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Westmoreland Coal cancels plans for new mine in southern Ohio
Westmoreland Coal has suspended a plan to open a new mine in southern Ohio. The company, which has been in financial straits for some time, cited “steadily increasing” costs and “problems and uncertainties” with water permits. The plan had called for mine discharge to be poured into a stream that for years has been part of a recovery program aimed at cleaning up pollution from previous mines. Project opponents included farmers, environmentalists, and ATV enthusiasts.
As regulators push for more lenience, a surge in black lung across Appalachia
As the Trump administration, at the behest of coal companies, continues to explore ways to roll back mine dust regulations, a new report shows an upsurge in black lung among miners. The study, “Continued Increase in Prevalence of Coal Workers’ Pneumoconiosis in the United States, 1970-2017,” finds the disease especially prevalent in Appalachian, where it afflicts 20 percent of veteran miners. “We can think of no other industry or workplace in the United States in which this would be considered acceptable,” researchers concluded.
More signs of coal’s diminishing market share
The national appetite for coal remains stagnant as the U.S. electricity sector continues to switch to other forms of fuel, most notably natural gas, which is better suited to day-to-day changes in demand—especially during warm-weather months, when air-conditioning use drives the market. “Wyoming feeds about 40 percent of national coal demand, but the fuel’s hold on the electricity market has weakened substantially in recent years, a trend that may continue.”
Editorial: ‘Coal miners' lives still matter’
A Kentucky newspaper applauds news that federal prosecutors have indicted eight mine managers on charges that they faked coal-dust monitoring results to avoid spending money on proper mine ventilation and to gain a cost advantage over competitors. The charges carry penalties of $250,000 and up to five years in prison. “Stiff punishments,” the editorial notes. “But, then, black lung is a death sentence.”
Project to reclaim former Kentucky mountaintop coal mine as 12,500-acre wildlife visitor attraction by 2020
In a pilot project to reclaim land left mostly barren from the closure of Kentucky’s first mountaintop removal coal mine, nonprofit developers plan to open the 12,500-acre Appalachian Wildlife Center by 2020. The idea is to “kick off economic diversity based on conservation instead of coal mining,” says a wildlife biologist leading the initiative. Construction began in June with $35 million raised from donors and the U.S. Office of Surface Mining and Reclamation Enforcement. Plans include expectations that the center will attract hundreds of thousands of visitors annually.
Wyoming county has yet to be paid $4 million in overdue coal-royalty taxes
Local officials say Campbell County, Wyo., has been stiffed on a $4 million tax payment due May 1 from Contura Energy, the company that acquired the Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr coal mines last year from Alpha Natural Resources. The mines, near Gillette, have since been acquired by Blackjewel LLC, “a firm troubled by environmental concerns and court cases in Appalachia.” Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr are also beset by millions of dollars in cleanup obligations.
Cuts in funding put Black Lung Disability Trust Fund at risk
A 55 percent congressionally-mandated cut in revenue to the federal Black Lung Disability Trust Fund comes as an epidemic in the fatal disease gains momentum. The GAO reports that as a result of the impending reduction, the fund will incur a deficit of as much as $15 billion over the next 30 years. Fund revenue comes from taxes on coal companies, and the National Mining Association says maintaining support for the fund “would burden the coal industry.”
Coal Company With Mines in Five States Gets a Bankruptcy Reprieve, for Now
A cash infusion from creditors will help stave off bankruptcy for Westmoreland Coal, but the company, which owns mines in five states, is still in trouble. “Westmoreland faces many of the same pressures irritating the coal sector nationwide,” reports a Wyoming newspaper, “including competition from cheap natural gas and environmental regulations that made some older coal units too expensive to keep running.”
Federal Inquiry Sought Into Westmoreland’s Ability to Deliver on Reclamation Responsibilities
A Montana conservation group has asked the Interior Department to investigate whether Westmoreland Coal has the financial wherewithal to meet its mine-cleanup obligations. Questions have emerged also as to whether the company’s “self-bonding” commitments are sustainable in Texas and Canada. Westmoreland is widely reported to be at risk of bankruptcy.
Economy of Southwest Wyoming Town Hangs in the Balance
State officials plan to spend as much as $22.5 million to help expand a coal mine whose owner is in peril of bankruptcy and despite the loss of the mine’s main customer. “The developments regarding the mine and power plant raise questions about the economic future of Kemmerer, population 2,771, and surrounding communities,” where 300 people work at the Kemmerer Mine.
