Rolling back regulations and lax enforcement of those that can't be rolled back will only delay the ultimate demise of an industry that is well into a two-decade decline.
Policymakers ignore evidence of the inevitable that continues to accumulate, like Murray Energy's decision this past week to declare bankruptcy. Murray Energy, a giant among its peers when it comes to extracting thermal coal from underground mines, is the 11th coal company to file bankruptcy since 2017.
Murray filed for protection from creditors a week after Blackjewel miners whose paychecks bounced after that company declared bankruptcy blocked trains from delivering coal they had mined. Federal courts awarded workers nearly $5.5 million as compensation for weeks of unpaid wages.
The coal industry has declined sharply during the past decade — it's hard to see how that can be reversed considering U.S. demand for thermal coal has plummeted since the turn of the century. The U.S. Energy Information Administration reported 1,024 U.S. coal-powered units with a nominal generating capacity of 278 GW capacity operating in 2000 compared with just 359 comparable units in 2017.
While industry leaders blame the regulatory state for much of their woes, the fact of the matter is this fuel source is a victim of market forces. Consumers want cleaner, more sustainable sources of energy, those sources exist, and they can be delivered at competitive prices.
Policymakers and politicians still kowtow to the industry, which, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employed only about 53,000 people this year. There were more travel agents in 2018 than there were people who worked in the coal industry, and that's after the internet gave travelers the ability to book their own deals.
Taxpayer dollars are being spent to rollback regulations that will harm the health of more people than the industry employs. Some of these regulations that have been — or are — on the chopping block arguably could cause that many deaths or more.
What may be worse is the prospect that these companies that have sought protection from creditors in court have used bankruptcy laws to skirt obligations to restore areas spoiled by mining activities. Observers have seen companies during the past decade take advantage of lax enforcement and loopholes in the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 to abandon depleted mines and reclamation responsibilities through bankruptcy.
Like those Blackjewel miners this past summer, American taxpayers get stuck with the bill. Those who live there must bear the health risks presented by an environment spoiled by unmitigated mining activities.
It seems the money spent trying to prop up a dying industry or repeal regulations that will harm the health of millions would be better spent retraining those who would be displaced if the coal industry were allowed to go the way of the dinosaurs. Investing in the future is wiser than throwing money at the past.
D.E. Smoot covers city/county government for the Phoenix.