Tag Archives: coal mines

Beautiful Coal and Other Maladies

President Trump hasn’t been able to bring back “beautiful, clean coal” as he promised four years ago. As mines and power plants continue to close, the question many are asking in the diminishing American coal industry is—what now?

The use of coal to generate electricity in the U.S. is expected to fall more than a third during Mr. Trump’s first term, data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration show, as a glut of cheap natural gas unlocked due to fracking and increasingly competitive wind and solar sources gained market share. More than half of that drop happened before the new coronavirus outbreak. That compares with a decline of about 35% in coal consumed for power generation during Mr. Obama’s eight years in office.

In 2019, the U.S. consumed more renewable energy than coal for the first time since the 1880s, federal data show…“Coal isn’t coming back. You can’t legislate it,” said Karla Kimrey , previously a vice president at Wyoming-based coal producer Cloud Peak Energy Inc., which filed for bankruptcy protection last year. Domestic demand has continued to drop as utilities retire coal power plants and turn to cheap natural gas and renewables to make electricity, trends that have only accelerated as economies have slowed due to the pandemic. With less demand for power, many utilities have cut back on coal generation first, as it is generally more expensive

Meanwhile the rise of “ESG” or environmental, social and governance investing is constricting the industry’s ability to obtain capital, current and former executives say.  As major investors such as JPMorgan Chase & Co. and BlackRock Inc., the world’s largest asset manager, turn away from coal over concerns about climate change, coal companies are struggling to secure the insurance they need to operate. That hurts not only companies that mine the thermal coal used to generate electricity, but also those that mine metallurgical coal to make steel.

Excerpts from Rebecca Elliott and Jonathan Randles, Trump’s Promise to Revive Coal Thwarted by Falling Demand, Cheaper Alternatives, WSJ, Sept. 17, 2020

Boycotting Coal

Chinese coal  consumption dipped by 1.6% in 2014, despite economic growth of 7.3%. The country’s voracious appetite for steel is peaking, damping demand for coking coal. Worries about pollution mean that demand for thermal coal, as used in power stations, is slackening too. Water conservation is another concern for policymakers—on current trends coal could account for a quarter of China’s water use by 2020 and coal reserves are mainly in the most parched regions. Its coal-fired plants are running at only 54% of capacity, a 35-year low. In Beijing two big coal-fired plants closed this week; the capital’s last one will shut down next year.

Another prop to demand has been power generation in rich countries. But in America coal now struggles to compete with natural gas, which has fallen by 80% in price since 2008. Domestic coal use there peaked in 2007. European consumption soared after Germany’s hasty decision to close its nuclear-power plants. But gas and renewables are eating into that.

Coalswarm, an environmental think-tank, says in a new report that two-thirds of coal-fired power plants proposed worldwide since 2010 have been stalled or cancelled…. Overall, Europe and America have already cut coal-fired generation capacity by over a fifth in a decade. The output of American coal mines dropped to 1993 levels in 2013.

Political pressure is growing against the most carbon-intensive fossil fuel. Coal provides 40% of the world’s electricity. But of 1,617GW of global capacity, 75% is of the dirtiest kind…. The chimneys of all but the most modern coal plants also emit plenty of other nasties. Mercury emissions stunt young brains. Sulphur and nitrous oxides scald lungs. Overall, coal kills around 800,000 people a year, most of them poor. In China it is responsible for up to a sixth of the particulates most dangerous for human health.

In America the coal and electric-utility industries are fighting the Environmental Protection Agency’s attempts to curb emissions of CO2, mercury and other toxins contained in coal. On March 25th, 2015 the Supreme Court heard arguments by some state governments, backed by the miners and utilities, that the agency has failed duly to consider the cost of its measures against mercury (see article).

Campaigners reckon 80% of the world’s coal reserves must stay in the ground if the planet is to stand a chance of keeping global warming under 2ºC by 2050. A divestment movement akin to the apartheid-era campaign to boycott South Africa is under way in many universities. Stanford may dump its coal investments and Oxford University is under pressure to do likewise. The World Bank no longer invests in coal-fired plants. Last year Norway’s sovereign-wealth fund dumped its holdings in more than 50 coal companies worldwide. South Korea recently introduced a carbon cap-and-trade scheme which punishes coal….