Hard Times Persist in Appalachia’s Coal Country
Two years after Donald Trump campaigned on the promise of reviving the U.S. coal industry, families in coal country continue to struggle. “If you got fired tomorrow or quit tomorrow, there's absolutely no opportunity to get another [job],” says one miner. "You can't keep propping it up and hoping for it to last forever because it won't."
Westmoreland Coal Faces Prospect of ‘Selling Off Assets or Closing Some Mines’
Westmoreland Coal, which is based in Colorado and operates in five states, is facing the prospect of having to shrink its core business as it struggles to remain a viable company. “They will have to get rid of some of their debt, get new financing to consolidate things, but also restructure the company to make it more viable for the long-term,” one analyst says. “And it could mean selling off assets or closing some mines.”
Self-Bonding Mine Cleanup Risk Looms Across Several States
New research shows how self-bonding practices by coal companies in several states put taxpayers at risk of holding the bag on mine cleanups. The issue is complicated by concerns about the ability of surety companies to stand by their obligations to backstop struggling mining companies. “As utilities continue to eliminate coal from their generation mixes, turning instead to cheaper natural gas and renewables, the financial condition of many coal companies is likely to worsen,” writes the author.
Coal Company Goes Silent on Montana Lease-Development Prospects
A coal-mining company has stopped communicating with Montana officials on its intentions around development of a 7,000-acre coal-reserve lease with the state. A subsidiary of Arch Coal, which went through bankruptcy reorganization in 2016, holds the lease on the tract in the Powder River Basin. Its silence “has left the state with questions about future intentions for mining and who would buy the coal given a softening domestic coal market and a projected long-term decline globally.”
Study: ‘The Easier Coal’ Has Already Been Mined in Central Appalachia
A new study that compiles data from the Mine Safety and Health Administration, the U.S. Energy Information Administration and the Securities and Exchange Commission finds that low natural gas prices, stagnant demand for electricity, and rising production costs have driven the decline of mining in Kentucky and West Virginia. “In central Appalachian coal is deeper in the ground and the seams are thinner,” one expert said. “Because we’ve been mining coal for so long and so aggressively, we’ve already taken out all the easier to get coal.”
Report: Owner of 2 Wyoming Mines Paid $20 Million for Another Company to Take Them Over
New company filings show that that the owner of two well-known coal mines in Wyoming paid more than $20 million for Blackjewel Inc. to takes possession of them in December. Contura Energy had owned the Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr mines as a result of Alpha Energy’s bankruptcy reorganization in 2016 during an industry downturn that has continued: “Some say the deal heralds bad days to come. Others are more diplomatic about the challenges for Wyoming coal, but agree that the sale is telling of how the sector has changed in a few short years.”
Corporate Miners in Appalachia Are Showing Little Interest in the Economic Future of the Region
Advocates for diversification see over-reliance on the coal industry continuing to impoverish much of Appalachia. But local ownership of economies offers a way forward as corporate interests abandon much of the region: “Those people don’t have any stake in the communities there. They don’t have any reason to reinvest in the human capital and public services and goods."
GAO Urges Federal Government to Stop Letting Coal Companies ‘Self-Bond’ on Cleanup Obligations
The Government Accounting Office is recommending termination of a federal program that allows coal companies to “self-bond” against mine clean-up costs. The practice lets mining companies promise to pay for reclamation, even though they may be in no financial position to do so. The recommendation to amend the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act would protect taxpayers but come at no small expense to already-struggling coal companies.
Ruling on Montana and Wyoming Federal Coal Lease Policy Another Setback to Mining Industry
In a blow to the coal industry in Montana and Wyoming, a federal judge has ruled that the Bureau of Land Management must consider potential impacts on climate change in deciding on further permitting of federal coal leases. The case could ultimately put a legal limit on the amount of coal mined in the region. “This ruling is the latest example of courts forcing the federal government to be honest with the American public,” one plaintiff said.
