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Coal

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Coal: Unpopular

Also, unpopular!

All of a sudden, everyone hates coal. (This may be a slight exaggeration.)

Shares of coal mining companies tumbled Monday as inventories continued to build with weaker demand in the slowing global economy. ...

The coal industry has been battered this year as utilities switch to cheap natural gas from coal to generate electricity. Natural gas prices are low because of huge supplies resulting from widespread drilling in the nation's shale deposits and soft demand for gas in the mild winter across much of the nation.

The International Monetary Fund lowered its outlook on Monday for global growth over the next two years. It also warned that Europe's financial crisis and a potential budget crisis in the U.S. could slow world economic growth even more. That was not good news for coal producers who hope to offset falling U.S. demand with more shipments overseas.

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Patriot Coal files for bankruptcy

Logo via Patriot Coal.

Patriot Coal, a St. Louis-based coal company, has filed for federal bankruptcy protection.

Coal companies have been hit hard by a decline in demand, arising in part from competition from cheap natural gas and a weaker economy. They have also blamed tougher environmental rules for rising costs.

All of these factors eroded Patriot’s financial health, the company argued. It has lost money every year since 2010, reporting a $198.5 million loss in the year that ended March 31.

“The coal industry is undergoing a major transformation and Patriot’s existing capital structure prevents it from making the necessary adjustments to achieve long-term success,” Irl F. Engelhardt, Patriot’s chairman and chief executive, said in a statement. “Our objective is to use the reorganization process to address important issues in an orderly way and make the company stronger and more competitive.”

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Black lung disease, once on the brink of extinction, is back. Thank the coal industry

In February 1969, miners in West Virginia launched an illegal wildcat strike. The action halted extraction for half of the mines in the northern part of the state for days. The miners had one demand: end black lung disease.

The action worked. By the end of 1969, new policies went into effect in an effort to curb the disease, which results from the inhalation of coal dust and leads to long-term lung damage and impaired breathing. New exposure limits were set, and miners were offered regular chest X-rays and compensation for damage. Donald Rasmussen, a pulmonologist in West Virginia interviewed by NPR, has tested tens of thousands of miners over the past half-century.

"In 1969, I publicly proclaimed that the disease would go away before we learned all about it," he adds. "And I was dead wrong."

Photo courtesy of the National Archives.
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Europe goes crazy for coal – and we can blame ourselves

London, during the coal-caused "Great Smog" of 1952. (Photo courtesy of Geograph.)

Germany just set a new record in solar energy production, creating 14.7 terawatt-hours of electricity over the first six months of 2012. Solar energy covered between 10 and 50 percent of the country's peak hour demand on average every day. Nice work, Germany!

Meanwhile, elsewhere in Europe (and also in Germany):

Demand for coal, the dirtiest fuel for making electricity, grew 3.3 percent last year in Europe while sales of less-polluting natural gas fell 2.1 percent, the steepest drop since 2009, according to a BP Plc report.

Oh man, Europe, what happened? We thought you were cool.

But even with some European Union member nations implementing efforts to increase the cost of carbon pollution, coal is still less expensive than the alternatives. And Europe has its enablers:

Cheaper coal was made possible partly by a 49 percent jump in first-quarter imports from the U.S., Energy Information Administration data show.

The fracking boom in the U.S. has led to a big drop in coal use, meaning that we're now free to export that coal to Europe.

Ha ha. Um, sorry, guys.

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New York says eff you to coal plants

flipping the birdTake your coal and shove it. (Photo by ballanross.)

It will soon be nearly impossible to build a coal-fired power plant in New York. Regulators at the state Department of Environmental Conservation today set a tough CO2 limit for new plants that dirty coal units just won't be able to meet. The feds have proposed a similar, though slightly less stringent, rule on the national scale.

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Good news about fossil fuels! Related: Bad news about fossil fuels!

How you will feel at the end and beginning of this post, respectively. (Photo by loresjoberg.)

Presenting: New data about fossil fuel consumption from the Worldwatch Institute, in decreasing order of how good the news is.

  • Oil consumption in the European Union dropped by 2.8 percent in 2011!
  • Oil consumption in the United States dropped by 1.8 percent in 2011!
  • Oil consumption increased by .7 percent globally last year -- less than the 3.3 percent increase in 2010.
  • But a lot more than the 1.3 percent decline in 2009.

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Coal plants are the VHS tapes of the energy production flea market

"Tell you what. You take three coal plants, I'll throw in this Schwinn." (Photo by Donna L. Faber.)

When the Clean Air Act was updated in 1977, existing power plants got a free pass: They didn't have to meet new standards until the next time their owners invested in them. So a number of pre-1977 plants simply never upgraded. (This is always a good thing to keep in mind during discussions of coal power.) (You do have discussions about coal power, don't you? At family reunions and the like?)

Some of these grandfathered coal plants have simply been shut down. But coal power has traditionally been so profitable that massive, expensive upgrades to old plants are worth the investment.

