An Indiana Southern Railroad train is loaded with coal at the Peabody Energy’s Somerville Central Mine in Oakland City, Ind. Peabody is preparing to come out of bankruptcy. (Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg News)

The battered U.S. coal industry is showing flickering signs of life. Yet the prognosis for Big Coal remains dim.

Coal prices are about double what they were a year ago. Rail car deliveries of coal are up 16 percent this year. The more than 50 coal mining companies that went bankrupt over the past couple of years have unloaded billions of dollars of debt. And President Trump has vowed to roll back environmental regulations that the industry says are part of a “war on coal.”

The stocks of coal companies have enjoyed a “Trump bump,” thanks to the president’s pledges to “bring the coal industry back” and “put our great miners and steelworkers back to work.” Half a dozen big companies have seized the moment to issue stock or sell bonds to raise money from investors willing to wager on the effects of a friendlier Trump administration. Peabody Energy, the nation’s biggest coal behemoth, hopes to win court approval to come out of bankruptcy in April.

But the obstacles on the other side of the ledger remain daunting: Coal-fired power plants continue to shut their doors. Bountiful supplies of U.S. shale gas are keeping natural gas prices low and competitive, and renewable sources of power generation are growing rapidly. Though most experts expect U.S. coal sales and output to top last year’s levels, they also expect the decline to resume in 2018.

“The coal industry is saying it’s back. It’s not back,” said Tom Sanzillo, director of finance at the Institute for Energy Economics & Financial Analysis. “This is a fool’s errand.” The institute is supported by a variety of liberal philanthropies.

Some coal companies will survive, and some could thrive. Metallurgical coal will be needed to make steel in India and China and in the United States, especially if there is a boost in infrastructure spending. And thermal coal will still be used to generate electricity for years, even if at lower rates.

But to show profits, coal operators will have to trim output from the oldest, least-efficient mines in Appalachia (where Trump garnered crucial votes in the election) and shift their focus to the Illinois Basin and the Powder River Basin in Wyoming.

Those big open-pit mines need fewer workers — doing nothing to help Trump bring back jobs for “our great miners.”

“A lot of people conflate two primary things: the coal industry and coal jobs,” said Chiza B. Vitta, a coal analyst at Standard & Poor’s. “Even if the coal industry were to do better, that doesn’t translate into coal jobs. Over time the process has become more and more efficient, and they’re able to mine with fewer and fewer people working.”

Some analysts don’t even expect the industry to do better.

“Trump’s rhetoric on the campaign trail would also suggest that coal is about to see a big lift in the post-Obama era, but the reality may be less rosy,” Citigroup said in a series of reports to investors this year.

“The regulatory environment for coal should improve under Trump’s presidency,” the bank said. But, it added, “comparative economics for coal, renewables and gas place clean coal firmly at the bottom of the stack in the U.S.”

Bulldozers ready to work at Peabody Energy’s Somerville Central coal mine in Indiana. (Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg News)
The saga of Peabody Energy

Coal has had a tough decade. In 2007, it fired 50 percent of U.S. electricity production. In 2016, that share dropped to 31 percent of a somewhat smaller total, according to the Energy Information Administration. The EIA expects the share to creep back up a point or two, but then head down again.

Citigroup expects coal plants with a capacity of about 5 gigawatts will be retired this year — that’s enough to power roughly 3.4 million homes for a year. Even though the average age of a U.S. coal-fired plant is 39 years, there hasn’t been an application to build a new coal plant in years. But over the past 15 years, thanks to plentiful shale gas reserves, natural gas plants with nearly 228 gigawatts of capacity have been built.

To make matters worse, the biggest companies in the industry borrowed heavily to buy other coal companies, loading up on debt just as natural gas supplies soared and coal prices tumbled.

The saga of Peabody Energy tracks the industry’s story. Peabody got out of Appalachia in 2007, spinning off its mines there to a company called Patriot. For a short while, Patriot did better than Peabody, but later it went bankrupt.

Peabody made a ill-timed $5.2 billion acquisition of Macarthur Coal of Australia in 2011, near the peak for coal prices. The coal titan underestimated rival suppliers in Asia and overestimated the growth of Chinese coal consumption.

It also lost money hedging against currencies, according to Vic Svec, senior vice president for investor and corporate relations at Peabody.

Now, Peabody hopes to emerge from bankruptcy with just $2 billion in debt, down from $7 billion. It has reduced its workforce even at sites that remain open and operating. It has idled its highest-cost mine, the Burton mine in Australia. It has sold off a mine in New South Wales and an interest in a port in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia.

“The company coming out of bankruptcy is very different from the one that went in,” Svec said.

The company still has to iron out disputes with stakeholders, especially bondholders who say that Peabody executives are in cahoots with hedge funds and making the business sound worse than it was last year so that it pays old bondholders less than they deserve. At the same time, now Peabody has an interest in sounding good enough to attract investors, the less fortunate bondholders say.

Fast-shifting fortunes

Vitta, the analyst at Standard & Poor’s, thinks that coal companies can make money again. “You’ll see reports that this is a shrinking industry,” he said. “That can be separated from the ability of companies to be profitable.”

