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Inside Story Americas

Is the US coal industry in trouble?

As the use of coal surges among emerging economies like China and India, consumption in the US is on the decline.
Last Modified: 22 Dec 2012 15:04

It is the fuel that has powered the US, the world's largest economy, for centuries, and while coal is still the country's main source of electricity, the industry's peak has passed.

"If we have millions of students engaged on this issue willing to go out - not just to shift their colleges and universities but also to work to create a political change then what you are going to see is  a real change in the culture. Coal is on the way out. The economics of this industry are very poor, so their razor-thin margins are becoming even thinner."

- Robert Gardner, Greenpeace  USA

That decline has been attributed to several factors.

American utility companies are abandoning coal plants in favor of natural gas - which is becoming cheaper and more accessible due to the use of hydraulic fracturing or fracking.

Supporters of the coal industry also blame tighter regulations. The US Environmental Protection Agency is now requiring coal-fired power plants to reduce their pollution.

That pollution, according to the environmental advocacy group, the Sierra Club, is responsible for nearly 30 percent of CO2 emissions in the US.

Coal mining has also been responsible for other disasters.

Four years ago in the state of Tennessee a massive coal-ash-sludge spill left hundreds of acres polluted and two rivers contaminated.

"Harvard investing in fossil fuel companies is absolutely contrary to its identity as an institution ... it doesn't make sense for Harvard to be putting its money into corporations that work against the mission of other parts of the university."

- Alli Welton, Divest Harvard campaign

Interestingly, the coal industry is not just facing competition from natural gas, and increased government regulation.

There is also a growing movement among US students demanding that their colleges and universities abandon their investments in fossil fuels. The divestment campaign has so far gained support in 189 campuses.

In this episode, we ask if the coal industry is in trouble in the US.

Inside Story Americas, with presenter Shihab Rattansi, speaks to guests: Mike Elk, a labour journalist for the independent newsmagazine, In these Times; Robert Gardner, the coal campaigner for Greenpeace USA; and Alli Welton, one of the organisers of the Divest Harvard campaign.


FACTS ABOUT US COAL MINING:

  • The share of US electricity coming from coal fell below 40 percent in 2012
  • Coal share of electricity is the lowest level since World War Two
  • Share of electricity from coal predicted to fall to 30 percent by 2020
  • Analysts say decline in coal not due to Obama’s environmental policy
  • Coal production is decreasing due to increasingly cheaper alternatives
  • While coal's price has stayed the same, the price of natural gas has plummeted
  • Refined drilling techniques have made extracting shale gas cheaper
  • Worldwide, coal is predicted to be the top source of energy in five years
  • Coal prediction based on booming demand from China, India and others

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Source:
Al Jazeera
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