That may no longer be the case. From a Bloomberg News report:

An indication of how much new emissions rules and cheaper natural gas have hammered the value of coal-burning generation will come when Exelon announces the results of the first big sale of U.S. coal-fired power plants in four years.

Exelon, the largest U.S. power company, may have to take a 40 percent discount for three Maryland plants it’s seeking to sell by the end of August. Bidders including NRG Energy Inc. (NRG) have offered $600 million to $700 million for the units, which have a fair value of $1 billion, said Travis Miller, Chicago-based director of utilities research for Morningstar Inc.

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Enough cheap coal: Using public lands for the public interest

I hope everyone read Joe Smyth's post about the upcoming "auction" of 721 million tons of publicly owned Powder River Basin (PRB) coal. "Auction" goes in scare quotes because there's only one bidder: Peabody Coal, which can keep bidding at its leisure until it clears the ridiculously low minimum price established by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Peabody, of course, wants to export the coal.

If a one-bidder auction strikes you as shady, you're not alone. As Juliet Eilperin reports in the Washington Post today, the practice "is being reviewed by the Interior Department's inspector general and also will be the subject of an audit by the Government Accountability Office."

There's a reason only one or two bidders participate in these auctions: Only four big companies are operating in the PRB. They each have their own areas of land. When an adjoining lease opens up, one of them already has the equipment and infrastructure in place, so it will always be able to underbid a company bringing gear in from outside. So nobody bothers to bid against it. Cozy.

The net result is that taxpayers are getting screwed. According to a new report from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, BLM's non-competitive coal auctions have cost taxpayers "as much as $28.9 billion over the past 30 years." It has to do with the Powder River basin being "decertified" as a coal-producing region, which is absurd. Read Smyth's post for more on that.

The larger problem is that BLM is supposed to manage public lands in the best interests of the public, not coal companies, and it's hard to argue that accelerating climate change by sending cheap coal overseas is in America's best interests.

Center for American Progress: public lands for electricity

The Center for American Progress (CAP) has a must-read report out on this today called "Using Public Lands for the Public Good."

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Coal companies routinely win ‘competitive bids’ against no competition

Coal trucks in the Powder River Basin. (Photo by KimonBerlin.)

There are two senses in which coal is artificially cheap.

The more sophisticated reason is the idea that coal has negative impacts on the economy and on public health which are not incorporated into its price. There's also a practical sense in which coal is too cheap: Coal producers pay far too little for it.

A report in today's Washington Post provides a clear example of this latter sense, focused on the Powder River Basin overlapping Montana and Wyoming.

The government’s longtime practice of auctioning coal mining rights to a single bidder may have cost taxpayers as much as $28.9 billion over the past 30 years, according to an analysis to be released Monday by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, a Cambridge, Mass.-based think tank. ...

The phenomenon -- in which a mining company draws up a proposed area for leasing, and the Interior Department’s BLM auctions it off to that same firm -- is the rule rather than the exception in the country’s single biggest coal producing region. In the 26 coal leases the federal government has awarded in southeastern Montana and northeastern Wyoming since 1991, 22 have gone to a single bidder. In the other four instances, there were only two bidders involved.

Dave Roberts wrote about a similarly sweet deal in March, in which Peabody -- the sole bidder on a large seam -- paid the government $1.11 per ton for coal they could sell to China at $123 a ton. Peabody's next opportunity to win such an auction is this Thursday, as Greenpeace's Joe Smyth noted over the weekend.

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How Peabody gets dirt-cheap land and the rest of us get a gigaton of carbon pollution

A version of this article originally appeared on Climate Progress.

The BLM lets Peabody lease public land for next to nothing and strip-mine it for coal.

On Thursday, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is scheduled to hold an “auction” for 721 million tons of taxpayer-owned coal in the Powder River Basin.

This is for the North Porcupine tract, and like the South Porcupine tract that BLM leased to Peabody last month -- even though this coal is owned by you and me -- the lease was drawn up by Peabody itself for its own profit. This is what’s known as a “lease by application,” and under BLM’s corrupt coal-leasing program, Peabody will almost certainly be the only bidder and pay next to nothing.

WildEarth Guardians’ 2009 report “UnderMining the Climate” [PDF] found that over the last 20 years, only three of 21 lease by applications had more than one bidder. Since Peabody knows it will face no competitive pressure, it can simply offer the lowest possible price, secure in the knowledge that if it doesn’t meet BLM’s absurdly low minimum price, it can just try again later. In fact, that’s just what happened with the South Porcupine tract; Peabody’s initial offer of just $0.90 per ton was rejected as too low by the BLM -- so they simply held another auction a few weeks later and accepted Peabody’s offer of $1.11 per ton. In both “auctions” Peabody was the only bidder.

Now, the company is once again seeking cheap access to more of our coal, so it can strip-mine it from public lands and export it to lucrative markets in Asia.

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