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Coal’s comeback

The anti-coal movement and its advocates in the previous administration in Washington tried their best to snuff out the industry and, in the process, ruin the livelihoods of miners and destroy communities.  President Obama’s executive orders and his EPA’s regulatory stranglehold nearly brought coal to its knees.

When confronted with allegations of their “war on coal,” the response was that market conditions and competition from abundant, clean burning natural gas were actually the reasons. Clearly, the gas boom has been a huge factor, but a funny thing has happened since Obama left office and the regulatory boot has been lifted off of coal’s throat—it’s coming back.

The National Mining Association reports, “From the 2nd quarter of 2016 to the same period this year, coal production rose almost 17 percent.” The biggest jump has been in the production of steel-making metallurgical coal from Central Appalachia, where 57 mines have opened (or reopened) in the last fiscal year.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates that coal will move slightly back ahead of natural gas this year as the leading energy source for electricity generation (coal 32%, natural gas 31%).

Coal exports are on the rise, up 60% for the first five months of this year compared with the same period last year, according to EIA.  European leaders may publicly denounce the Trump administration for pulling out of the Paris Climate Accord, but down at the loading docks massive amounts of coal are coming onshore.

“Exports (of U.S. coal) to France increased 214% during the first quarter of this year amid a nuclear power plant outage,” reports the Wall Street Journal.  “Other European countries like Germany and the U.K. are utilizing U.S. coal to stabilize unreliable renewables and make up for electric capacity lost from the shutdown of nuclear plants.”

Coal mining makes up the largest share of West Virginia’s severance tax collections and the boomlet is easing pressure on the state’s finances. Coal severance collections for the state rose from $191 million in FY 2016 to $211 million in FY 2017.  This fiscal year should be even better.  Add in the resurgent natural gas industry and the state’s budget challenges become more manageable.

More importantly, the increased demand for coal means more miners are getting paychecks.  Additionally they can again feel proud of their work and have some optimism about the future rather than serving as props for the greens who assuage their conscience with a “hate-the-coal-but-love-the-miner” doctrine.

Coal will never return to its once dominant energy position in this country, but no one expects that. The reasonable argument has always been to tamp down the overzealous anti-carbon crowd and let coal, gas, renewables and other sources compete on a level playing field to meet the country’s critical energy needs.

As the Wall Street Journal opined, “The bigger story is that there’s still demand for U.S. coal if regulators allow the energy markets to work.”

With apologies to Mark Twain, rumors of coal’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.


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