Big Oil has hogged the spotlight of fossil fuels in decline since the coronavirus pandemic began. Which, sure, it’s news that some of the richest companies on Earth have floundered once everyone decided to stay home.
But we’re big believers in equal opportunity here at Earther so let’s take a look at what’s going on with the largest coal company in the US: Peabody Energy. It reported quarterly earnings on Wednesday and dear lord are they bad.
The company ate a record loss of $1.54 billion and wrote down the value of its largest mine by $1.42 billion. Those are very large numbers that do not bode well for Peabody’s future success.
But then, the coal giant has been flailing for years. Despite digging up about a fifth of all coal in the US and having massive operations overseas, Peabody has still been bent over backwards by the economics of coal. The company filed for bankruptcy in 2016 and has been trying to climb out of an ever-deepening financial hole for long before that.
Cheap natural gas sparked the decline in coal demand, and renewables drove it down even further. The ensuing rash of coal plant closures left companies like Peabody holding the bag. Oh, and activists have been hammering the coal industry for its role in polluting the atmosphere, treating workers like shit, and funding climate denial.
“Peabody is facing three key pressure points,” Mary Anne Hitt, the national director of campaigns at the Sierra Club, told Earther in an email. “Existing coal plants keep retiring and we aren’t building new ones, renewable energy is now cheaper than coal, and the public is demanding clean energy that doesn’t harm our health and our climate. The pandemic has put health concerns front and center, and the public is demanding clean forms of energy that don’t harm public health.”
Now, the pandemic has basically compounded the woes of an already dying industry in the US. Rob Jackson, the chair of the Global Carbon Project, told the Guardian back in May that the coal would “never recover” after the pandemic, as market forces continue to work against it. A similar saga is playing out with oil and gas, but coal already had a head start on its road to total failure even before the pandemic hit.
Even as it falls into obsolescence in the US, there are signs the pandemic may not be game over for coal globally. India—the second largest coal producer in the world—began the pandemic by continuing to approve coal mines at a breakneck pace. The #1 coal producer, China, has seen air pollution rocket back above pre-pandemic levels, likely driven by coal demand. The Trump administration and Republicans may try to protect the industry and its dwindling profits—or at least cover its losses long enough to help CEOs escape with golden parachutes—by introducing liability protections in the next relief package for companies deemed “essential.” Fossil fuels are trying to weasel their way into a deal that would essentially make them immune to lawsuits should workers contract coronavirus on the job in the notoriously cramped quarters of coal mines, oil rigs, and the man camps that spring up around pipelines—a subject Drilled News has a terrific primer on. The respiratory problems associated with coal mining, including black lung, also increase the risk of covid-related complications.
“What actually is essential is that we support a fair and robust transition for affected workers and coal communities, and that we’re honest about our energy future,” Hitt wrote. “The decline of the coal industry and the rise of clean energy jobs is vital to the protection of our air, water, and climate… Instead of a bailout to prop up a failing industry, federal officials should be sure every former coal worker, and retiree, is secure, and that we honor their decades of hard work to power our country.”