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Can Coal Make a Comeback?

By Trevor Houser, Jason Bordoff, and Peter Marsters - Columbia Center on Global Energy Policy, School of International and Public Affairs, and the Rhodium Group, April 2017

From the introduction: Six years ago, the US coal industry was thriving, with demand recovering from the Great Recession, and global coal prices at record highs along with the stock prices of US coal companies. By the end of 2015, however, the industry had collapsed, with three of the four largest US miners filing for bankruptcy along with many other smaller companies. While coal mining employment has been on the decline for decades – from a peak of more than 800,000 in the 1920s to 130,000 in 2011 – the pace of job loss over the past six years has been particularly dramatic. After campaigning on a promise to end what he called his predecessor’s “War on Coal,” President Donald Trump signed an Executive Order in March 2017 ordering agencies to review or rescind a raft of Obama-era environmental regulations, telling coal miners they would be “going back to work.”

This paper offers an empirical diagnosis of what caused the coal collapse, and then examines the prospects for a recovery of US coal production and employment by modeling the impact of President Trump’s executive order and assessing the global coal market outlook. In short, the paper finds:

  • US electricity demand contracted in the wake of the Great Recession, and has yet to recover due to energy efficiency improvements in buildings, lighting and appliances. A surge in US natural gas production due to the shale revolution has driven down prices and made coal increasingly uncompetitive in US electricity markets. Coal has also faced growing competition from renewable energy, with solar costs falling 85 percent between 2008 and 2016 and wind costs falling 36 percent.
  • Increased competition from cheap natural gas is responsible for 49 percent of the decline in domestic US coal consumption. Lower-than-expected demand is responsible for 26 percent, and the growth in renewable energy is responsible for 18 percent. Environmental regulations have played a role in the switch from coal to natural gas and renewables in US electricity supply by accelerating coal plant retirements, but were a significantly smaller factor than recent natural gas and renewable energy cost reductions.
  • Changes in the global coal market have played a far greater role in the collapse of the US coal industry than is generally understood. A slow-down in Chinese coal demand, especially for metallurgical coal, depressed coal prices around the world and reduced the market for US exports. More than half of the decline in US coal company revenue between 2011 and 2015 was due to international factors.
  • Implementing all the actions in President Trump’s executive order to roll back Obama-era environmental regulations could stem the recent decline in US coal consumption, but only if natural gas prices increase going forward. If natural gas prices remain at or near current levels or renewable costs fall more quickly than expected, US coal consumption will continue its decline despite Trump’s aggressive rollback of Obama-era regulations.
  • While global coal markets have recovered slightly over the past few months due to supply restrictions in China and flooding in Australia, we expect this rally to be short-lived. Slower economic growth and structural adjustment in China will continue to put downward pressure on global coal prices and limit the market opportunities for US exports. Indian coal demand will likely grow in the years ahead, but not enough to make up for the slow-down in China. The same is true for other emerging economies, many of whom are negatively impacted by decelerating Chinese commodities demand themselves.
  • Under the best case scenario for US coal producers, our modeling projects a modest recovery to 2013 levels of just under 1 billion tons a year. Under the worst case scenario, output falls to 600 million tons a year. A plausible range of US coal mining employment in these scenarios ranges from 70,000 to 90,000 in 2020, and 64,000 to 94,000 in 2025 and 2030 -- lower than anything the US experienced before 2015.

These findings indicate that President Trump’s efforts to roll back environmental regulations will not materially improve economic conditions in America’s coal communities. As such, the paper concludes with recommendations for steps that the federal government can take to safeguard the pension and health security of current and retired miners and dependents and support economic diversification. Attracting new sources of economic activity and job creation will not be easy, and even at its most successful will not return coal country to peak levels of past prosperity.

But responsible policymakers should be honest about what’s going on in the US coal sector—including the causes of coal’s decline and unlikeliness of its resurgence—rather than offer false hope that the glory days can be revived. And then support those in America’s coal communities working hard to build a new economic future.

