The U.S. coal industry sank deeper this week as the nation’s sixth-largest coal company declared bankruptcy.
Though the Trump administration has taken measures aimed at supporting coal, six of the 10 largest coal companies have gone bankrupt since 2014.
The coal industry has been pummeled as electric utilities switch from coal-fired power to cleaner, cheaper natural gas and renewable energy.
It is good news for the climate and public health. Burning coal produces more greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants than other fuels.
But the trend has been devastating for the coal industry and its employees.
Blackjewel, a subsidiary of Revelation Energy, employed about 1,700 workers in four states, including Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia and Wyoming, according to court filings.
Gas, wind, solar
In bankruptcy filings, Blackjewel blamed a “combination of an abundant, cheap and reliable alternative fuel in the form of natural gas, increased usage of renewable sources of energy,” plus stricter environmental regulations, for the coal industry’s decline.
Coal consumption is at its lowest point in four decades.
The dramatic rise of natural gas in the United States has undercut the economics of coal-fired power. The United States has been the world’s leading natural gas producer since 2009.
Meanwhile, this April marked the first time coal-fired electricity generation slipped behind renewable sources, including wind, solar and hydropower, in monthly totals. Those figures fluctuate seasonally, but they highlight the rise of renewables and coal’s descent.
While several companies have emerged from insolvency, “You can’t say the coal industry fixed itself with bankruptcies,” said analyst Karl Cates at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis. “It bought itself some more time. But it continues to be a sector in decline.”
The Environmental Protection Agency issued a rule last month that might prolong the life of some coal-fired power plants.
The Affordable Clean Energy rule targets greenhouse gas emissions in the electric power sector. By focusing on power plant efficiency, the EPA says, the rule will reduce emissions up to 35 percent by 2030.
It replaces the Obama administration’s more stringent Clean Power Plan that was expected to force many coal-fired plants to close.
Critics note that if plants do stay open longer because of the rule, they will produce more greenhouse gases, even if they are more efficient.
Given market forces and industry trends, however, it’s not clear how many plants would avoid shutdown under the new rule.
Some coal backers are pursuing technology to capture carbon dioxide from smokestacks and bury it underground or use it to produce products.
While carbon capture, utilization and storage technology exists, it currently costs too much to make economic sense on a large scale.
Congress has recently passed bipartisan legislation aimed at making it viable.
“Carbon capture technologies are essential to reducing emissions while protecting jobs,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican from the coal state of West Virginia and one of the bill’s lead sponsors.