The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

September 25, 2013

Digging for answers | Joint effort needed against war on coal


JOHNSTOWN — The following editorial appeared in The Register-Herald, of Beckley, W.Va., a CNHI newspaper. It does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Tribune-Democrat.

“Double, double toil and trouble ...”

Those words, written over 400 years ago by William Shakespeare in the dark tragedy “McBeth,” could be used to adequately describe the future of the coal industry if the theories of industry analysts comes to pass.

The battle cry of the president’s war on coal has been sounded for years now. Cheaper gas is siphoning off some of coal’s electricity-producing duties. Cleaner air rules limit the amount of carbon dioxide that can be emitted into the air. The Obama administration is to announce a rule to cap how much CO2 new power plants can emit.

Many believed the one saving grace would be the perceived bottomless pit of China’s need for coal to fuel its growing industrialization. Now naysayers want to burst that bubble, as well.

The headline on a recent story in The Register-Herald glumly stated that the coal industry’s future appears to be darker around the world. In the story, it was noted that China, which burns 4 billion tons of coal a year – as much as the rest of the world combined – is taking steps to slow the growth of its consumption.

That, says Michael Parker, a commodities analyst for Bernstein Research, would be “the beginning of the end of coal.”

The demise of coal has been predicted as imminent many times in the past. But it also has always been a boom and bust industry, as well.

Industry executives are more optimistic than the analysts quoted at the front of the story. People like Peabody investor relations chief Vic Svec says there are still several decades of long-term growth ahead for coal. A glut of product that developed last year and pushed prices lower should be through.

Even the gloomy energy and environmental officials of the Obama administration admitted recently that there is a future for coal, which currently supplies about 40 percent of the nation’s electricity.

Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz told a House of Representatives hearing that his department has billions of dollars to hand out to help energy companies figure out new ways to reduce carbon emissions from coal-fired plants.

Well, let’s see those billions put to work soon to help fashion a way to keep miners working – which will keep the chain of support industries employed as well.

There is a cauldron of trouble in the coal industry today. But trouble has come before and has been overcome.

Coal may not look the same in our children’s future, but there can be a way for it to exist in there.

Industry, governments, scientists – everyone – must work together to keep coal viable.