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Nithin Coca headshot

Coming Soon: The End of Coal


Thanks to a concerted campaign by environmentalists and huge progress in renewables, coal is (finally) on the way out.

One of the first campaigns I worked on was the Sierra Club's ambitious Beyond Coal Campaign. Our goals was simple – organize grassroots efforts across the country in opposition of then-President George W. Bush's push to expand coal power generating capacity across the United States.

Here's the amazing thing. The campaign was successful – in fact, beyond successful. We haven't had a new coal power plant open in the United States since the campaign launched more than seven years ago. America is, amazingly, moving beyond the dirty energy that defined its growth as an industrial nation, and a recent report from Bloomberg shows that the coal industry is facing financial turmoils unlike any its in history.

It's not just America, the effects of the coal bust are being felt globally. China, once a prime culprit with its one-coal-plant-per-week opening rate, is nearing peak coal years ahead of schedule. It has dramatically cut its coal imports, leaving those China-focused coal shipping terminals planned for the West Coast without a market to export to.

India, widely expected to become the next China, is showing signs that it might leapfrog dirty energy and go straight to clean energy as renewable investments boom.

All this is what is causing the tumbling of coal prices, which, honestly, caused some fears. It was easy to push against coal when energy prices were high. But if coal was cheap, that would make it harder for renewables to compete, and perhaps make dirty energy more feasible, at least in the short term.

Turns out, it doesn't matter -- most clearly demonstrated by coal bonds.

Coal prices have crashed, sure, but for a real sense of coal's diminishing prospects, check out what's happening in the bond market.

"Bonds are where coal companies turn to raise money for such things as new mines and environmental cleanups. But investors are increasingly reluctant to lend to them. Coal bond prices tumbled 17 percent in the second quarter, according to an analysis by Bloomberg Intelligence. It's the fourth consecutive quarter of price declines and the worst performance of any industry group by a long shot," Bloomberg staffer Tom Randall wrote last week.

"A 17 percent decline is huge, and it happened at a time when other energy bonds — oil and gas — were rising. Three of America's biggest coal producers had the worst-performing bonds for the quarter."

We still have a long way to go, as dirty fossil fuels still account for most of the world's energy production. That is one reason that Sierra Club has shifted from targeting proposed coal plants to fighting to get old, dirty plants closed. And so far, the organization is seeing the same success.

The international effort is growing, too. Last year I attended a no-coal meeting in Indonesia, the country which, last year, exported more coal than anyone else in the world. We looked at strategies to fight proposed coal plans in the Philippines, Vietnam, India, Japan and South Korea, most of which would be powered by Indonesian coal.

The markets may have just given a boost to this campaign. Judging by how badly energy stocks and bonds are performing (and how good clean-energy companies like Tesla are in comparison), it may be too risky for anyone, anywhere, to invest in coal. And that's just the way we like it.

Image credit: Pixabay

Nithin Coca headshotNithin Coca

Nithin Coca is a freelance journalist who focuses on environmental, social, and economic issues around the world, with specific expertise in Southeast Asia.

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