U.S. coal production hit its lowest point in last four decades

Source: By Dino Grandoni, Washington Post • Posted: Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Last year was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad one for the U.S. coal-mining industry.

Freshly publicized federal data showing that U.S. coal production is down to its lowest level in four decades throws into stark relief the decline of American coal mining as it faces stiffer competition from cleaner and cheaper sources of power.

That low point comes even as President Trump has tried to marshal the power of the federal government to reverse the trend and rescue the industry.

That decline, driven by market forces and activist pressure, has deep implications for combating climate change. Former vice president Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, is vowing to wean the country’s power plants of fuels that contribute to heat-trapping pollution to the atmosphere.

Now in the midst of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, 2020 is already projected to be worst than 2019 for the coal sector.

The United States mined 706 million tons of coal in 2019 — the lowest total since 1978.

That’s a 7 percent drop from the previous year, continuing a decade-long decline in overall output since the coal-mining sector’s peak production in 2008.

Wyoming, the top coal-producing state, saw a 9 percent drop in 2019. Arizona stopped mining coal altogether after the Navajo Generating Station, the largest coal-fired facility in the western United States, and the adjacent mine both closed.

And it marks the lowest level of coal mining since a national coal miners’ strike in the late 1970s ground most of the country’s production to a halt.

With the coronavirus pandemic leading to a decline in demand for electricity, the U.S. coal sector is on pace for even bigger drop in 2020, with the U.S. Energy Information Administration projecting in a blog post Monday mining levels “comparable with those in the 1960s.”

According to the agency, which tracks coal production nationwide, the decline is due both a drop in demand for the mineral internationally, where U.S.-produced coal is often used in steelmaking, as well as from stateside power plants.

A boom in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has also uncorked an ocean of cheap gas that is replacing coal in generating electricity.

And aided in part by subsidies put in place by the Obama administration during the last economic recession, operators of wind turbines and solar panels have been able to lower costs to the point of being competitive with coal.

The country is projected this year to get more power from renewable energy than from coal for the first time, according to the Energy Information Administration. Last year, coal made up about a quarter of U.S. power generation.

The Trump administration’s efforts have not been enough to reverse the economic fortunes of coal-fired power.

Under Trump, the Environmental Protection Agency rolled back the Clean Power Plan, President Barack Obama’s plan for curbing carbon pollution from power plants, and other rules to help prop up coal-fired power plants.

But other efforts by Trump deputies hit snags.

In 2018, independent regulators on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission rejected a plan from then-Energy Secretary Rick Perry that would have subsidized coal and nuclear generators for reliably generating power during extreme cold spells and other emergencies.

At least 11 coal companies filed for bankruptcy since October 2018, according to the Wall Street Journal. They include Murray Energy Corp., the private coal giant whose founder unsuccessfully pushed the Energy Department for the aid.

Already in a tough position, coal companies are now even more likely to default during the viral outbreak, according to S&P Global Market Intelligence.

Another head wind for coal is a cohort of activists, backed in part by billionaire and former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg, campaigning to close down U.S. coal plants.

“The decline of the coal industry and the rise of clean energy jobs is vital to the protection of our air, water, and climate,” said John Coequyt, director of the climate campaign at the Sierra Club, which has sought for years to shut down coal plants. “However, it’s also important to create locally led programs that help workers in the coal industry transition to new economic opportunities.”

Despite the decline domestically, coal is still the leading fuel for power generation worldwide.

And coal is also used to manufacture the vast majority — 70 percent, per the World Coal Association — of the world’s steel.

“Coal power has long underpinned affordable, reliable electricity,” said Conor Bernstein, a spokesman for the National Mining Association, a trade group for coal-mining companies. “And while production is down, we need to be careful to not overlook just how important and irreplaceable coal remains in many states and to countless communities.”