"We have the absolute destruction of the U.S. coal industry. It’s not coming back. If you think it’s coming back … you’re smoking dope."
Those are the words, as reported by the Pittsburgh Gazette, of Robert Murray, CEO of Murray Energy, one of the nation's biggest coal producers. He was speaking to a gathering of coal interests this week in Pittsburgh, just as world leaders, corporate CEOs, activists, actors and just about everybody else under the sun was gathering in New York to discuss what the heck we do about climate change.
Granted, Robert Murray is known for his outspoken, inflammatory views. He's termed green-minded corporations "un-American". He's attacked action on climate change at the very same time as he had miners trapped underground. And he seems to have a permanent bee in his bonnet about President Obama being out to get him. (His latest speech apparently compared the White House to the SS and Gestapo in Nazi Germany.)
This time, however, if you can get past the feckless and inevitable Nazi analogies and the overly simplistic placing of the blame on "King Obama", Murray may have a point. Coal appears to be in some serious trouble. Here's just a few of the tidbits we've already reported on in the last week alone: Chinese coal consumption appears to be faltering. The Rockefellers are (partially) divesting from fossil fuels. And wind and solar are already becoming competitive in some locations without subsidies, with significant cost reductions still to come.
That's not even the half of it though. As DeSmog Blog just reported, Peabody Energy just got booted from the S&P 500 because of the company's decreased financial prospects. Australian coal mining companies are closing mines and laying off workers. Prime Minister David Cameron is talking about phasing out all existing UK coal power plants. And Coal India is talking about investing $1.2 billion in solar power.
The point here is not that one administration is undermining coal as an energy source. It's that the political, economic, cultural, and scientific conditions are aligning to create a perfect storm in which coal in particular and, to a lesser extent, the broader fossil fuel industry is going to start losing marketshare to renewables, efficiency and conservation. With companies ranging from Mars to Ikea pledging to shift to 100% renewables in the coming years, and with cities and (in some cases) entire countries setting ambitious goals on carbon emissions and renewables, it seems likely that the cost of emitting carbon will continue to go up, while the cost of renewables will continue to decline. Add to that the shifts in the investment landscape (the UN-backed Principles on Responsible Investment is aiming to have investors representing $1 trillion in assets disclosing their carbon intensity by 2015), and I really wouldn't want to be a coal industry executive right now.
If I was, I probably would be smoking dope to lessen my pain.
Now one more thing to note on this. As environmentalists (heck, as human beings!) we should be very glad that coal may be on its way out as a viable source of energy for our future. But we should not rejoice at the very real pain this will cause some communities. As the various coal ash spills, chemical leaks, fires and such have shown over the years—not to mention the long-term health impacts of working in mines—coal mining communities have not exactly been universally well-served by the industry they work for. But they are very reliant on it for their livelihoods. As I argued before, environmentalists would do well to offer an alternative, more positive vision for those regions where coal still is perceived to be king.