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Coal-Mine Closures Shake Trump Supporters Faith (#GotBitcoin?)

Sudden shutdown of two mines leaves many wondering what’s next; ‘Reality has come crashing through the door’. Coal-Mine Closures Shake Trump Supporters Faith (#GotBitcoin?)

For generations, coal has been good to this bustling town of 32,000, where local mines have long offered well-paying jobs and filled government coffers.

Last week (9-21-2020) Bloomberg Philanthropies joined the Sierra Club to announce that the Beyond Coal campaign has successfully retired 60% of U.S. coal-fired power plants — 318 out of 530 plants.

In addition to the climate benefits, closing coal plants is an important part of the fight for environmental justice. In America, nearly seven in 10 Black Americans live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant — creating disproportionate health impacts.

Even as the industry collapsed in Appalachia over the past several years, Wyoming’s Powder River Basin, a resource-rich stretch of plains that produces about 40% of the nation’s coal, seemed destined for a softer landing. Locals in this northeastern corner of the state maintained that the lower cost of operating the region’s surface mines compared with mines elsewhere, and the quality of the coal here, would cushion them from the impact of the nation’s shift toward cheaper and cleaner natural gas—as well as tougher environmental standards.

But on July 1, two of the area’s 12 coal mines abruptly closed, leaving nearly 600 workers without jobs and sending shock waves through Gillette, which proudly dubs itself the “Energy Capital of the Nation.”

“It has been difficult to talk about the decline of coal in Wyoming,” said Robert Godby, director of the University of Wyoming’s Center for Energy Economics & Public Policy. “But…reality has come crashing through the door.”

Wyoming coal mines last year employed just over 5,500 people, about 1% of the state’s population, according to the Wyoming Mining Association. But coal’s economic footprint has been much larger. Revenue from coal, oil and gas has historically accounted for between 50% and 70% of Wyoming’s general fund, according to Mr. Godby.

That footprint has been shrinking, though. Wyoming’s coal production in the Powder River Basin declined 19% from 2015 through 2018, Mr. Godby said, and state figures show severance taxes paid by coal companies fell 26% over the past four fiscal years.

Gov. Mark Gordon, a Republican, said he sounded the alarm on the need to shift away from coal in his previous post as treasurer, and the two closures make the problem more urgent.

“Is it a wake-up call? No doubt,” he said in an interview.

Mr. Gordon said his administration wants a shipping terminal in Washington state so Wyoming can export its coal to Asian markets. West Coast communities have resisted, concerned about the environmental impact.

State-funded research to find more uses for coal is also under way in the Powder River Basin.

Mark Christensen, a commissioner in Campbell County, which includes Gillette, said economic diversification has been difficult to sell in a region where coal has made life comfortable. The county’s estimated median household income in 2017 was the second-highest in the state, at $78,240, U.S. census data shows.

Work in the vast coal pits surrounded by rolling prairie outside Gillette can pay as much as $100,000 a year. Each day, coal trains rumble by the town’s Americana-styled Main Street, and local bars and restaurants are crowded day and night with miners just off their shifts. Tax revenue from coal has helped pay for a $55 million recreation complex.

Anticipating coal’s troubles, Mr. Christensen, a Republican, in 2017 backed a quarter-cent countywide sales tax to raise revenue. The proposal was rejected by voters.

“The writing has been on the wall, but it has been really hard to get people to acknowledge it,” he said.

The two shuttered mines are owned by West Virginia-based Blackjewel LLC, which filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy and closed down operations on July 1. It cited tens of millions of dollars in debt, including taxes and federal mining royalties. The company’s former president and chief executive, Jeff Hoops Sr., who resigned following the bankruptcy, couldn’t be reached for comment. Lawyers representing the company in bankruptcy declined to comment.

“When we actually heard they were shuttering the doors and idling the mines, that just blew us away,” said Rory Wallett, who had worked as a pit hand at both mines for 11 years before they closed.

While Gillette was shaken like this once before, when several companies laid off about 500 workers in 2016, Mayor Louise Carter-King said the actual shutdown of two mines was different.

“We’ve never seen anything like that before,” she said.

About 1,100 workers in West Virginia, Virginia and Kentucky also lost jobs when Blackjewel filed for bankruptcy.

Contura Energy, formerly Alpha Natural Resources , which once owned the Wyoming mines, is trying to reacquire them—which could put miners back to work. But the deal may not go through, and even if it does, Contura’s chief financial officer said on a recent earnings call that the company isn’t interested in operating in the Powder River Basin long-term. A spokesman declined to comment further.

Melissa Peterson-Worden, a 44 year-old mother of three who has worked in the local mining industry for about 20 years, got a job at a Blackjewel warehouse in April. It lasted just a few months.

“For the entire time I lived here, they said this was the one thing that wouldn’t happen,” she said.

Updated: 10-6-2019

Coal Baron Robert Murray’s Companies Edge Closer To The Brink

CEO’s close ties to the Trump administration haven’t brought about coal’s revival.

Robert Murray, the coal executive known for his outspoken advocacy of the industry and close ties to President Trump, could be on the brink of losing his companies as the power industry shifts away from coal to cheaper fuel sources.

Mr. Murray through a combination of bold strategy and deal-making has kept his Murray Energy Corp. from following a dozen other U.S. coal companies into bankruptcy over the past decade.

Murray Energy, which expanded even as other producers collapsed into chapter 11, last week entered a forbearance agreement with it lenders after skipping an interest payment on $1.7 billion in debt. This buys the coal-mining company more time to negotiate a restructuring deal possibly before a potential filing for bankruptcy.

This comes as Foresight Energy LP, a coal company in which Murray Energy owns a majority stake, also missed an interest payment last week. Both companies are working with a 30-day grace period to hold separate restructuring talks with their creditors. Both sets of discussions could lead to bankruptcy filings by the two companies, according to people familiar with the matter.

A surge in natural gas production and renewable projects is roiling U.S. electricity markets, while green-energy mandates work against coal as a source of fuel in key markets. The share of U.S. electricity generated from coal fell to 28% from 48% between 2008 and 2018, according to the Energy Information Administration, which expects a further drop to 25% this year and 22% in 2020.

In response to cratering demand, Murray Energy pulled back its coal production by 16% between 2014 and 2018 to 52.6 million tons from 62.8 million tons, according to private company reports reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. A recent crash in the price of export coal also has snuffed out what had been a brisk international business and one of the company’s few bright spots.

A Murray Energy spokesman declined to comment for this article.

Murray’s predicament “sharpens the focus on rapidly declining domestic demand and gives a glimpse of what the future will hold,” said Mark Nelson, coal analyst for Moody’s.

Until recently, Murray Energy was one of the few big coal miners to buck the broader industry downturn through a creative combination of deal-making and financial engineering and thanks to better prices for both domestic and export coal.

The company has been able to juggle a heavy load of more than $2.5 billion in debt for years, even as it has barely generated any cash in the past four years after paying interest to financial creditors and health benefits for retirees, according to people familiar with the matter.

Despite Murray’s troubled financial situation, it persuaded most of its bond and loan holders to extend debt maturities last year. But the company now finds itself too tight on cash to meet more than $200 million in obligations coming due in the next 12 months, these people said.

The company is expected to generate no more than $100 million in cash over the next year. As of June 30, the company had about $73 million in cash and revolver loan availability, they said.

At the same time, financial markets and debt investors have become increasingly convinced that the long-predicted demise of coal is finally at hand. For instance, in September, Peabody Energy Corp. was forced to cancel a $1 billion debt offering due to poor market conditions.

Investors have fled Murray Energy’s debt, sending prices on its $500 million in notes due in 2024 dwindling to just over 1 cent on the dollar, according to MarketAxess.

