2 thoughts on “Declining American coal use

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    America’s coal capital knows it must rethink its future

    In reality Blackjewel’s troubles reflect industry-wide woes. Cloud Peak Energy runs three mines nearby and declared bankruptcy in May. Six Wyoming operators have done so since 2015. Some are consolidating, others have restructured and reopened. Nonetheless, production is slumping. America consumes 40% less coal than at its peak in 2005. Just over a decade ago, thermal coal produced half the nation’s electricity; today it accounts for little more than a quarter. Many investors are abandoning coal. The only real uncertainty is when digging it will cease to be a significant business. The mayor, gamely, says that “for 10 to 20 years the nation will still need coal in the mix.” Others say longer. The overall trend, either way, is downwards as steeply as the edges of Eagle Butte.

    Almost a century ago 860,000 coal miners toiled in America; by January just 53,000 did. Roughly 17,000—including those employed indirectly—are in Wyoming, many in Campbell County. They are highly skilled and typically earn almost $90,000 a year, double the state average. But power utilities increasingly shun what they produce. The Sierra Club estimates that 239 coal-fired plants survive, down from 600 in 2007. Around the corner from Eagle Butte is Dry Fork, one of the newest coal-fired stations. It cost $1.3bn and opened in 2011. Talk of a second plant came to nothing. Utilities prefer cheaper and cleaner natural gas, solar or wind power.

    Some in Wyoming—which overwhelmingly backed Donald Trump in 2016—see a liberal conspiracy against coal workers and their hardscrabble way of life. One Gillette resident says proponents of clean energy are set on “direct attacks on the good people” who work there. Many scoff at curbing carbon emissions. “I’m not sold that the ice caps are melting, most people aren’t persuaded by climate change,” says Phil Christopherson, boss of a group trying to diversify Gillette’s economy.

    Such denial helps nobody. Jim Ford, another local who works on diversifying the local economy away from mining, concedes there is “widespread distaste for carbon-flavoured kilowatts, [so] it doesn’t matter what we think.” Locals also know that exports alone won’t save the county. Governors of western coastal states refuse to let their ports be used—or a new one be built—for shipping Wyoming coal.

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