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The Energy 202: U.S. coal production hit its lowest point in last four decades

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with Paulina Firozi

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." 

Power plays

The Trump administration is pushing back against banks that say they'll stop financing oil development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. 

Acting head of the Comptroller of the Currency Brian Brooks said the administration will take a “serious look” at decisions by major banks to stop financing oil and gas exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Politico reports

Brooks wrote a letter to Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) about the issue, saying he shared concerns by Sullivan and other Republicans about the bank's moves.

“Given the industry’s importance and ubiquity in our daily lives, I am skeptical of claims that the sector poses a ‘reputational risk’ to the banks that serve it,” Brooks wrote in the letter, per the report. 

Deutsche Bank this week joined a slew of financial institutions in saying it will no longer invest in new energy projects in the Arctic region. 

“The German bank also said it would end all fracking projects in countries with short water supply, and halt global business activities in coal mining by 2025,” Business Insider reports. “By the end of 2020, Deutsche Bank said it would review all planned business activities that are highly dependent on coal in Europe and the US.” 

Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.) wants an investigation into the administration’s rulemaking over a group of man-made chemicals known as PFAS. 

In a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency’s internal watchdog, Carper “asked for an investigation into what he called ‘potential irregularities’ during the finalization for a rule aiming to restrict the use of certain types of PFAS chemicals in consumer products,” the Hill reports. “….Documents released by Carper's office in April show that White House officials had pressed for the EPA to make certain changes to the rule it was developing. Among the changes the White House wanted in the now-published proposal were the inclusion of a ‘safe harbor’ for importers of the chemical who may be unaware of the regulation and the establishment of a threshold level that would trigger it.” 

Carper wrote: “I request that you investigate the manner in which the PFAS [rule] was re-proposed and finalized ... and whether the process used to significantly alter the rule after it was signed but before it was published in the Federal Register was appropriate and legal.” 

Thermometer

The impact of climate change in Russia’s Arctic region is creating hurdles for Moscow’s ambitious domestic initiatives. 

“This surge in climate change in interior Russia — more than three times the global average — is throwing new risks in the way of President Vladimir Putin’s Far North agenda, among his top domestic initiatives. A key danger is piling more infrastructure atop rapidly thawing permafrost, land that remains frozen year after year,” Isabelle Khurshudyan and Andrew Freedman report. “As the permafrost destabilizes, so will the buildings, oil and gas pipelines, roads, railways, and military bases built on top of it, environmentalists and others warn.” 

Scientists are alarmed that this earth, frozen for millennia, is now thawing. And the pace of the thaw is picking up. (Video: The Washington Post)

The ambitions for the region include plans to develop new energy projects and create jobs that will drive people there. The plans were published in March. 

Isabelle and Andrew add: “The document on the ‘foundations of state policy in the Arctic to 2035,’ signed by Putin, was an expression of Moscow’s underlying philosophy: Russia is feeling the effects of climate change, but maybe it could use it to its advantage. Among the goals is to use the Northern Sea Route to export oil and gas as the waters increasingly become free of ice.”

Washington broke a record for most 90-degree days in July. 

Well, it happened. With another 90-degree day Tuesday, D.C. notched its 26th day hitting that mark, surpassing a previous record.

“All but two days this July have seen 90-degree temperatures, and we’re likely to add a couple more before the month ends. The 90-degree milestone is just one of a number of impressive heat records that have been tested or smashed in recent weeks,” Ian Livingston reports.

A tropical storm warning has been issued for Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands for what could be the earliest “I” named storm on record in the Atlantic. 

“Meteorologists are watching an area of disturbed weather and swirling thunderstorms nearing the Lesser Antilles. It’s producing winds near tropical storm force, but it isn’t well organized with a clear center of circulation,” The Post’s Matthew Cappucci reports. “However, the National Hurricane Center anticipates this area of disturbed weather will become Tropical Storm Isaias before reaching Puerto Rico and the Leeward Islands on Wednesday through Thursday.”

If the system – which could eventually affect the southeastern Lower 48 states -- is named as expected, it “would obliterate the record for the earliest “I” storm, currently held by Irene, which was named more than a week later, on Aug. 7, 2005.” 

Oil check

A plume of methane was released north of Gainesville, Fla., in early May, but it’s not clear who was responsible. 

The plume was 12 miles wide and spread across six counties, Bloomberg News reports.

“A global-warming agent that’s 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide, methane has become a major source of concern for environmentalists and climate-minded investors who are stepping up pressure on energy companies to curb emissions of the gas from oil fields, pipelines, gas storage facilities and power plants. Satellite observations are beginning to make those leaks more transparent,” per the report. 

The source of the plume remains unknown. Bloomberg adds: “Staff at the Alachua County Environmental Protection Department ‘are unaware of any incidents that may have contributed to methane emissions’ on those dates, Stacie Greco, a coordinator at the agency, said in response to a public records request. The county doesn’t have an air quality program and deferred reports of air emission violations to the state’s environmental agency.” 

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