“They don’t have a lot of cushion in a downturn,“ said Vania Dimova, analyst at S&P Global Ratings. ”Even though they’re generating a lot of cash, debt service eats up a lot of it.”

Murray Energy also has blamed its business struggles on “well-funded nongovernmental organizations” dedicated to minimizing or eliminating coal as a power source. It has singled out the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign as a business risk and cited the financial backing the environmental organization received from billionaire Michael Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor.

“The net effect of these developments is to make it more costly and difficult to maintain our business and to continue to depress the market for our coal,” Mr. Murray said in the company’s 2018 annual report released to holders of bond and loans.

Mr. Murray and his company have been generous donors to Mr. Trump’s political groups, Federal Election Commission records show. Mr. Murray has worked hard to tip the political and regulatory scales in favor of coal amid pressure on utilities to switch out of fossil fuel.

He lobbied the White House last year to order grid operators to favor coal-fired power plants, arguing they were critical to ensuring reliable power in crisis situations. But the plan pushed by Mr. Murray and a key Murray Energy customer, FirstEnergy Solutions Corp., never materialized.

“Despite several attempts, the Trump administration has not stemmed the decline of U.S. coal consumption caused by the sustained drop in natural gas prices and the massive expansion in the U.S. wind fleet,” said Barry Kupferberg, a distressed debt investor who has been involved in the coal and power generation sectors.

Even after FirstEnergy filed for bankruptcy in April 2018, Mr. Murray was optimistic, enumerating how surging demand in Asia and his company’s growing exports to that region revived his business.

“I’ve got the best coal company in the world,” he said at that time to the Journal.

Between 2015 and 2016, when four of the biggest U.S. coal producers— Alpha Natural Resources, Peabody Energy, Arch Coal Inc. and Patriot Coal Corp.—filed for bankruptcy, Murray made acquisitions. In 2015, the company bought a majority stake in Foresight Energy, one of the largest thermal coal miners in the country, taking out over $1.5 billion more in debt financing. In 2015, Murray also acquired mines in Colombia.

For a while, those additions boosted earnings and gave the company assets to show creditors and push off debt maturities. Dividends from Foresight and cost synergies with Murray both added to the company’s bottom line. Its purchase of the Colombian mines helped as export coal prices remaining high even as domestic prices dropped.

Last year, the company was able to persuade most creditors to extend maturities on most of its debt to 2021 and beyond, according to people familiar with the matter.

It is unclear if investors would offer a similar extension of maturities and suspension of interest payments this time around, according to people familiar with the matter. Such a deal would keep Murray Energy out of bankruptcy.

Murray recently engaged restructuring lawyers at Kirkland & Ellis LLP and bankers at Evercore Inc. ahead of its decision to skip interest and amortization payments, the Journal has reported.

Updated: 10-27-2019

In Pro-Trump West Virginia Coal Country, the Jobs Keep Leaving

Voters aren’t expecting 2020 election to revive the industry; ‘it’s only going to get worse’.

George and Missy Adkins are considering leaving the state altogether — if they can sell their old coal camp house in Logan County, W. Va.

“Everywhere you looked it was coal trucks. It’s whittled down to almost nothing,” he said. “It’s only going to get worse.”

Donald Trump carried coal communities like this in 2016, with promises to boost what he calls “clean, beautiful coal.”

The president’s popularity in communities like these doesn’t seem to be waning, even as coalfields around the country are shedding jobs again after an uptick in the past two years.

Last year, Logan County, which is struggling with high rates of poverty and drug addiction, led the state in coal employment with 1,459 miners.

“I’m all Trump,” said Ashley Walls, a manager at Nu-Era Bakery. Fewer people have been buying $16 birthday cakes since the Blackhawk layoffs were announced. “People are scared.”

In 2000, Democrat Al Gore won the county with 62% of the vote. But the county like the rest of the state has shifted solidly Republican since. Mr. Trump won 80% of the county’s vote.

“We now expect the worst and hope for the best,” said Rosco Adkins, Logan County administrator. He and others said losing several hundred jobs will take a toll on communities.

County prosecuting attorney John Bennett is struggling to keep up with cases. This year’s arrests include about 400 felonies and 3,000 misdemeanors. The vast majority are drug-related.

Jack Blevins, who owns American Mine Services in nearby Man, said recent mining layoffs will be “a bump in the road” for his business.

Mr. Blevins sells fewer than half the bits used on machines that dig coal, compared with 2010.

Joe Stanley, a retired miner, believes big investments in infrastructure are needed to help the state. “Coal has had its day,” he said. “I would vote for anybody other than Donald Trump.”

“I think it will pick back up. It always does,” said Eric Hughart, 29. He started work in April, but went to a job fair this month because he worries about layoffs. He plans to vote for Mr. Trump.

Updated: 7-22-2019

Coal Bankruptcies Continue With Blackhawk Filing

The company is seeking to reduce a $1 billion debt burden resulting from acquisitions of the assets of distressed mining firms.

In the latest bankruptcy in the coal industry, Blackhawk Mining has filed Chapter 11 to reduce a $1 billion debt load resulting from acquisitions of the assets of distressed mining companies.

Blackhawk operates 25 active mines at ten different mining complexes in Kentucky, West Virginia, and Indiana that produce metallurgical and thermal coal.

The company said it had reached an agreement with more than 90% of its lenders on a financial restructuring that will be implemented through the Chapter 11 process. The plan would convert more than 60% of its debt to equity and provide $150 million of incremental liquidity, with lenders emerging as the owners of the reorganized company.

“The plan provides the debtors with a deleveraged capital structure that will allow the debtors to implement a go-forward business strategy without the overhang of their historical leverage profile and sizeable annual debt service requirements,” Blackhawk CFO Jesse Parrish said in a court declaration.

Blackhawk is the eighth major U.S. coal producer to file bankruptcy since November 2017 and the fifth so far this year.

The coal industry as a whole has been hit by competition from natural gas, which in 2016 overtook coal as the largest source of electricity generation in the U.S., and weak growth in demand for electricity.

Parrish said Blackhawk’s fundamentals are strong. “Through a series of acquisitions from distressed coal operators, Blackhawk now controls one of the largest amounts of proven and probable reserves of metallurgical coal in the United States,” he noted, with annual production approaching 6.9 million tons

However, Parrish said, “the pricing environment for metallurgical coal did not improve until late 2016, and the debt attendant to Blackhawk’s acquisition strategy in 2015 placed a strain on Blackhawk’s ability to maintain its then-existing production profile while continuing to reinvest in the business.”

Once the coal markets began to improve, moreover, Blackhawk was forced to make elevated capital expenditures and bear unanticipated increases in costs — labor costs rose approximately 25% between 2016 and 2018 — to remain competitive.

“The confluence of these factors eventually made Blackhawk’s financial position untenable,” Parrish explained.

As Westmoreland Bankruptcy Concludes, Signs of More Trouble for Coal Industry

The recent bankruptcy of Colorado-based Westmoreland Coal Company offers powerful insight into the bleak future for thermal coal mining in the United States, particularly in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana.

To begin with, Westmoreland’s business relied exclusively on thermal coal production, particularly at mines that sell to a single power plant. The ongoing decline of the thermal coal industry left the company with few options. Westmoreland didn’t go down without swinging, leaving the brunt of its assaults directed at Westmoreland’s hardworking employees. But even as the company aggressively stripped health care and retirement benefits from its miners, it offered bonuses to a group of its executives. Finally, Westmoreland’s efforts to off-load one of its troubled operations – the Kemmerer Mine in Wyoming – hit a major snag when the proposed buyer was unable to reach terms with any reclamation surety bond provider, which suggests that the surety industry is finally recognizing it’s dealing with a doomed industry.

