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Begging for Bailouts: U.S. Coal on Shaky Ground, While Industry Surges in Japan

The U.S. coal industry is continuing to crash, with at least three major companies banking on recovery strategies that essentially depend on government subsidies and bailouts.

The most dramatic news is coming from Murray Energy, the country’s biggest private coal miner, where CEO Bob Murray warned last week that his company faced bankruptcy after the Trump administration refused its plea for special treatment. By mid-last week, company bonds worth US$1.1 billion had lost about 10% of their value, Bloomberg News reported, falling 7¢ on the dollar to sell at 61¢. “It was the biggest decliner and the most actively traded security in the U.S. corporate bond market,” the news agency notes, based on data from the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority.

Citing a letter from Murray CFO Robert D. Moore to Energy Secretary Rick Perry, Bloomberg notes the company has $148.1 million in debt payments due by the end of this year.

But Murray Energy isn’t the only company counting on emergency relief from a White House whose current occupant built a following with the claim that he “digs coal”. Peabody Energy President and CEO Glenn Kellow has been echoing Murray’s call for a two-year federal moratorium on coal plant closures, along with “a levelling of the playing field with renewables [Editor’s note: Well, that’s a twist for the ages!], a greater focus for all players to increase competitiveness with natural gas, and increased use of [high-efficiency, low-emissions] technologies and advancement of [carbon capture and storage] technologies,” writes IEEFA Director of Finance Tom Sanzillo.

“In advocating a ‘level playing field with renewables’, what he means is taxpayer-funded giveaways to an industry that does not deserve them,” Sanzillo notes. “In calling for ‘all players to increase competitiveness with natural gas’, he sounds a wishful note that contradicts the coal industry’s historic allergy to innovation. And in promoting ‘technologies’ to keep coal alive, he means high-dollar schemes that are not commercially viable without huge ratepayer-financed subsidies,” all of which would drive up costs for utility customers.

In a separate release last week, the IEEFA urged Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper to resist pressure to reduce the royalties the state charges Arch Coal for its West Elk mine in Gunnison County.

“Arch’s request would cost the State of Colorado as much as $12 to 16 million and it would not stimulate coal production,” Sanzillo told Hickenlooper. “Arch Coal in effect is asking you to forego state revenues for a financially marginal company in a declining industry with a bleak outlook.”

One of the biggest outliers in the global shift off coal is Japan, where a Fukushima-driven aversion to nuclear generation has utilities planning to open 49 new coal stations representing 22,000 megawatts of generation over the next decade. The push is on, “even as electricity demand drops and other developed countries shift to renewables,” Equal Times reports. “Japan is also looking to export their technology, which poses a serious threat to Asia’s environment as well as its economy.”

The country’s coal boom has a powerful backer in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who “doesn’t have an interest in energy or climate at all, he is just thinking of the economic impact on the Japanese economy,” said KIKO Network International Director Kimiko Hirata.

There are strong ties between industry and government, and the government protects companies from risk,” Hirata added. “So even though coal does not make economic sense, it doesn’t mean it in practice, because the government supports [coal] financially through subsidies.”