Kentucky: ‘You Don't Recover From the Loss of 13,000 Coal Industry Jobs Since 2011 Overnight’
Coal production near Hazard, Ky., has dropped to about 4 million tons a year from 17 million tons a decade ago, and where there were once dozens of coal companies in the region there are now only seven. The labor-force participation rate is roughly 44 percent, compared to 70 percent annually. Economic diversification lags, and towns in the region are in dire financial condition. "We're still dealing with the aftermath of layoffs in the coal industry," said a spokesman for the Hazard-based Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program. "You don't recover from the loss of 13,000 coal industry jobs [in eastern Kentucky] since 2011 overnight."
Editorial: Ohio Policymakers Would Do Well to Acknowledge Coal Is on Its Way Out
As the state contemplates whether to allow a coal company to open a new mine in Athens County, Ohio, skeptics wonder about its financial viability and whether such a project would be able to honor its environmental commitments. As proponents push for an Ohio coal comeback, market forces suggest a resurgence is unlikely: “This is the economic reality that must be acknowledged when Ohio’s environmental and natural resources policymakers weigh the terms and conditions for issuing new wastewater permits for mining operations.”
In Wyoming, a Population Exodus
Wyoming is reporting its biggest population drop in a quarter century after about 8,300 people moved out of the state in 2017, mostly from the Powder River Basin, where the economy is heavily dependent on coal mining. Campbell County was among the hardest hit areas, losing 2,500 people, or 5.2 percent of its population. Conversely, Lincoln County, which is more reliant on tourism, and Albany County, home to the University of Wyoming, reported census growth of about 1 percent each. “Migration is mostly driven by changes in employment, which is particularly true for Wyoming,” said the chief economist for the State of Wyoming’s Economic Analysis Division.
Commentary: A Better Way to Spend $2 Million in Utah Taxpayer Dollars
A Utah columnist questions a state proposal to budget $2 million to sue California over energy policies that reduce its need for coal, some of which it buys from Utah mines: “Instead of bankrolling a legal battle for a diminishing industry, the Beehive State should invest $2 million dollars in adapting our energy industry to fit market demands and employ those who have been or will be impacted by the continued decline of the coal industry.”
Op-Ed: ‘We Need Real Economic Prosperity’
A former coal miner in Utah is condemning the state’s plan to spend public money suing California for its clean-energy policies. “The notion that we should tolerate and use taxpayer dollars to attempt to sustain a 19th century industry is a slap in the face to coal miners and communities here in Carbon County and beyond,” writes the author. “We no longer need coal. What we do need is real economic prosperity.’
Another Mine Site Is Slated to Become a Solar Farm
TransAlta, a Canadian electricity-development company, plans to turn a 1,000-acre former coal mine site in Washington State into a solar farm, following a trend across the industry. Centralia Mine closed in 2006, and TransAlta also plans now to close a nearby coal-fired plant—the only remaining such plant in Washington. The company said the solar project would create 300 construction jobs and four permanent solar-tech jobs. TransAlta plans to eliminate coal-fired electricity from its holdings by 2030.
Montana Ballot Initiative Aims to Smooth Transition
A former Montana lawmaker is promoting a ballot initiative that would have the state’s utilities increase their reliance on renewable energy to 80 percent by 2050. The proposal calls for job retraining and unemployment benefits for up to two years for workers currently employed by coal mines, power plants and railroads. And it includes a mechanism for replacing coal taxes and protecting government and tribal revenue.
Kentucky: Public School Students Seek a Better Future
Letcher County, in east-central Kentucky, had a thousand coal miners a decade ago. “Today, there are just 28,” and the local economy is so battered that public schools are struggling to make ends meet. Student are beginning to openly advocate for progressive change and economic diversification.
Editorial: West Virginia Deserves Better
A newspaper editorial calls for wariness around selling natural-gas assets to outsiders, urging against falling into a wealth-export trap that defined much of the state’s economic past and has left it devastated. “What does West Virginia have to show for a century of tying its lifeline to coal? Abject poverty. Southern West Virginia is almost a ruin.”
Coal company with mines in several states is in financial peril
An analysis of Colorado-based Westmoreland Coal shows that it is in deep financial peril, a situation that may affect communities in Montana, New Mexico, Ohio, and Wyoming as the company’s customer base dries up. “The cost inherent in coal-fired power are moving (utilities) away from coal," says the study’s author.