Westmoreland’s failure shows that thermal coal mining is no longer an economically viable industry and makes clear the importance of preparing for a future without it.

The most significant factor setting Westmoreland apart from the many major coal companies that preceded it into bankruptcy was its exclusive focus on producing thermal coal (used to generate electricity) as opposed to metallurgical coal (used in steel making). Westmoreland was so focused on thermal coal production, in fact, that many of its mines, including its largest operations, operated on the “mine-mouth” model, meaning that each mine was co-located with a power plant that served as its sole customer. Westmoreland’s fate as a company was therefore inextricably tied to the demand for coal-fired energy. Westmoreland acknowledged this outdated reliance on coal-burning power plants in its initial bankruptcy filings, citing competition from “nuclear energy, gas-fired generation, hydropower, petroleum, solar, and wind” as a major driver of its financial difficulties.

Ultimately, an ad-hoc group of Westmoreland’s secured lenders used the bankruptcy process to cherry-pick the handful of mines with the smallest liabilities while passing off additional deadweight operations to other companies. These lenders knew that they would never see a positive return on their investments in Westmoreland, and were just trying to minimize their losses. The lender groups identified a small group of “core assets” to acquire in exchange for releasing the company from its debt obligations: the Rosebud mine in Montana, San Juan mine in New Mexico, Haystack mine in Wyoming, and Absaloka mine in Montana. The fact that these are the company’s “crown jewels” is in itself a damning statement on the grim future facing coal-burning power plants and the thermal coal mines that supply them. Of these mines, only three produce coal, and each of those serves a single power plant that is winding down operations and is slated to close within the next few years.

The Rosebud mine serves the four-unit Colstrip power plant, which is scheduled to close two units in 2022, and the remaining two units in 2027. A recent effort to prop up the Colstrip plant through a bailout failed in the Montana legislature. The San Juan mine serves the San Juan power plant, which has already closed two units and is expected to shutter the remaining two units in 2022. The smaller Absaloka mine serves the Sherco plant in Minnesota, which is retiring two of its three units in 2022. The Haystack mine has not produced any coal for several years. These mines lack ready access to the broader coal market, and do not appear to be cost-competitive. They are unlikely, therefore, to continue operations after they lose their customers.

Whereas the previous three major mine operator bankruptcies – of Alpha Natural Resources, Arch Coal, and Peabody Energy – resulted largely from the failure of those companies to service the debt they had acquired in purchasing additional metallurgical coal mines, Westmoreland’s was a much more straightforward case of falling revenues and increasing costs. This also meant that Westmoreland faced a more difficult task in bankruptcy.

Rather than use Chapter 11 to shed unsecured debt or convert debt into equity, Westmoreland had to cut expenses and trim operations.

Westmoreland’s choice to place the burden on its workers and retirees is the sort of short-sighted decision typical of declining industries.

Westmoreland’s choice to persist in a shrinking and outmoded industry meant that to survive – even in a diminished form – it had to slash costs. Unfortunately, rather than ask its investors or its executives to make these sacrifices, Westmoreland chose to shift the burden to those least-responsible for the company’s problems: its workers.

Whereas the mine operators in the previous bankruptcies were generally able to honor their commitments to workers and to retirees, Westmoreland made clear early on that its bankruptcy plan rested on reneging on its longstanding obligations to its workers and retirees. Although dozens of retired miners sent impassioned letters to the bankruptcy judge pleading for the pension and health benefits they worked for, the court ultimately signed off on Westmoreland’s plan to default on its obligations for $334.5 million in retiree medical benefits and $21.8 million in black lung benefits.

The court also allowed Westmoreland to freeze its pension plan, though the obligations to current participants will be assumed by the ad-hoc group of the company’s senior secured lenders who will operate certain of Westmoreland’s mines going forward. Those lenders also offered the fig leaf of a $6 million commitment for retiree benefits. Representatives of the miners’ unions estimate that the fund will be exhausted within a year.

At the same time, Westmoreland secured permission from the bankruptcy court to pay $1.5 million worth of quarterly “retention bonuses” to a set of non-union executive employees. Those bonuses failed even to serve their intended purpose, however, as Westmoreland’s CFO still fled the company in the middle of the bankruptcy.

Surety bond companies have seen the industry’s downward trajectory, and are demanding additional protections that mine operators can’t afford.

One of the most significant obstacles to Westmoreland’s emergence from bankruptcy was the company’s difficulty in offloading its additional high-liability mines. In particular, Westmoreland sought buyers for two coal mine complexes in Ohio, and for the Kemmerer Mine in Wyoming.

The Ohio mines sell coal to a single customer, AEP, but the current coal supply contract only runs through 2019 and Westmoreland acknowledged that it does not expect the contract to be renewed. In fact, Westmoreland revealed in bankruptcy filings that its Ohio mines were only expected to generate revenue in 2019. Many of the Ohio mines are already in reclamation, and some have water pollution problems that will require long-term treatment. For these reasons, the initial sole bidder for those mines proposed a deal under which Westmoreland would pay him $20 million to take the mines and assume the reclamation liabilities. The bidder, Charles Ungurean,originally opened the mines before selling them to Westmoreland for $64 million in 2015. Eventually, a competing bid was submitted for the mines and Ungurean ultimately emerged as the successful bidder with an offer to pay about $2.5 million. In just four years, therefore, the mines have declined in value by between $60 million and $80 million.

The bidder who inserted himself into the Ohio mine sale was initially selected as the winning bidder for the Kemmerer Mine in Wyoming, though that sale also fell through in the end. Tom Clarke, a former healthcare executive from Virginia who began purchasing distressed coal properties out of bankruptcy in 2015, offered a total of $7.5 million in cash for Kemmerer, with a promise to pay more than $200 million in the future. Clarke’s bid was complicated by existing outstanding violations at his West Virginia coal mines, and his difficulty finding a surety bond company willing to provide the reclamation bonds required by law. That last obstacle proved impossible to overcome. After multiple rounds of offers and counter offers, Clarke was unable to secure a reclamation bond because he could not come up with sufficient collateral to satisfy the bond provider. Surety bond providers are now demanding additional collateral because the risk of default is increasing. The Kemmerer mine primarily serves the nearby Naughton power plant, and one of the Naughton plant’s three units was shut down in 2019. The other two units are scheduled to close by 2029, but the plant’s owners recently announced that they are developing plans to shut down the entire Naughton facility in 2022. Kemmerer will now be sold to a group of Westmoreland Resource Partners’ secured lenders.

Sierra Club will continue to monitor coal mine operators, and coal mine operator bankruptcies, as the industry stumbles towards its inevitable end. In the Westmoreland bankruptcy, Sierra Club’s participation ensured that the company would not use the proceeding to weaken or strip away environmental protections. This included securing commitments that the new owners of the San Juan mine would carry out the reclamation obligations required under an existing settlement. Sierra Club also acted to protect the public’s right to participate in administrative actions under the Clean Water Act and Surface Mining Act related to the company’s mines throughout Westmoreland’s bankruptcy.

Updated: 10-30-2019

Coal Miners’ Pension, Health Benefits Under Stress After Bankruptcies

A pension plan covering 90,000 retirees and dependents was 38% funded before the bankruptcy of Murray Energy and other coal companies.

A pension fund covering about 90,000 coal workers and their families is on the brink of insolvency while hundreds of these miners also face losing medical benefits, part of mounting financial stress on the larger safety net meant to protect sick or out-of-work miners.

