Big Coal is down but far from out

If you think the war on coal hasn’t had any effect on the industry you haven’t been keeping up on the news, but the net result probably has a lot more to do with profits than punditry. Nearly four out of every ten mines that were being worked ten years ago are now idle or simply closed. Total production is down, but not nearly by the same proportions. (Yields for all American mines for the first half of this year are down 8% compared to the same period in 2014.) So does this mean that the anti-carbon green energy forces are winning? As this study from a decidedly left leaning source concludes… it’s complicated. (Slate)

Climate hawks have been gleeful over the trend of big U.S. coal companies filing for bankruptcy. Patriot Coal filed for Chapter 11 in May, Walter Energy sought protection in July, and Alpha Natural Resources succumbed in August. And it makes sense: A financially unviable coal industry could be a big step in the movement toward a lower-carbon future. A report this month by Taylor Kuykendall and Hira Fawad at SNL Energy found that roughly “10.4% of all the coal produced in the U.S.” in the second quarter of 2015 came from companies that have filed for bankruptcy protection. “In Central Appalachia, 37.5% of the coal mined in the quarter came from mines that were owned or operated by companies that have filed for bankruptcy since 2012,” they write.

But coal haters shouldn’t be too gleeful at this spate of bankruptcies. While some mines are being idled, they’re not being shuttered en masse. The financial failure of many coal companies, by itself, won’t necessarily bring about a low-carbon future—and for particularly Americans reasons.

So there are quite a few coal mine operators filing for bankruptcy, it’s true. But as the study indicates, filing for bankruptcy rarely means entirely closing the doors on the same day. Many simply reorganize their corporate structure and change owners while continuing to operate. Others do shut their doors for the time being, but they’re not sealing off the mines. Those operators are mostly waiting for new, more efficient operating procedures to be put into place and/or for economic conditions to improve.

That’s another factor which is widely ignored in this discussion. There has been a very long period of time where making major improvements in the efficiency of coal mining technology was simply not seen as critical. Coal was (and remains) very cheap to produce compared to most other energy sources and it was profitable. As the saying goes, why fix something that ain’t broke? But that’s been changing quite a bit over the past decade, particularly with the plunging price and surging availability of natural gas. Coal also loses the “reputation war” on that front because it’s generally viewed as being far more “dirty” of an energy source than gas.

So why isn’t the green energy movement being more successful in permanently shutting down the mines? Because in order to do it they would need to invest some serious cash. Check out this brilliant suggestion. (Emphasis added)

Unless activists acquire coal mines on the cheap out of bankruptcy and permanently shutter them, a series of bankruptcies alone will not lead to sharply reduced coal mining. In theory, a billionaire like George Soros or Tom Steyer could wade into bankruptcy court, pick up the assets of bankrupt coal companies for pennies on the dollar, and then shut them down entirely—and thus ensure that the coal will stay in the ground.

It’s an interesting theory but you’re asking a lot out of a handful of liberal billionaires. Buying up coal mines, filling the shafts with concrete, sealing them over and planting grass for community dog parks would be an investment of billions with zero return on investment. It’s just throwing away money, and that’s not a popular pastime even among liberals. (Unless it’s your tax money of course, but that’s something entirely different.)

In the end, most industry analysts I hear from believe that coal will be around for a very long time to come. It’s just too cheap and accessible of a resource and we are nowhere close to being able to replace coal’s contribution to the energy grid with anything else right now. (Coal still supplies more than 16 quadrillion BTUs of energy for us each year and remains the largest source of electricity in the nation.) The coal is still there for the taking whether you like it or not, and until some green energy genius can figure out a way to match that energy supply with something else, it will remain on the table.