Read the text (PDF).

Alpha, Arch, Peabody Energy: Bad Business Decisions are the True War on Coal

By staff - Public Citizen, May 2016

Over the past year, three of the United States’ major coal companies filed for bankruptcy: Alpha Natural Resources in August 2015; Arch Coal in January 2016; and Peabody Energy in April 2016.3 Although these companies and their trade association allies have often blamed environmental regulations for their precarious financial state, the truth is that debt-fueled acquisitions hobbled their finances at a time when market conditions were rapidly souring. Namely, Alpha Natural Resources, Peabody Energy, and Arch Coal bet big on future Chinese coal demand growth in 2011, going into debt to finance major expansions into metallurgical coal production during the year it was at peak price, only to see markets decline soon after the transactions were complete. At the same time, top executives were awarded record financial compensation, while slashing employee benefits and laying off workers.

Read the report (PDF).

Open Letter: Laborer Challenges Union Support of Fossil Fuel Export Projects

By Tim Norgren  - Portland Rising Tide, October 5, 2014

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

The following is an open letter from  union member Tim Norgren to Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA). Read on as Tim explains why union support of fossil fuel export projects is short-sighted and generally not in the best interest of workers. 

Dear LIUNA and Fellow Workers,

In joining forces with avowed union enemies to lobby for export projects like coal and bitumen/oil terminals and pipelines, which would create some short term, but VERY FEW long term local jobs, I strongly feel we’re selling ourselves out, along with every worker in America!

The propositions stand to benefit billionaires like the Koch brothers and other members of ALEC, which as you know are behind state by state attacks on worker’s rights via campaigns like the “right to work” bill recently pushed in OR (see www.alecexposed.org for more).

Export proponents Arch and Peabody coal (ALEC members) were featured in the Labor Press last summer for shifting pensions worth over $1.3 BILLION (owed to some 20,000 beneficiaries) to a shell company- then bankrupting it, leaving retirees destitute. This “success” opened the door for Detroit to become the first city to declare bankruptcy and default on pensions. Scrutiny showed this to be an ALEC “model” scheme. Supporting companies which commit such crimes against dedicated workers is UNACCEPTABLE for anyone who purports to be part of a labor movement!

According to Greg Palast (investigative reporter for the BBC), the Koch brothers stand to save about $26 a barrel bringing in the oil from the Keystone XL instead of from H. Chavez in Venezuela. The Koch’s Houston refineries are designed to refine only the high carbon tar sands oil available from those sources and cannot even process the lighter Texas crude. $26 a barrel would add up to a lot more ammo in their union-busting arsenal.

Should proposals succeed, then when our job’s over, coal will continue being extracted from public lands, with mainly non-union miners and huge federal subsidies (taxpayer expense) in obscenely higher quantities than now, then carted though our neighborhoods alongside explosive fracked oil tankers. Tar sands oil will keep flowing into Koch Industries refineries. And while NOT keeping us working, it WILL continue to profit enemies of labor (fueling their next campaigns) as it’s shipped to Asia, providing cheap fuel for deathtrap factories where subsistence workers slave at jobs outsourced from living wage employment in America!

Indeed as industrial and other jobs are replaced with government subsidized resource extraction and privatization schemes, across the board from fossil fuels and lumber to such basic staples as water and social services, we can see in our mirror a third world nation.

In my humble opinion as a member of LIUNA, pursuing these proposals rather than insisting on cleaner, more labor-friendly energy and transmission projects IS SUICIDE! Are we truly willing to follow the short-term carrot on a stick, like an ass to the slaughter? To feed ourselves willingly to those who would destroy us? Or do enough of us still have the conscience, guts and faith to stand up with those who’ve struggled at such cost to give us rights as workers?

Sincerely,

Tim Norgren, Laborers Local 320

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