The United Mine Workers of America multiemployer pension plan is projected to become insolvent during its 2022 plan year if Congress doesn’t authorize using public funds to buttress it for the first time in a history tracing back more than 70 years. Murray Energy, which filed for bankruptcy Tuesday, is the last major contributor to the fund.

Large U.S. coal producers have used bankruptcy as a tool to survive the industry’s decadelong decline. Several companies have successfully argued in chapter 11 that they must walk away from pension and medical obligations to stay in business, keep mines open and save jobs, according to court records, testimony and interviews.

Since last October, at least eight coal companies employing nearly 16,000 union and nonunion workers have filed for bankruptcy protection.

The bankruptcies have coincided with a decline in the U.S. coal market, which has grappled with environmental regulations during the Obama administration and competition from alternative fuel sources such as natural gas and renewable energy.

A Growing Shortfall

The use of chapter 11 has nearly eliminated coal company contributions to the plan. During the 2018 plan year, the pension fund collected $30 million in employer contributions, dwarfing its $613.8 million in benefit payments. The fund’s assets were valued at about $2.4 billion, compared with $6.6 billion in liabilities. For every active worker, the plan supports roughly 28 retirees, UMWA Health and Retirement Funds Executive Director Lorraine Lewis told House lawmakers in July.

The multiemployer pension plan was 38% funded, Ms. Lewis said at the time, a significant fall from 2008, when the plan was 93% funded before the financial crisis.

If the plan fails, it would likely mean cuts to monthly benefit payments that average $596 for all pensioners and $368 for surviving spouses. More than half of pensioners get less than $500 a month.

“Chapter 11 has clearly been used, by the coal industry at least, as a convenient way for people to get out of living up to their obligations,” UMWA spokesman Phil Smith said.

Mining companies also have used chapter 11 powers to avoid the costs that come with withdrawing from the pension plan. For instance, Patriot Coal Corp, Alpha Natural Resources, Jim Walter Resources and Mission Coal Corp.—all of which have filed for bankruptcy since 2012—have avoided paying nearly $4 billion in combined withdrawal liabilities, according to Ms. Lewis’s testimony.

Murray Energy said in court papers Tuesday it paid about $15 million into the pension fund in 2018 and as a result of the previous bankruptcies faces liabilities upward of $6.4 billion if it withdraws from the plan. A restructuring support agreement backed by Murray’s senior lenders calls on the company to negotiate modifications to its retiree benefits and reject collective bargaining agreements.

The UMWA said Tuesday: “Our retirees should understand that their health care will continue to be paid, at least until the bankruptcy process is completed.”

Seeking Solutions

The decline of the pension plan has prompted Congress to consider remedies. The UMWA is lobbying Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) to take up legislative proposals that would send excess funds from an abandoned mine reclamation fund to the pension plan. Mr. McConnell’s spokesman said he “is concerned about the insolvency issues facing a number of multiemployer pension plans and he supports the ongoing process to find a bipartisan solution for pension reform.”

The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., the U.S. government’s pension insurer, would step in if the UMWA pension plan goes insolvent. PBGC Director Gordon Hartogensis said the miners’ plan is one of roughly 125 multiemployer pension plans expected to run out of money in the next 20 years, affecting nearly 1.4 million people. The PBGC has said its multiemployer pension program could itself run out of money by 2025.

Recent bankruptcies also have put medical benefits for hundreds of retirees who worked at Mission Coal Co. and Westmoreland Coal Co. in jeopardy. Former coal miners who spoke with The Wall Street Journal said they agreed to do hazardous mine work because they were promised a pension as well as medical benefits for after they retired.

“You put your life at risk every day you go underground. You don’t know if you’re going to make it out or not,” said Westmoreland retiree Gary Wells, 76 years old. “You put your health and everything at risk for the company.”

Westmoreland retirees and their dependents are expected to lose medical benefits by year’s end if Congress doesn’t add them to a UMWA health plan. The company’s bankruptcy advisers said such a plan was needed to avert liquidation and preserve jobs. Lenders that took over Westmoreland provided $6 million to fund retiree benefits temporarily.

Westmoreland retiree Bethel Brock, 79, said he has been notified that he could lose medical benefits for himself and his wife at the end of the year. Mr. Brock said he has been diagnosed with a complicated form of black lung disease and relies on the Westmoreland benefits, UMWA pension, Medicare and Social Security. Westmoreland withdrew from the UMWA pension plan in 2004.

“When a coal company is through with you, you’re just like a used piece of equipment,” Mr. Brock said.

Black Lung Resurgence

Since 2014, coal bankruptcies also have transferred more than $310 million in corporate liabilities to the federal Black Lung Disability Trust Fund, which compensates workers diagnosed with black lung disease. The shift has come as researchers have documented a resurgence of a severe form of the disease in Appalachia.

“Our clients are younger and sicker than ever before,” said Rebecca Shelton, coordinator of policy and organizing at the nonprofit Appalachian Citizens Law Center, which helps workers seeking black lung benefits.

An excise tax to fund this trust fund was scaled back at the end of last year because of Congress inaction, meaning the fund likely will need to borrow more public funds to continue providing benefits. A former miner could get between $660 and $1,320 in monthly black lung benefit payments depending on the number of their dependents, according to the Government Accountability Office.

“A lot of people that are drawing black lung [benefits], they’re struggling to pay their bills,” said Patty Amburgey, a member of a black lung association in southeast Kentucky who lost her husband to the disease.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D., W.Va.) has been a lead sponsor on proposed legislation that would add affected retirees of Westmoreland and Mission Coal to a UMWA health plan, direct excess reclamation funds to the pension plan and restore the higher black lung excise tax. That bill, introduced in January by Democrats, is co-sponsored by presidential candidates Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris.

Updated: 1-1-2020

The Hidden Deaths of Coal Mining

Some workers killed on the job aren’t counted in fatality records, making the industry appear safer than it is.

Many mining deaths aren’t captured by global safety statistics, making the industry seem safer than it is to regulators, investors and consumers.

An Examination Of A Handful Of Mining Deaths Around The World And An Analysis Of Mine-Safety Statistics In Several Large Mining Countries Found:

—Mining Deaths In Brazil, One Of The Largest Mining Nations, Could Be Underestimated By As Much As 50% Because They Don’t Count Many Contractors Who Die In Accidents. That Includes The Deaths Of As Many As 139 Of The 270 People Who Died In Brazil This Year In One Of The Worst Mining Accidents Of Its Kind.

—Big Miners May Not Report Deaths At Some Joint Ventures, Leaving Dozens Of Recent Fatalities Off The Books.

—Fatalities That Happen When Transporting What Companies Mine Are Often Undercounted.

“There is a massive statistical gap on just how dangerous mining is,” said Tyler Gillard, a senior official at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Pressure to improve safety is especially intense after a mine-waste dam operated by Vale SA burst early this year, unleashing a river of mud in the Brazilian town of Brumadinho. More than half of those killed weren’t Vale employees, meaning many won’t make Brazil’s official mining death statistics.

Some countries require mining companies to report deaths to the government—though each country has its own standards.

Miners and industry bodies say the sector has made strides in bringing down fatalities and injuries. But a lack of reliable accounting in the most basic safety metric makes it difficult to determine the extent of any gains.

The global death toll from mining also doesn’t include the large number of fatalities in the developing world involving illegal mining—operations on government or company sites mining without permission—or at small-scale digs that escape government scrutiny. The World Bank estimates that 90% of the world’s miners, around 40 million people, work at small mine sites or illegally, without permission to mine.

In many developed countries, though, mining statistics are more consistently collected. In those countries, numbers typically show a steady decline in fatalities in recent decades. Last year, the death toll from mining in the U.S. fell to its second-lowest level ever, with 27 fatalities, according to the Mine Safety and Health Administration. The industry, though, remains one of the deadliest in developed countries.

