The U.S. coal industry is expected to have a comeback year in 2014, regaining some of the ground it lost in the electric power industry over the last 3 years or so. Low-cost natural gas shoved aside the coal industry, which has been plagued by rising costs and increasingly stringent environmental regulations. But the run up in natural gas prices since 2012 – especially since the beginning of 2014 – provides an economic lifeline for struggling coal businesses. Coal can compete once again, at least for the time being.
That may be true as far as the economics go. But the coal industry has had a truly epic year so far in terms of environmental damage and bad publicity. The industry’s multiyear campaign to rebrand itself as “clean coal,” has achieved a certain level of success. Even President Obama has bought into this idea, if only to throw the industry a bone as his administration tightens the screws on air pollution. His latest budget calls for an increase in spending under DOE’s Clean Coal Research program.
But that rebranding has run into some serious trouble. Over the last two months, the coal industry seems like it can’t get out of its own way. First came the chemical spill in West Virginia that cut off water supplies to 300,000 people. Then Duke Energy leaked tons of coal ash and millions of gallons of contaminated water into the Dan River in North Carolina. Then there was a second toxic coal spill in West Virginia. Then Duke managed a second leak into the Dan River. It was almost as if coal companies in the two states were competing for headlines.
The latest news is that the EPA has fined Alpha Natural Resources Inc. $27.5 million for violating water pollution rules. One of the largest coal producers in the country, Alpha will have to spend an additional $200 million to install pollution control equipment at its mines to reduce toxic waste discharges. The costs will hit Alpha pretty hard, but many environmentalists see it a different way. The coal industry has repeatedly and systematically violated environmental laws that they seemingly factor in fines to their operations.
“These problems continue and the government’s solution is the same: fines and a plan to make individual mines better — which didn’t stop the problems last time,” said Dianne Bady, founder of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, according to Al-Jazeera America. “Considering that Alpha is a four billion dollar company, this fine is just another acceptable cost of doing business.”