Furthermore, in some emerging markets, India especially, demand for coal is set to continue rising—so overall global demand may not peak until at least the 2030s. This week India’s government predicted a 19% rise in the country’s coal imports in this fiscal year. But thereafter the plan is to bring in private contractors to develop India’s untapped coalfields, and then to phase out all thermal-coal imports. If so, that will be grim news for the Indonesian, Australian and South African mining firms that are supplying India at the moment.

Even though some other developing nations’ coal imports will grow in future, coal companies are having to face up to a crisis now. Some are cutting costs and getting ready for a wave of consolidation. Others are litigating and lobbying against change.

Excerpts from Coal Mining: In the Depths, Economist, Mar. 28, 2015, at 65

The Fatal Attraction to Coal: World

Coal is cheap and simple to extract, ship and burn. It is abundant: proven reserves amount to 109 years of current consumption… Just as this wonder-fuel once powered the industrial revolution, it now offers the best chance for poor countries wanting to get rich.  Such arguments are the basis of a new PR campaign launched by Peabody, the world’s largest private coal company (which unlike some rivals is profitable, thanks to its low-cost Australian mines). And coal would indeed be a boon, were it not for one small problem: it is devastatingly dirty. Mining, transport, storage and burning are fraught with mess, as well as danger. Deep mines put workers in intolerably filthy and dangerous conditions. But opencast mining, now the source of much of the world’s coal, rips away topsoil and gobbles water. Transporting coal brings a host of environmental problems.

The increased emissions of carbon dioxide from soaring coal consumption threaten to fry the planet…he CO2 makes the oceans acid; burning coal also produces sulphur dioxide, which makes buildings crumble and lungs sting, and other toxic chemicals. By some counts, coal-fired power stations emit more radioactivity than nuclear ones. They release tiny, lethal particulates. Per unit generated, coal-fired stations cause far more deaths than nuclear ones, and more even than oil-fired ones.

But poverty kills people too, and slow growth can cost politicians their jobs. Two decades of environmental worries are proving only a marginal constraint on the global coal industry. The International Energy Agency has even predicted that, barring policy changes, coal may rival oil in importance by 2017… As countries get richer they tend to look for alternatives—China is scrambling to curb its rising consumption. But others, such as India and Africa, are set to take up the slack

America’s gas boom has prompted its coal miners to seek new export markets, sending prices plunging on world markets. So long as consumers do not pay for coal’s horrible side-effects, that makes it irresistibly cheap. In Germany power from coal now costs half the price of watts from a gas-fired power station. … Its production of power from cheap, dirty brown coal (lignite) is now at 162 billion kilowatt hours, the highest since the days of the decrepit East Germany.  Japan, too, is turning to coal in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. On April 11th the government approved a new energy plan entrenching its role as a long-term electricity source.

International coal companies face two worries. One is that governments may eventually impose punitive levies, tariffs and restrictions on their mucky product. The other is the global glut. Prices for thermal coal (the kind used for power and heating) are at $80-85 a tonne, which barely covers the cost of capital. Some Australian producers are even mining at a loss, having signed freight contracts with railways and ports that make them pay for capacity whether they use it or not….

Perhaps the biggest hope for all involved in the coal industry is technology. Mining and transporting coal will always be messy, but this could be overlooked were it burned cheaply and cleanly. Promising technologies abound: pulverising coal, extracting gas from it, scrubbing emissions and capturing the CO2. But none of these seems scalable in the way needed to dent the colossal damage done by coal. And all require large subsidies—from consumers, shareholders or taxpayers.

A $5.2 billion taxpayer-supported clean-coal plant in Mississippi incorporates all the latest technology. But at $6,800 per kilowatt, it will be the costliest power plant yet built (a gas-fired power station in America costs $1,000 per kW). At those prices, coal is going to stay dirty.

The fuel of the future, unfortunately: A cheap, ubiquitous and flexible fuel, with just one problem, Economist,  Apr. 19, 2014, at 55