Colorado’s coal economy has not bounced back
Colorado, which has six working coal mines, reports a 6.5 percent reduction in related job gains in 2017 as utility companies in the region shift toward other electricity-generation resources in a transition that is being led by utility giants that include Xcel Energy. One noted expert on energy markets: “A brand new wind farm will be cheaper to run than an already-paid-for coal-fired power plant.”
Op-Ed: Three Trends That Suggest No Coal Comeback
Three distinct trends continue to work against the U.S. coal industry. One is a rapid rise of black lung among miners in Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia, where old coal seams that are increasingly difficult to tap are creating new health hazards, according to research by Stone Mountain Health Services. Two is national momentum toward retirement of the aging fleet of U.S. coal-fired electricity generation stations. Three is a Trump administration plan that is being crafted to bail out failing coal plants. “What seems clear from all three cases is that the coal industry isn’t coming back,” says the author.
Michigan’s Biggest Utility, Buyer of Wyoming Coal, Is Shifting Direction
Consumers Energy, the biggest utility in Michigan and an important customer of Wyoming mines owned by Arch Coal, Peabody Energy, and Cloud Peak Energy, is phasing out its coal-fired generation in favor of other power sources. The utility supplies electricity to more than 60 percent of Michigan’s 10 million residents. “We believe we’re going to be on the right side of history on this issue,” said Consumers CEO Patti Poppe.
Editorial: Diversify Kentucky’s Economy
A Kentucky newspaper, editorializing on the decline of the state’s coal-mining industry, calls for greater diversification of the region’s economy. The editorial acknowledges broad energy market changes and notes by way of example that the Big Sandy Power Plant in Lawrence County, one of the “largest and most dependable customer for coal mined in the eastern third of the state,” no longer burns coal. And it concedes that much of the region’s coal has gotten so costly to mine that the industry is no longer competitive.
Kentucky Coal Job Gains in 2017 Seen as Unsustainable
Even with a recent uptick in coal-industry jobs in Kentucky, analysts do not consider the gains sustainable. Even the federal government is skeptical: “The U.S. Energy Information Administration projects that after an upturn in coal production in Central Appalachia in 2017, production in the region will generally decline.”
2017: A Year of Growing National Momentum Against Coal Industry
Changes in utility-company policies and outright plant closures in Colorado, Missouri, New Mexico, Texas, and Wisconsin highlight the electricity-generation transition that gained momentum nationally in 2017: “While President Donald Trump’s ‘Energy Dominance’ agenda gave the false impression that federal efforts could revive coal, 27 coal-fired plants totaling 22 gigawatts (GW) of capacity were announced for early closure or conversion in 2017 – roughly one every 15 days since Trump’s election.”
International Energy Agency Sees Coal Demand Stagnating
In its annual review of the global coal trade, the IEA sees demand remaining flat for at least the next five years. The trend stands to damp export business for U.S. coal producers: “Coal’s share in the global energy mix is forecast to decline to 26 percent in 2022, compared to 27 percent in 2016, the report said.”
Coal Mine Sale in Wyoming Is Another Indication of Declining Market
Contura Energy’s unexpected sale of its Belle Ayr and Eagle Butte mines in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming raises questions about the persistent market difficulties facing U.S. coal producers: “The Powder River Basin, the biggest producer of American coal, does not need another coal company trying to succeed off marginal reserves in a falling market.”
A Trend Toward Turning Former Mines Into Solar Sites
In a trend spanning Asia, Europe and the U.S., former coal-mine sites are being reclaimed as utility-scale solar electricity-generation farms. A project by Berkeley Energy Group to turn a strip mine in Kentucky into a solar power plant that could produce 50 to 100 megawatts of power by next year is mong the many examples. “Building solar power plants atop defunct coal plants has several advantages, including putting otherwise hard-to-use lands to productive use.”
In Powder River Basin Exit, Coal CEO Wishes Miners ‘the Very Best’
Contura Energy, the company created last year from the bankruptcy of Alpha Natural Resources, has jettisoned its mines in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming: “CEO Kevin Crutchfield extolled the virtues of the Wyoming mines and miners in his sendoff statement Monday, wishing ‘them the very best.’”
Ohio Coal Production Falls by 28%
The Ohio Department of Natural Resources has published a report concluding that coal production in the state dropped by 28 percent last year as competing energy sources took market share away. The downturn is especially difficult for Belmont County, which was responsible for 64 percent of Ohio’s coal production in 2016.