” fossil gas.

Going back to 2001, prior to breakthroughs the company and others made in fracking technologies, gas and associated petroleum fuels accounted for less than 15% of total U.S. electricity production. Through early this year, gas now produces 40% of the mix. Even as coal has been collapsing, over the last decade it has been gas, not renewables, that has captured the lion’s share of the market. In the first half of this year, according to the EIA, fossil gas generation grew by 9%, setting an all-time record burn rate in late July.

Though it produces less CO2 when burned, fossil gas is mostly comprised of methane, a powerful heat trapper that warms the earth 86 times as much as the same mass of carbon dioxide over a 20-year period. A false environmental solution, the large volumes of “fugitive” methane escaping into the atmosphere during the fracking and transport cycle is a significant factor propelling and worsening the climate crisis.

Coal Kingdom Collapse

Partially because of the coronavirus-induced recession, total coal production is expected to crash down to only 511 million tons – a massive drop considering last year the nation mined 706 million tons. And that was already the lowest total since 1978.

With the EIA projecting mining levels “comparable with those in the 1960s,” investors are fleeing coal producers. After losing billions throughout Trump’s term, most are either emerging from or teetering upon bankruptcy.

Peabody Energy, still clinging to the title of “the world’s largest privately owned, single biggest U.S. coal producer,” just wiped billions off its books after regulators recently denied it the opportunity to merge its vast western operations with fellow fallen giant, Arch Coal. Specifically objecting to plans to combine the largest coal mine in the country—the North Antelope Rochelle open pit mine in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin—with Arch’s adjacent Thunder Basin facility, the decision forced Peabody to write off nearly 22% of the company’s value. Once a proud propagandist that global warming would benefit the planet, after shedding half of its $10 billion in debt as it emerged through bankruptcy in 2017, its stock value has plummeted some 90% from $27 down to currently under $3 a share.

In a recent earnings report, even Peabody has accepted that coal’s share of generation will continue to fall because of lower long-term fossil gas prices, accelerating coal plant retirements and the continued growth of renewables. Arch, long America’s number two producer, has announced plans to sell off all thermal coal assets and concentrate on just mining higher quality coal used to make steel—where it still sees a future.

Sacrifice Zones

America’s coal producers, Peabody included, have long embraced a perverse business model enabled by the country’s lenient corporate bankruptcy processes and feeble federal and state regulations. Most of the industry’s investors bank on being able to walk away from liabilities like the long-term healthcare of their workers, many of whom suffer from Black Lung from working underground. Under Trump, even as they fell far behind on royalty and tax payments, most majors were allowed to simply shirk future cleanup and reclamation obligations too.

Since the pandemic hit, some 20,000 coal miners have lost their jobs. With state and county finances nationwide already in peril, there is the growing probability that America’s coal industry will collapse under its mountain of debt, resulting in more sudden mine closures and abandonments.

Desperate for survival as they chase fewer and fewer customers, remaining producers are caught in a death spiral as they cut corners within their nearly unregulated, historically dangerous industry.

Lacking a plan for an orderly retreat or a Just Transition, many of the coal areas that voted in Trump are becoming sacrifice zones.

by

L. Michael Buchsbaum is an energy and mining journalist and industrial photographer based in Germany. Since the mid-1990s, he has covered the social, environmental, economic and political impacts of the transition from fossil fuels towards renewables for dozens of industry magazines, journals, institutions and corporate clients. Born in the U.S., he emigrated to Germany and Europe to better document the Energiewende.

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