Coal Country Is Already Grappling With Big Changes

Mining output fell in most coal-producing states in 2015.

Sheep graze beside solar panels constructed in a former parking lot at Pocono Raceway in Long Pond, Pennsylvania. The solar farm generates enough electricity to power the NASCAR facility. (Photo: Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

Jan 17, 2016· 1 MIN READ
Emily J. Gertz is an associate editor for environment and wildlife at TakePart.

The Obama administration’s announcement Friday of a moratorium on new federal coal leases was the latest jolt to hit mining communities.

Recent data from the U.S. Energy Information Agency shows that all but one of the nation’s 25 coal-producing states mined less of the carbon-rich fuel in 2015 than in 2014, and most by double digits. Only Illinois saw coal production rise in 2015, by just 3 percent.

(Map: Courtesy IEEFA.org)

The U.S. produced about 900 million tons of coal in 2015, a 30-year-low. That was 23 million tons below even the lower estimate that the agency published in its 2015 Annual Energy Outlook.

Texas’ coal industry led the decline with a 26-percent drop in production, 32 million tons less than in 2014. Wyoming saw an 8-percent decline—but as it produces the most coal in the nation, that added up to 362 million tons less than the year before.

On Monday, Arch Coal, the nation’s second-largest coal-mining company and a major operator in Wyoming, filed for bankruptcy.

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Energy experts attribute coal’s diminishing fortunes to competition from cheap natural gas and stricter emissions requirements, as well as a strong dollar curbing some overseas sales.

Conservation and climate change activists also point to competition from ever-cheaper carbon-free wind and power. The nation added about 35,000 jobs in solar power in 2015, according to The Solar Foundation.

Some climate campaigners also claim a growing moral influence, owing to the increasingly successful divestment movement to persuade institutions to drop fossil-fuel stocks from their portfolios.

“We also recognize that many coal communities are in transition and are struggling,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell told reporters on Friday.

Jewell described efforts by the Obama administration to help mining communities replace lost jobs and rebuild their economic base by funding the remediation of abandoned coal mines, among other things.

In October, the administration announced $14.6 million in grants for job retraining and other economic development projects for 12 states and tribal nations that have lost coal-related jobs. The White House also asked Congress for another $10 billion for such efforts in its 2016 budget proposal.