Does the fact that Alpha Natural Resources managed to save 750 jobs in Appalachia offset the news that CONSOL Energy is spinning off its coal assets? Yes, but it’s difficult to watch an industry leader continue to distance itself from coal. Seeing Ambre Energy throw in the towel as far as its Oregon port facilities and exporting Powder River Basin coal dampens the expectations for a new Northwest Passage for coal exports in the U.S.

The November midterm elections changed the tide politically in Washington, but will it help the coal business as far as the federal government’s regulatory overreach? The answer is, yes, it should, but a lot of the damage has already been inflicted and it may be permanent. The Environmental Protection Agency continues along an economically unrealistic path, more recently proposing a new Clean Power Plan. This month, Luke Popowich (see Dateline Washington, p. 14) reports on how the plan was received by utility executives.

Coal operators have scored some recent legal victories. Linda Otaigbe (See Legally Speaking, p. 56) basically retells the story of David and Goliath — that would be Brody Mining challenging the Mine Safety and Health Administration’s (MSHA) Pattern of Violations (POV) policy. The agency, according to an administrative law judge, failed to adequately define the P in POV.

If constant litigation by mine operators contesting citations is not a clear warning that MSHA’s practices are unfair, would a letter drafted by retired chairman of the U.S. Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission Mike Duffy and signed by 10 former members of the commission be enough? That’s what happened in November. The commissioners were unhappy about MSHA’s proposed rule change on civil penalties, which they believed usurped its powers by condensing citation description categories and eliminating independent assessment of penalties for MSHA-alleged violations.

No doubt, these are tough times for the coal business and 2014 was a difficult year for many, especially for coal operators in Central Appalachia. The situation with a soft met coal business has further exacerbated the problem. On the other hand, the mines in Northern Appalachia have maintained production (See Marketwatch, p. 22). While the news is not always good, readers should not lose sight of the fact that the U.S. coal industry retains 40% market share as a fuel and it will mine more than 1 billion tons. Customers understand the value in an inexpensive, diverse fuel mix. American coal miners deserve respect and all they ask in return is to be treated fairly.

Enjoy this edition of Coal Age. Have a safe and happy holiday season.

Steve Fiscor, Coal Age Editor-in-Chief