The news is not all bad these days and readers should also note some positive trends that are taking place in the U.S. coal industry. Spot prices for thermal coal have improved recently thanks to Mother Nature (See Marketwatch, p. 36) and the polar vortex (See Coaltrans USA Recap, p. 42). Increased coal use has utility operators questioning whether they can continue to supply electricity reliably and follow through on scheduled coal-fired power plant closures. Natural gas prices are rising and increasing demand is exposing weakness in its distribution system.
This situation prompted Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.) to craft a bipartisan bill to restrain the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) regulatory overreach, which passed the House of Representatives on March 6. They penned an editorial for the Huffington Post that describes the impact of the EPA regulations to control greenhouse gas emissions (See Dateline Washington, p. 12).
While the industry is all too familiar with the indirect effects of the market squeeze created by the EPA regulations, underground coal operators are experiencing the federal regulatory overreach directly from the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). The industry is still struggling with some of the hasty rulemakings. The agency recently issued a warning on refuge chambers (See News, p. 13). For the first time this month, Coal Age delves into the issue of mine rescue teams and firefighting brigades (See Firefighting, p. 27). And then there is the debate that surrounds MSHA procedures related to Pattern of Violations (See Legally Speaking, p. 56).
Where the coal business has one clear, undeniable advantage is cost — on a level playing field. While many groups are pointing to job losses due to regulatory overreach, that’s probably a position the industry should avoid. Just as organized labor cannot justify itself as a social welfare program, the coal industry has to stand on its own two feet and compete. What the coal industry needs is policymakers who will provide a level playing field. For now, the scales have been tilted in favor of natural gas. The organizations that are rallying against the federal regulators need to base their arguments on the future costs to society and America’s competitiveness based on the price of energy; and the costs that will be incurred by doing away with America’s most plentiful fuel.
Talking to your neighbors and friends, as Benson suggests, about the positive aspects of coal and mining is important. Odds are: You already live in an area that understands the importance of mining, and it’s probably underrepresented in Washington. That message needs to be delivered to places that are unfamiliar with the true costs of regulatory policies. Mother Nature has opened the door for us. Now the industry should partner with other sectors to identify leaders with the political will to make changes in Washington that benefit most Americans.