Published on March 4th, 2019 | by Tina Casey0
This Is How Coal Ends: A Whimper, Not A Bang
March 4th, 2019 by Tina Casey
If anybody out there is wondering why US President* Donald Trump has been rather quiet on the topic of oal-cay obs-jay these past few months, just take a look at the Westmoreland Coal Company, one of the biggest coal producers in North America — well, until recently.
Westmoreland declared bankruptcy last October. That stinks for the company’s present-day workforce, but the pain doesn’t end there. Last week the courts confirmed that Westmoreland can end health benefits for retired miners and their families at its mine in Kemmerer, Wyoming.
Et Tu, Westmoreland Coal Company?
President Trump did make bringing back all your coal jobs a central theme of his 2016 campaign. However, the US coal industry and other coal stakeholders do not seem to be cooperating, as evidenced by the situation at the Kemmerer mine.
There are a lot of moving parts to the rise and fall of Westmoreland Coal, and health benefits are one of them. Westmoreland may be out of business but it still has obligations to fulfill. Selling assets instead of running coal is the name of the game now. Severing the company’s obligation to support health benefits will hopefully make the Kemmerer mine more attractive to potential buyers. At least, that’s what Westmoreland executives are hoping.
Meanwhile, halfway across the country, our friends over at Appalachian Voices have a scope on the big picture, which ripples out far beyond Wyoming. Appalachian Voices took note last month when a federal bankruptcy court judge in Houston, Texas ruled that Westmoreland could also sever three different union agreements that cover mines in Colorado and Virginia.
For those of you wondering why Appalachian Voices is interested, the nitty-gritty of US coal history belongs to the sprawling region of Appalachia. It covers scores of counties in Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and eight independent cities in Virginia, and every county in West Virginia.
Is that sprawling enough? Westmoreland left parts of Appalachia many years ago, but the region is still populated with its retirees, who are now concerned about their benefits.
Appalachian Voices also notes that Westmoreland may have drained the state-administered land reclamation fund in Ohio, leaving taxpayers on the hook for the environmental costs of cleaning up abandoned mining sites.
Last December the Billings Gazette noted that in addition to leaving coal miners and their families on the hook, the Westmoreland Bankruptcy left local governments, banks, utilities and others struggling to recover $5 million in claims against the company’s three mines in Montana.
The End Of Coal: Who’s Gonna Pay For All This?
Earlier this year, several Democratic senators representing Appalachian states introduced Senate Bill 27, the American Miners Act of 2019. The bill is aimed at increasing federal support for the United Mine Workers of American pension plan. It would also revive a trust fund for black lung victims, which had been cut last year.
If the bill makes it to President Trump’s desk, what are the chances are that he’ll sign it? The Commander-in-Chief is in a bit of a pickle because his various initiatives to prop up the US coal industry have failed, as least as far as coal’s stake in the US power generation market goes.
Appalachia is a case in point. Coal jobs or not, the Tennessee Valley Authority has been retiring its coal fleet in favor of natural gas and renewables. TVA is the first and still the largest regional federal planning agency in the US. Established during the New Deal, it supplies electricity to 10 million ratepayers in Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky, Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia.
In one particularly interesting development, a coal investor with stakes in Appalachia and elsewhere is diversifying into renewables. That would be Matt Evans, president of Boich Companies.
Boich isn’t messing around, either. The company has teamed up with local utility AEP and the Natural Resources Defense Council in support of a new solar farm in Ohio. If the project passes muster with the Ohio Public Service Commission it would be the largest PV installation in the state.
AEP also made a big wind-and-storage buy last month, so there’s that. That’s kind of ironic considering that the President poked fun at wind power just last weekend during his speech at the CPAC convention (grudge, much?). Funny or not, the President’s opinion of wind doesn’t seem to hold much sway among power generation planners these days. Here’s AEP on the topic of its energy transition:
…AEP’s generation capacity has gone from 70 percent coal-fueled in 2005 to 47 percent today. Its natural gas capacity increased from 19 percent in 2005 to 28 percent today, and its renewable generation capacity has increased from 4 percent in 2005 to 14 percent today. After closure of the Sempra [wind energy] transaction, AEP’s renewable generation portfolio will increase to 16 percent, coal will be 46 percent, natural gas will be 27 percent and nuclear generation will remain the same.
Whoa, talk about lowering the boom.
Anway, if you can find a mention of coal jobs in that two-hour CPAC speech, drop us a line in the comment thread. Yes, there was something about bringing back coal, but that’s not the same as saving coal jobs, particularly jobs for mine workers.
Speaking of not being mistreated any more, perhaps the Leader of the Free World could pick up the phone and convince executives at Westmoreland and other coal stakeholders to — oh, never mind.
CleanTechnica is reaching out to Boich for some more insights on the company’s “all of the above” energy strategy, especially in regards to bringing renewable energy jobs into depressed areas, so stay tuned for more on that.
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Photo (cropped): “Kemmerer Coal – mined land and truck in background, reclaimed area in foreground. Kemmerer Area Office, October 1977″ via USDA/flickr.com.
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