There is no widely used estimate on how many people die in mining globally. In 1998, the International Labour Organisation, a U.N. agency, estimated that mining accounted for 8% of fatal deaths at work, but only 1% of the global workforce. The agency made that estimate—its most recent—with little data from major mining nations like China and the Democratic Republic of Congo, where mining statistics are non-existent or considered untrustworthy.

The International Council on Mining and Metals, which represents 26 of the largest metals and mining companies, releases a widely watched annual casualty number. In 2018, the 26 members of ICMM recorded a total of 50 fatalities. That’s down from 90 in 2012, among the 22 company members that reported then.

Those numbers are clouded by inconsistencies in how miners report their numbers.

For instance, the ICMM recommends that its members count deaths of employees killed transporting resources, like truck drivers hauling mine production. However, members including Anglo American PLC, Barrick Gold Corp. ,and BHP say they don’t always, for different reasons.

Anglo American noted in its 2013 sustainability report that two workers lost their lives on “work-related travel,” but they weren’t included in that year’s fatality tally of 14. Anglo American said transport deaths are recorded if the company has “managerial control over the direct cause of the incident.”

Susana Peñarrubia Fraguas, a fund manager and adviser on corporate governance at Germany-based DWS Group, which invests in mining stock among other sectors, said miners should report such deaths.

“You need to have your contractors and supply chains more under control,” she said. “It’s all part of the same economic transaction.”

Among uncounted mining deaths are those of contractors who die at mine sites but who aren’t mine-company employees. Brazil doesn’t count deaths at many contractors as mining related, reducing overall fatality tallies for the sector.

Nearly 45% of Vale’s 124,900-strong workforce were contractors at the end of last year, according to the company. Vale is by far the country’s largest miner.

Brazil reported about 15 mining deaths per 100,000 workers for 2017, or 25 deaths, the latest year available. A decade earlier, government numbers showed a death rate of 32.6 miners per 100,000, according to government figures compiled by Dieese, a statistical research body funded by unions.

Those numbers don’t include many of the contractors.

Hidden Deaths

Large mining companies account for deaths in joint-venture operations they manage. They rarely report deaths in joint ventures they do not lead, though they have influence on these mines’ health and safety policies.

Mario Parreiras de Faria, occupational safety and health inspector at Brazil’s ministry of economy’s labor authority in Minas Gerais, which includes Brumadinho said that in his experience investigating mine accidents in Brazil, at least 50% of mine-related deaths were of contractors, and not included in national numbers.

In a 2015 mine-dam failure in the town of Mariana, at an iron-ore mine jointly owned by BHP and Vale, 19 people were killed. Mr. de Faria said only one of those deaths was of a person employed by a mining company. The other 18 deaths weren’t included as mining fatalities.

“Outsourcing masks the fatality statistics,” Mr. de Faria said.

A Brazilian government spokeswoman said job fatality statistics are published based on the official classification of each company reporting a death. Fatalities at Mariana and other places—both miners and contractors—are also recorded by location, she said.

Updated: 1-2-2020

Duke Energy Agrees to Coal-Ash Cleanup Settlement

North Carolina regulators, environmental groups say deal will make state’s water safer.

Duke Energy Corp. has agreed to move 80 million tons of coal ash to lined landfills at six power plant sites in what state regulators are calling the biggest cleanup of its type in U.S. history.

The compromise between Duke Energy, state regulators and environmental groups likely puts an end to a yearslong legal dispute in North Carolina over the environmental risks of the disposal of coal ash.

Coal ash is a byproduct of coal-fired power plants, which scrub potential air pollutants from their emissions. That ash can contain arsenic, selenium, lead and mercury. Coal ash has been commonly stored in pits on-site at power plants, which are often located near rivers and lakes since they need water to produce steam.

Duke, one of the nation’s largest utility companies, said the agreement was reasonable, prudent and “a major achievement that puts the coal ash debate to rest in North Carolina.”

Frank Holleman, a lawyer with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said the settlement ensures that North Carolina’s water will be safer than it has been in decades.

The Southeast has a disproportionate number of unlined coal-ash storage pits in proximity to rivers and lakes in part because of its historic reliance on coal for power, Mr. Holleman said. But he said he expects the settlement to have national implications.

“No utility can now say it’s acceptable to cap this material and leave it in an unlined pit,” Mr. Holleman said.

Michael S. Regan, secretary of the state’s Department of Environmental Quality, said the agreement ensures public health and protects natural resources. “We are holding Duke accountable and will continue to hold them accountable for their actions,” Mr. Regan said.

Coal ash became a flashpoint in the state in February 2014, when a metal pipe running underneath an aging waste-storage pit poured tons of slurry into the Dan River in the central part of the state. In 2018, heavy rains from Hurricane Florence washed out a small portion of a coal-ash landfill near Wilmington, allowing some material to spill into a nearby lake.

Duke has long said it was acting responsibly by gradually phasing out coal-fired plants and ensuring previously generated material was safely stored at more than two dozen sites across the state. Some of the storage basins were lined but many weren’t.

Environmentalists have said the material posed significant health risks, as it could leach into groundwater or flow from faulty basins into nearby bodies of water.

Last April, the state Department of Environmental Quality ordered that Duke had to completely remove coal ash from all storage basins in North Carolina, rather than cover some ponds and leave the ash in place as the company proposed.

Duke balked, saying the order was overly restrictive and costly.

In recent months, Duke, state regulators and a half-dozen environmental groups worked out a settlement agreement, which was signed Dec. 31.

The agreement extends the life of some coal-ash recycling facilities, allows a few old, covered landfills below newer uncovered ones to remain intact and expedites the permitting process, according to a Duke spokeswoman.

Duke said the compromise costs about $1.5 billion less than what the state had originally proposed, with the current estimate being $8 billion to $9 billion to close all ash basins in the Carolinas.

The company will gradually be removing coal ash over the years, with the goal of closing all basins by the year 2034, according to the Duke spokeswoman.

“Five years from now, a heckuva lot of ash will be gone,” said Mr. Holleman, the environmental lawyer. “Every year that goes by, the level of pollution and the risk of catastrophe is being reduced.”

Duke shares fell 1% to $90.28 in afternoon trading Thursday.

Updated: 2-27-2020

Many Miners Die, And It Never Shows Up In Safety Data

Uncounted deaths in illegal and small-scale mining add thousands to the industry’s death toll, according to some estimates.

Surat Lal died with seven colleagues in an explosion at a small quarry in India, but like thousands of other casualties at mines in the developing world, his death wasn’t counted as a mining fatality.

Around 90% of the world’s miners, according to the World Bank, work in small-scale operations or illegally by trespassing on land controlled by others, including bigger mining companies. Those miners—who dig up materials used in cars and smartphones, among other products—are frequently operating in emerging economies like India, in dangerous conditions with no safety regulations, poor equipment and a culture of risk-taking.

When tragedies occur, few of the deaths are recorded as mining-related, partly because governments frequently fail to properly document such fatalities and some smaller companies don’t want to invite increased regulatory scrutiny, mining experts say.

By some estimates, uncounted deaths in illegal and small-scale mining add thousands to the industry’s death toll. Leaving them out distorts mining’s safety record and makes it harder to detect and improve potential hazards.

Pressure to improve safety in mining has intensified after a mine-waste dam operated by Vale SA burst a year ago in the Brazilian town of Brumadinho, killing 270 people.

The official death toll for the sector in India—one of the world’s biggest mining nations—was 120 in 2018, though a former government official said it could reach 20,000. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, which releases no fatality data, up to 2,000 illegal miners are dying a year, according to research from a Harvard University professor.

