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What's Killing 'King Coal' In West Virginia?


This week, one of the biggest coal mining companies in Central Appalachia, Patriot Coal, filed for bankruptcy protection. Over the past three months, a wave of layoffs has hit coal country hard, and this past month, the share of all U.S. electricity generated from coal hit its lowest level since the 1940s. Our colleague Guy Raz visited Webster County in the middle of West Virginia to find out what's killing King Coal.

GUY RAZ, BYLINE: Just a few weeks ago, the massive steel hopper on the outskirts of Cowan, West Virginia, was humming. It was humming with thousands of tons of black coal from the Eastern Complex mine that came down this giant conveyer belt from the mountain above into a silo the size of a 15-story building.

RICH LEWIS: We were shipping anywhere from 30 to 34, 35 trains a month. In the last year and a half, it went down to probably 20 trains a month.

RAZ: For 19 years, Rich Lewis worked as a miner on this mountain. Today, there are no trains to collect that coal, and they won't be coming back here ever. A few weeks ago, Arch Coal, the company that bought this mine, only a year ago, gathered all 170 employees to make a grave announcement.

LEWIS: Our superintendent told us that right now the coal that we're selling it was getting $56 dollars a ton. With all the equipment we're running up there, it's costing 70 to mine it.

RAZ: Everyone, including Rich Lewis, would be laid off. Now, just a year ago, three mines were operating in Webster County. Today, there is one left. In the past few months, Arch Coal has announced more than 1,300 layoffs in West Virginia and Kentucky alone, and between the other big players in Central Appalachia, Consol, Patriot and Alpha, thousands more have been lost.

THOMAS CLARK: I think, in the last six months, it's just been a landslide. We've seen...

RAZ: That's Thomas Clark, the publisher of Webster County's newspaper, The Echo.

CLARK: I mean, I've never seen anything as quick as this to devastate the market and this many layoffs at one time. This thing just, bam, and it was here.

RAZ: If you're looking for the best biscuits for miles around, head to the hilltop diner in Cowen, population 512. Thick slices of bacon and homemade potatoes sizzle on the grill as the early risers down mugs of strong coffee.

Steve Williams is a retired mining engineer. He's catching up on the latest news with his regular breakfast crew this morning. Ask any of them what's killing coal and the answer is unequivocal.

STEVE WILLIAMS: President Obama's a lot of the problem because he's against the coal. The EPA is the big problem around here.

RAZ: This past March, the EPA announced tough new standards that require all new coal-fired electricity plants to cut carbon emissions by half. It's an expensive proposition and it's led many power companies to back away from coal.

But to get to the heart of what is really killing coal, you have to go about 500 miles south to Atlanta, Georgia. This is one of Georgia Power Company's newest power plants in metro Atlanta.

TONY TRAMONTE: Two gas turbines...

RAZ: And the plant manager, Tony Tramonte, is duly proud of it.

TRAMONTE: Eight hundred and forty megawatts. That's enough energy to supply about 250,000 homes.

RAZ: Just a year ago, railroad tracks led right into this facility. Rail cars filled with coal to power the massive turbines, but today, those railroad tracks are gone, dismantled, the old coal turbines mothballed. Georgia Power, like a rapidly growing number of power plants, is ditching coal and burning natural gas and the reason? Cheap and abundant domestic gas. Four years ago, electricity generated by natural gas was twice as expensive as coal, but today, gas is less than half the price of coal.

MICHAEL ZENKER: And what that means is, literally, natural gas is going to kill more coal-fired power plants than the EPA regulations.

RAZ: That's Michael Zenker. He's a coal analyst for Barclays. Last month, for the first time in U.S. history, natural gas generated a third of all U.S. electricity the same as coal, and Zenker says that trend is going to continue. The recent advances in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, the process by which gas can now be extract deep under rock formations, has brought about a huge surplus in U.S. gas.

For decades, analysts said the U.S. was the Saudi Arabia of coal. Today, they're saying the same for natural gas. Now, coal's demise has been declared before, but David Victor, a professor at UC San Diego who studies fossil fuel, says this time, it's different.

DAVID VICTOR: We were talking about the death of coal in the '80s, but coal was half of the electric power supply and didn't change very much. Now, we're talking about, maybe not death, but terminal illness for coal and it's actually happening.

RAZ: But there are consequences- jobs, for one. And the jury is still out on whether the environmental costs of fracking are worth it, but more on that this weekend.

BLOCK: That's Guy Raz, the weekend host of this program. You can hear more of his reporting on coal and natural gas tomorrow and Sunday on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Guy Raz is the host, co-creator, and editorial director of three NPR programs, including two of its most popular ones: TED Radio Hour and How I Built This. Both shows are heard by more than 14 million people each month around the world. He is also the creator and co-host of NPR's first-ever podcast for kids, Wow In The World.

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