Death of US Coal Exemplifies Need for Paradigm Shift for Global Energy System

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Death of US Coal Exemplifies Need for Paradigm Shift for Global Energy System

Rapidly decaying coal industry reveals fate of all fossil fuels, argue researchers at Carbon Tracker Initiative

The Kayford Mine, a mountaintop removal project near Charleston, West Virginia. (Photo: Dennis Dimick/cc/flickr)

The Kayford Mine, a mountaintop removal project near Charleston, West Virginia. (Photo: Dennis Dimick/cc/flickr)

A new report released Tuesday by the London-based Carbon Tracker Initiative warns that the crash of U.S. coal markets is but a harbinger of things to come for all fossil fuel investments.

The report, The U.S. Coal Crash – Evidence for Structural Change (pdf), found that the slump in coal prices has forced more than two dozen U.S. coal companies into bankruptcy over the past three years.

With the rise of renewable energy and a growing call for countries to adapt their energy infrastructures for a more carbon-constrained future, the authors of the report argue that the crash of the U.S. coal economy "provides an excellent example of how the future may pan out globally and with other fuels as the world moves to a low-carbon economy."

According to the study, the market's demise has been driven by a combination of factors, including: lost market share to cheap shale gas, the falling cost of renewable energy sources, and increased environmental protections and industry regulation—driven largely by the Environmental Protection Agency. Further, international markets in Asia have similarly moved to adapt their energy usage in the face of growing concern over carbon emissions.

"The roof has fallen in on U.S. coal, and alarm bells should be ringing for investors in related sectors around the world," said Andrew Grant, Carbon Tracker’s financial analyst and report co-author. "These first tremors are amongst the clearest signs yet of a seismic shift in energy markets, as high carbon fuels are set to be increasingly outperformed by lower carbon alternatives."

On Monday, the international market research firm Macquarie Research warned investors that the outlook for U.S. coal producers is "increasingly bleak," and the sector is likely to undergo "a wave of bankruptcies."

"We’ve known for decades that coal posed serious health and environmental risks, but now coal has also become an investment risk as countries take serious actions to clear their air and protect the climate."
—Andrew Logan, Ceres

Where the U.S. coal market was historically tied to economic growth, as Carbon Tracker notes, "there is now clear evidence" that the two indicators have been "decoupled."

"The Dow Jones Total Market Coal Sector Index is down 76 percent in the last five years compared with the Down Jones Industrial Average that grew by 69 percent in the same period," says the report.

Andrew Logan, director of the oil and gas program at Ceres, a sustainable investment organization, said, "We’ve known for decades that coal posed serious health and environmental risks, but now coal has also become an investment risk as countries take serious actions to clear their air and protect the climate."

Logan added that investors have now taken up the call of environmentalists and are now "pushing for coal and other fossil fuel companies to face facts and adapt their business models to thrive in a carbon-constrained world."

The warnings come amid a growing call for universities and other large endowments to divest their holdings from fossil fuel companies. Last week, the Guardian newspaper publicly challenged the world's two largest foundations, the Gates Foundation and Wellcome Trust, to pull their combined $70 billion from fossil fuel investments.

It is worth noting that these market shifts have occurred without any global climate deal or U.S. federal measures specifically labelled "carbon" or "climate." Leaders are set to meet in Paris in December to hash out an international climate agreement.

"The evolution of the U.S. energy sector is far from over," the report continues. "Companies and investors by and large underestimated the risks in U.S. coal and did not see the way the wind was blowing until it was too late, and suffered very material losses because of it."

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