A Wall Street Journal investigation in December revealed that disclosures of mining fatalities were being kept lower because large miners don’t always disclose deaths in transport and joint ventures, and some governments weren’t including mine contractors in fatality statistics.

The lack of accurate data in illegal and small-scale mining is a big problem, said Richard Adkerson, chief executive of Freeport-McMoRan Inc., one of America’s largest miners. “Numbers would shine a spotlight that could translate into government action and enforcement to constrain the risks these miners take,” he said.

The World Bank estimates that around 40 million people work at small mine sites or illegally. Around 20% of the world’s new gold mined globally comes from illegal and small-scale mining, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Some 25% of cobalt—a key ingredient in smartphone and electric-car batteries—produced in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the world’s largest producer, comes from illicit and so-called artisanal mines.

Dangerous Ground

Around 90% of the world’s miners work in either lightly regulated small-scale operations or illegally by trespassing on land controlled by others.

The northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh supplied the country’s long building boom with stone.

In 2015, Mr. Lal was mining dolomite stone at a small Uttar Pradesh quarry when a storehouse holding explosives caught fire and blew up, killing him and seven others, according to Manbasiya Devi, Mr. Lal’s mother, and Amar Shah, a miner who was injured in the blast.

India’s Directorate General of Mines Safety, the industry’s regulator, didn’t include these deaths that year, according to U.P. Singh, at the time the agency’s director for the region where the accident happened. Mr. Singh said the deaths weren’t reported to the agency.

Arvind Kumar, director of mines safety at DGMS head office in Dhanbad, said deaths that occur in areas where mining companies are granted leases to land by state authorities don’t always get reported to the DGMS, and the agency doesn’t consider such fatalities for the official statistics of mining fatalities.

The company that owned the site is no longer in business, and the owner couldn’t be reached for comment.

India has more miners working in small mines or illegally—15 million—than any other country, according to the World Bank. Mr. Kumar said deaths of illegal miners aren’t counted as mining fatalities as per India’s mines law.

In 2014, DGMS reported that the total number of deaths in mining was 107. India’s National Crime Records Bureau, a government agency that maintains a database on crimes, deaths and accidents, puts the number that year at 210, including fatalities in illegal mining.

B.P. Singh, who until 2018 was second in command at India’s DGMS and who isn’t related to U.P. Singh, said the average annual figures for mining fatalities could be as high as 20,000, counting deaths of illegal miners and at small mining companies. He added the unreported deaths that he learned about in his mine visits and those that colleagues said were occurring in different parts of the country, and extrapolated figures in areas where he had no feedback.

Mr. Kumar declined to comment on the estimated number of deaths, and the Journal couldn’t independently corroborate the number.

In the DRC, up to 2,000 illegal and artisanal miners die a year, said Siddharth Kara, a lecturer in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. Mr. Kara has researched mining in the DRC and based his estimate on data sampling and a questionnaire he administered in the country’s cobalt-producing provinces.

Mr. Kara said he witnessed the collapse of one tunnel near Lake Malo in September last year that he said led to the deaths of more than 60 people who were underground at the time, including children.

Companies rarely report deaths of illegal miners who trespass onto their land.

New York-listed Harmony Gold Mining Co. recorded the deaths of 65 workers in its South African mines between 2010 and the end of 2018. But the Mines Rescue Service, a South African organization that helps free trapped miners, reported finding the bodies of 27 illegal miners in Harmony’s mines during the period.

A spokeswoman for Harmony Gold said the company tries to combat illegal mining, but such miners “ignore the safety standards of mines, ultimately putting their lives and the lives of our employees at risk.” The company said it doesn’t report the deaths of illegal miners. Mining companies say illegal miners often work in places and at times when the company cannot protect them. The problem can be overwhelming, they say.

In the developing world, smaller mining companies often want to keep deaths out of official fatality statistics to avoid paying compensation and fines, or having their safety regulations scrutinized, miners and B.P. Singh said.

Under Indian labor laws, companies have to pay higher compensation and become subject to further regulatory action when a fatality is classified as an industrial death.

According to Indian law, the family of Mr. Lal would have received about $9,000 from the company and more from local authorities if the death was classified as an industry death. Mr. Lal’s mother, Ms. Devi, said she received 400,000 rupees (about $5,600) from the local government and the owner of the mine where her son died.

Mr. Lal began mining after he gave up his studies at the age of 18. Ms. Devi said she tried to convince her son that mining was too dangerous.

“He wouldn’t listen,” she said.

Updated: 7-28-2020

Emissions Costs Jump In Europe, Hastening Coal’s Demise

Swift recovery in carbon prices, despite falling emissions, took traders by surprise.

The price of carbon credits in Europe has rebounded from a pandemic low, reflecting government stimulus efforts and the reopening of economic activity.

The bounceback is bad news for coal. The rising value of carbon credits means many coal-fired power plants aren’t profitable, even though the price of the fossil fuel has edged down this year.

Prices for European Union carbon credits jumped 69% from their low in mid-March to €25.74 ($30.19) a metric ton on Tuesday. They neared a record high earlier this month, surpassing €30 for the first time since at least 2008, according to FactSet.

Costly CarbonProfits on generating electricity with coal in Germany have shrunk as prices on credits for carbon emissionshave risen.

The speed of the recovery has surprised carbon traders, since it took place when emissions were falling due to a historic downturn in Europe’s economy. Higher permit prices are making it more expensive for coal-fired power plants to operate, encouraging utilities to switch to natural gas or renewables.

“The carbon market is working: it’s doing its job,” said Lueder Schumacher, head of European utilities at French bank Société Générale. “Many coal plants are no longer profitable at these kinds of levels.”

Fuel markets are also shifting the economics of electricity production against coal. The price of thermal coal–the kind burned for electricity–delivered into Northwest Europe has slipped 2.4% this year, to $50.25 a metric ton, according to S&P Global Platts. That decline is dwarfed by the 62% plunge in day-ahead prices for natural gas, to $1.49 per million British thermal units in a key Dutch market.

The market for carbon credits was set up in 2005 to meet the EU’s commitments under the Kyoto Protocol and is a key plank of the bloc’s efforts to combat climate change. It puts a limit on emissions from companies covered by the system, responsible for around 45% of EU greenhouse gases. Utilities, steelmakers, airlines and other players buy and sell allowances depending on how much they plan to emit.

Once a year, firms must hand over enough permits to cover their emissions or pay a fine. The market is supposed to prod sectors that can easily curb emissions to do so, while avoiding a clampdown that would drive heavy polluters out of business.

A clutch of companies have expedited the closure of coal-fired power stations, including Energias de Portugal SA, which this month brought forward the retirement of two plants. A third will be converted from coal to gas. Higher carbon prices, cheap gas and growing renewable-energy capacity combined to make the stations uncompetitive, EDP said.

“The big story this year is coal has been crushed,” said Matthew Jones, an analyst at commodities tracker Independent Commodity Intelligence Services.

Falling demand has prompted utilities to cut their least profitable means of generating electricity. For many, that is coal. German utilities lose €5.59 on every megawatt-hour of coal-fired electricity they sell ahead for 2021, according to ICIS. Burning gas, which is plentiful and requires fewer carbon allowances, can earn them €4.68 a megawatt-hour.

The bounceback in carbon prices partly reflects steps taken by the European Central Bank and governments to steady Europe’s economy.

Stimulus efforts averted a fire-sale of carbon permits by companies seeking to raise cash, according to Dougal Corden, director of power and carbon trading at Citigroup. Such selling during the eurozone debt crisis, starting in 2009, led to a glut of credits that depressed carbon prices for years afterward.