The bucket of a dragline excavator moves earth while mining coal at the Peabody strip mine. (Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg News)

That assessment can also be separated from the politics of coal, which hinge on jobs. Trump wants to revive the business, and during the campaign he said he would “get those miners back to work.” Optimism about the new president helped Peabody Energy shares, which surged 49 percent the day after Trump’s election win.

But while Vitta said that “we expect the companies to be in much better shape than they were,” he added that “I wouldn’t expect the expansion in production to continue.”

Svec said that “certainly the position of the new administration has been positive and could be good on a number of fronts, not least the pro-growth policies that would improve the economy. When the economy is doing well, power generation does better.”

But he added that “our view is not predicated on overall jobs.”

The industry’s fortunes can be mercurial because changes in the U.S. and global coal markets can be sharp and fleeting. A year ago, the price of metallurgical coal, used in making steel, dipped to about $75 a ton. Then metallurgical coal prices more than tripled, to about $300, after China said it would shut down many of its aging coal mines.

It didn’t last. Chinese demand was lower than expected, and coal prices fell back, to about $150 a ton.

U.S. exports of metallurgical coal have dropped 45 percent since their 2013 peak. The consulting firm Wood Mackenzie projects a further slide.

That has dampened optimism and prompted at least one company to shelve plans. The coal company Cloud Peak Energy paid $51 million to BNSF railway and a harbor terminal manager to extricate itself from a plan to boost its coal exports from the West Coast to Asia.

The price of natural gas, thermal coal’s major competitor, followed a similar path as metallurgical coal. Prices hit a historic low, driving much thermal coal offline, in the first half of 2016. Then natural gas prices climbed to $3.71 per thousand cubic feet, raising hopes in the coal and gas businesses. But after a mild winter and more supplies of shale gas, natural gas spot prices tumbled to $2.68.

With the tough domestic coal market, exports of thermal coal could help. But China’s National Energy Administration in January announced it was scrapping the construction of 85 planned coal plants, according to a McKinsey report. That pushed thermal coal prices down, too.

And these market jolts happened extremely fast, making it difficult for coal industry executives to make plans. The shares of Ramaco Resources, a small metallurgical coal company in Appalachia, have slid 25 percent since Feb. 6, when it launched a rare initial public stock offering.

Peabody says that its business plan uses projections that natural gas will fluctuate between $3.05 and $3.50 per thousand cubic feet — above current prices.

A coal miner identified as Kevin shakes hands with President Trump after the president signed legislation rolling back a regulation on coal debris dumped in streams. (Pool photo by Ron Sachs/European Pressphoto Agency)
‘A pro-coal president’

How will Trump deal with this?

Some coal supporters pin their hopes on the president supporting “clean coal technology,” which removes and stores carbon dioxide from coal-burning plants. That technology, which is costly and relies on federal aid, doesn’t actually make coal clean; it addresses climate concerns.

“In light of recent calls for dramatic cuts to the federal budget, we want to stress that every dollar allocated to fossil energy research is an investment in the long-term future of America’s coal and fossil fuel industry,” three coal company chief executives and three union leaders wrote in a March 10 letter to Trump. “Federal support plays a major role in commercializing technology and making it cost-viable for the private sector.”

Trump, however, has shown no signs of backing that technology. His budget proposal for the Energy Department would cut $2 billion from a number of programs that help fund basic science as well as full-size, carbon-capture plants.

Instead Trump, who has voiced skepticism about climate change, on Feb. 16 signed legislation rolling back a regulation on coal debris dumped in streams. At the signing ceremony at the White House were Kentucky’s senators, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul, both Republicans; Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.); and Murray Coal executives and miners.

One of the miners, a 45-year veteran of the business, praised Trump. “I’m very proud to be here with my president of the United States who keeps his word, and we thank you very much, sir,” he said, wearing a blue work shirt and a hard hat.

But it will be hard for Trump to deliver. “To bring jobs back in Kentucky is a tough proposition unless there’s a subsidy, because it doesn’t make economic sense,” Vitta said.

That’s been true for years, notwithstanding some of the political rhetoric.

“Our folks are so excited to have a pro-coal president, and we thank you so much for being on our side,” McConnell said at the White House event, adding that the last eight years brought a “depression” to Eastern Kentucky.

In fact, the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis reports the unemployment rate in Clay County, one of the hardest-hit counties in the state’s eastern coal region, at 8.4 percent in December, half the rate it was at its peak in January 2010. It was 14.1 percent when President Obama took office.

In Arizona, the Navajo Generating Station could also provide an early test for the president. Its owners have decided to close the massive coal plant. The Native American tribe, whose members hold about 90 percent of the more than 400 jobs there, is appealing to the Trump administration for help in keeping the plant running. Yet doing that would be expensive. Sanzillo estimates that the Navajo station produces electricity at rates about 50 percent higher than market rates.

“There’s no good economic reason to keep NGS on life support, and indeed the time for closure has come,” Sanzillo’s group said in a blog post. “The plant is emblematic of a core challenge facing the traditionally hidebound U.S. electricity-generation industry, as the market for coal-fired electricity is shrinking.”

And, he added, “that’s regardless of recent political events.”