This year’s round of rescue packages “proved to be effective at removing the likelihood of forced selling by industrials,” said Mr. Corden. “The carbon market has shown a huge amount of resilience.”

The cap on total emissions shrinks each year, and the pace is due to quicken in 2021. It would accelerate again if the EU decides to tighten its 2030 target for emission cuts, as Brussels has mooted.

The prospect of a diminishing pool of credits encouraged utilities to stock up when prices fell in March, said Bernadett Papp, senior analyst at emissions-trading company Vertis Environmental Finance. This bout of buying prompted the recovery in prices, according to Ms. Papp.

Electricity producers and industrial companies “are really afraid of less supply and significantly higher prices from next year onwards,” she said. “When they see the price falling, they are hasty to jump in and buy.”

Prices were also bolstered after EDF SA said in April that electricity generation at its French nuclear plants would fall 20% this year because of disruption from the coronavirus. That meant more coal and gas would need to be burned to meet Europe’s power needs, requiring utilities to own more allowances. EDF has since said the decline won’t be as drastic as first feared.

Carbon credits need to become significantly more expensive to drive a meaningful reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions, according to some traders.

“It is doing its job to some degree on the fuel switching,” said Casper Elgaard Madsen, head of climate markets at Danske Commodities, a trading house owned by Norway’s state-oil giant Equinor. “To really matter in the green transition, we have to aim for prices to go above current levels.”

Purchases of permits by utilities slowed in June, but carbon prices kept surging as investors piled into the market, according to traders and analysts. Although they aren’t obliged to own permits to cover emissions, fund managers trade futures contracts to bet on the direction and gap between prices.

Politicians in Germany and elsewhere are “showing clear interest in meeting more aggressive carbon-reduction targets,” said Greg E. Sharenow, a portfolio manager at Pacific Investment Management Co. “That has really been a strong signal to the market.”

Pimco is looking at ways to expand its involvement in carbon, according to Mr. Sharenow, who said few other markets have as much growth potential over the next decade.

Updated: 9-16-2020

Trump’s Promise To Revive Coal Thwarted By Falling Demand, Cheaper Alternatives

Production is declining at a faster rate than under Obama;, many in the industry fear things could get worse.

John Hickman was filling out a coal production report about 2½ miles deep in a mountain when his foreman’s voice came over the intercom.

“Stop mining,” the foreman instructed. “Bring the men out.”

It took nearly two hours for Mr. Hickman, a supervisor, and his workers to reach the mouth of the mine last September. There, they were given news they feared: Murray Energy Corp., one of the largest U.S. coal producers, was idling the Maple Eagle No. 1 mine, effective immediately.

“It’s just a level of stress that sets in,” said Mr. Hickman, who has been laid off before. “What am I going to do? Where am I going to find a job? How am I going to take care of my family? All of those things just keep cycling.”

President Trump hasn’t been able to bring back “beautiful, clean coal” as he promised four years ago. As mines and power plants continue to close, the question many are asking in the diminishing American coal industry is—what now?

Coal companies and their workers experienced a brief renaissance during the first two years of Mr. Trump’s term despite declining domestic consumption, thanks in part to a surge in demand from countries such as India and South Korea.

Exports have since fallen. U.S. coal output and consumption are now on pace to decline at faster annual rates, on average, under President Trump than under President Obama.

The use of coal to generate electricity in the U.S. is expected to fall more than a third during Mr. Trump’s first term, data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration show, as a glut of cheap natural gas unlocked due to fracking and increasingly competitive wind and solar sources gained market share.

More than half of that drop happened before the new coronavirus outbreak. That compares with a decline of about 35% in coal consumed for power generation during Mr. Obama’s eight years in office.

Last year, the U.S. consumed more renewable energy than coal for the first time since the 1880s, federal data show. That includes coal and renewables used for electricity, as well as for purposes such as steelmaking and transportation.

In the power sector, the EIA expects coal will generate just 20% of U.S. electricity this year, down from 31% in 2016. Another 20% is forecast to come from renewables, up from around 15% four years ago.

“Coal isn’t coming back. You can’t legislate it,” said Karla Kimrey, previously a vice president at Wyoming-based coal producer Cloud Peak Energy Inc., which filed for bankruptcy protection last year.

Domestic demand has continued to drop as utilities retire coal power plants and turn to cheap natural gas and renewables to make electricity, trends that have only accelerated as economies have slowed due to the pandemic. With less demand for power, many utilities have cut back on coal generation first, as it is generally more expensive.

Energy Shift

Last year in the U.S., annual renewable energy consumption eclipsed coal consumption for the first time inmore than a century.

Meanwhile the rise of “ESG” or environmental, social and governance investing is constricting the industry’s ability to obtain capital, current and former executives say.

As major investors such as JPMorgan Chase & Co. and BlackRock Inc., the world’s largest asset manager, turn away from coal over concerns about climate change, coal companies are struggling to secure the insurance they need to operate. That hurts not only companies that mine the thermal coal used to generate electricity, but also those that mine metallurgical coal to make steel.

Contura Energy Inc., one of the nation’s largest producers of coal for steelmaking, has seen insurers and bonding providers flee the industry over the past two years.

“If they can cut off your financing, they cut off your ability to function as a company,” said David Stetson, the Tennessee-based company’s chief executive.

He and other executives expect to see more American coal companies go private in coming years. Firms such as Westmoreland Coal Co. and Cloud Peak that were publicly traded before filing for bankruptcy are emerging as private entities or selling assets to private firms.

Westmoreland was North America’s sixth-largest coal producer before it entered bankruptcy protection in 2018. Hobbled by more than $1.4 billion in debt, Westmoreland was taken over by its senior lenders and emerged last year as a private company.

Months later, Cloud Peak sold three mines in Wyoming and Montana to a private energy company owned by the Navajo Nation.

Meanwhile, the value of an exchange-traded fund of global coal companies has lost nearly 40% of its value since Mr. Trump’s inauguration, as the value of the S&P 500 index increased by about half.

“There is a shrinking pool of candidates to own stock in public coal companies,” said Mr. Stetson, whose company is publicly traded.

During his campaign for president in 2016, Mr. Trump repeatedly promised miners and others in America’s coal-producing regions that he would bring jobs back. The pledge helped him to deliver key swing states such as Pennsylvania, one of the nation’s largest coal producers, which sided with Mr. Trump by fewer than 50,000 votes.

Mr. Trump has sought to ease the regulatory burdens on coal by repealing or replacing a series of Obama-era rules, including ones designed to require power plants to rein in carbon dioxide emissions and further restrict mining activities near streams, making surface mining in particular more expensive.

In the first years of his term, before the coronavirus slowdown, U.S. coal-mining employment held relatively steady, Bureau of Labor Statistics data show. Average annual pay increased more than 10% from 2016 to 2019, to around $91,000.

“President Trump has kept his promise and ended the outright war on America’s coal industry,” a White House spokesman said.

Yet total U.S. coal production is expected to fall about 30% in four years on Mr. Trump’s watch, EIA data show. That compares with a 38% slide in output over Mr. Obama’s eight years in office.

Many in the industry plan to vote for Mr. Trump again this year, saying that a Democratic president would devastate the sector.

Democratic nominee Joe Biden has said that he wants to set the country on a path to eliminate carbon emissions from the power sector by 2035 and the broader U.S. economy by 2050, targets likely to hasten a transition away from coal. Mr. Biden’s energy plan calls for creating jobs to reclaim abandoned mines, among other forms of community investment.

“At the end of the day, Biden is the one who will stand up for these workers,” said Stef Feldman, policy director for Mr. Biden’s campaign.

David Khani, a former chief financial officer for Pennsylvania-based coal producer Consol Energy Inc., said that the pace of the coal industry’s decline could have been worse were it not for Mr. Trump’s policy rollbacks.

“He has had an impact for sure positively on the coal industry. It’s just hard for people to see it,” said Mr. Khani, now chief financial officer for natural gas driller EQT Corp.

The reality of recent years has been harsh for companies such as Murray Energy, founded by Robert Murray, one of Mr. Trump’s most vocal backers in coal country.

Murray Energy filed for bankruptcy in October, one of more than a dozen U.S. coal companies to do so during Mr. Trump’s presidency. A subsidiary that owned Maple Eagle, the mine where Mr. Hickman worked, followed suit in February. It is the mine’s third trip through bankruptcy in just over five years, each time under a different owner. Murray Energy has been approved to exit chapter 11 and transfer its assets to its top creditors.

Many large coal producers such as Peabody Energy Corp. and Walter Energy Inc. filed for chapter 11 protection toward the end of Mr. Obama’s presidency after prices for coal used in steelmaking collapsed, making the debt the companies took on to fund expansions unsustainable.

More recently, a glut of cheap natural gas has accelerated declines in the consumption of coal used for electricity. As of June, the U.S. was producing some 54% more natural gas than it did a decade earlier, a surge that helped to cut benchmark prices by roughly two-thirds in that time, EIA data show. In the past decade, more than 100 coal-fired power plants have been converted to or replaced by natural gas-fired facilities, the EIA said recently.

“We’ve just gotten swamped with gas,” said Jeff Wilson, chief executive of White Forest Resources Inc., a private Virginia-based coal company. “Those market forces are unstoppable.”

In the hollows of Appalachia, one mine after another has shut down in recent months, putting miners out of work and squeezing small-business owners.

Steve Kessler, 47, was among those laid off last September from the Maple Eagle No. 1 mine. He was home watching the television show “Impractical Jokers” after finishing a shift when a friend texted: The mine was shutting down. No work tomorrow. Mr. Kessler had already laid out his clothes, packed a lunch and set his alarm for the next morning.

“There was no warning, no nothing,” he said, calling the layoff a punch in the gut. It took Mr. Kessler around a month to find another job hauling coal underground at a nearby West Virginia mine.

The coronavirus pandemic made a bad situation worse. The mine, like many in the area, furloughed employees for weeks as concerns about transmitting the virus mounted and coal demand plunged still further. Mr. Kessler was called back to work in early April, but his $25-an-hour wage was cut 5% and he lost benefits including his 401(k) match.

Increasingly, Mr. Kessler worries that the pay won’t justify the risks associated with working underground, and that it could become more difficult to switch fields as he gets older. “Do I really want to do this for the next 20 years?” he found himself thinking on a recent shuttle ride through a mine. “Will this even be here in 20 years?”

The 48-year-old chose to double down. Mr. Argabrite bought the assets of one of his biggest competitors in the hopes that capturing more market share would put him in a better position to ride out the economic downturn. Plus, he wanted to keep his men employed and figured that countries would likely invest in infrastructure in the wake of the pandemic, increasing demand for the coal used in steelmaking.

Mr. Argabrite is putting off other big decisions, such as whether to invest in a larger facility, until after the election.

“Everybody’s on the edge of their seat trying to make it through this year,” Mr. Argabrite said. “If Donald Trump doesn’t win in November, the coal industry’s finished.”

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Updated: 10-15-2020

Coal Finds A Surprising 2020 Bright Spot In Europe

Power plants started to burn more thermal coal over the summer and fall, responding to a steep rise in the price of natural gas.

European coal prices have jumped to their highest level in almost a year, after a surge in natural-gas prices spurred demand for the cheaper fossil fuel.

Prices for thermal coal delivered into northwestern Europe have leapt 50% from their low in May to $57.77 a metric ton, according to data from Argus Media, a trade publication that tracks commodity prices. Thermal coal, the kind that power stations burn to generate electricity, hasn’t cost as much in Europe since late October 2019.

Unusually, coal is now more expensive in Europe than in Australia, where prices were hit by reports that China had curbed imports amid a diplomatic feud with Canberra. Australia’s government has said it is working to clarify the situation. Traders said Chinese buyers are acting as if the restrictions are real, knocking Australian export prices.

Europe’s rally has turned the region into a surprise bright spot in the international coal market. Prices tumbled globally this spring when coronavirus restrictions hammered demand for electrical power, and remain under pressure in the Asia-Pacific region. Taking into account coking coal, which is used to make steel, global consumption is on course to slump 7% in 2020, the International Energy Agency said this week.

European governments are moving faster than those in other regions to drop coal from the energy mix to cut planet-warming emissions. The recent rise in prices shows that coal’s decline will be halting, analysts said, with bursts of higher demand even as the continent’s shift toward cleaner sources of energy accelerates.

“There’s still going to be a need for coal,” said Jake Horslen, editor of Argus’s Coal Daily International, pointing to the flexibility that coal gives utilities, especially in the winter when lots of gas is burned for heating. Still, “it does look like coal is going to be phased out sooner rather than later,” Mr. Horslen added.

Coal prices measure slightly different things in Europe and Australia, reflecting their positions in the market. In northwest Europe, they reflect the price of coal delivered to a port, including insurance and freight costs. The benchmark in Australia, one of the biggest exporters, represents the price of coal cleared for shipment and loaded onto a vessel.

European power plants started to burn more coal over the summer and the early autumn as natural gas became steadily more expensive. Gas prices in northwestern Europe have more than quadrupled from their trough in May, partly driven by a fall in the supply of liquefied-natural gas from the U.S.

“In Germany and in some of the other markets, you actually saw coal-fired power generation come back into the market, just because it was cheaper,” said Matthew Boyle, lead coal analyst at S&P Global Platts. “That was part of the reason why we did see a sort of rally.”

Gas prices have risen faster than the price of carbon permits, which utilities and other users of fossil fuels purchase under the European Union’s emissions-trading program. That created a financial incentive to dial back gas consumption, burn more coal, and buy carbon permits to cover the extra emissions.

“It’s actually making coal burn fairly attractive,” said Georgi Slavov, head of fundamental research at commodities brokerage Marex Spectron. Half of Europe’s coal-fired power-plant capacity was in use this week, Mr. Slavov calculates, up from under a 10th at the start of June.

Giving prices an additional boost: Crimped output in Colombia, Europe’s second-largest source of thermal coal after Russia.

Workers at Colombia’s Cerrejón mine, jointly owned by BHP Group, Anglo American PLC and Glencore PLC, went on strike in August. Meanwhile production by Prodeco Group, a unit of Glencore that owns two mines in the country’s northern Cesar region, has been suspended since March.

“There’s huge concern right now about the availability of Colombian coal,” said Mr. Horslen.

American miners stand to benefit if the rally in European thermal-coal prices keeps running. U.S. exports to Europe, which have steadily declined in recent years, could start to pick up if prices rise to around $65 a metric ton, two traders said.

Any uptick is likely to be fleeting, however, as Europe continues to pivot from thermal coal to gas and renewable sources of energy. “You have to get past 60 bucks to get the Americans in,” said David Price, senior director in IHS Markit’s coal unit. He doubts prices will get that high.

In the long run, the outlook for thermal-coal suppliers in Europe remains gloomy. Coal consumption will drop by nearly 60% in the EU from 2019 through 2030, faster than in any other region, the IEA said. The power sector is set to account for almost all of that decline, suggesting the pressure will be particularly acute for producers of thermal coal.

Portugal is likely to close all its coal-fired power plants by 2021, followed by France, the U.K., Ireland and Slovakia in the following years, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries said this month.

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