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Protest by unpaid Kentucky miners yet another sign of coal's steep decline

Kentucky miners block coal train over missed paychecks

If this week's story about Kentucky miners blocking a train loaded with coal in an attempt to get paid sounds familiar, it is. 

The desperate tactic ultimately worked last summer for hundreds of miners in Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia, who created a blockade after their final checks from employer Blackjewel Mining bounced. Following a two-month standoff, the bankrupt coal company agreed to pay about $5.1 million in back wages.

The outcome of the latest protest against another coal producer, Quest Energy, is not yet known, as about 50 miners contend they're still owed for three weeks of unpaid work. Corporate parent American Resources Corp., or ARC, tells CBS affiliate WYMT-TV the miners will be paid and disputes how far behind it is on the paychecks. 

Employees at Perry County Resources, also owned by ARC, also claimed they hadn't been paid for two weeks of work before getting laid off last month, the Lexington Herald Leader reported last week. 

The ongoing industry carnage is unlikely to abate, even with a president who promised coal's revival, and backed up the pledge by rolling back environment regulations. 

Despite his administration's efforts, more U.S. coal-fired plants closed during President Donald Trump's first two years in office than during all of former President Barack Obama's first term. In total, more than 23,400 megawatts of coal-fired generation were shut down in 2017 and 2018, compared to 14,900 megawatts during the 2009-2012 period, according to data from Reuters and the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

The past year has been especially hard for the industry. The largest privately owned U.S. coal mining company, Ohio-based Murray Energy, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization last October, joining a growing list of bankrupt or struggling miners as utilities switch away from coal to cheaper and less environmentally-damaging renewable energy or natural gas. 

Murray Energy was the country's fourth largest coal producer in 2018, accounting for 6% of all production in the United States that year, according to the Energy Information Administration, or EIA. Other major producers that have sought bankruptcy protection this year include Blackjewel in West Virginia and Cloud Peak Energy in Wyoming.

The nation's coal consumption is likely to fall sharply again this year, after 2019 brought the closure of more than 13,703 megawatts of coal-fired generation, the most in the U.S. since 2015, according to an S&P Global Market analysis of federal data. The amount of coal-fired generation capacity planned for retirement in 2020 is expected to exceed the amount retired in each of 2014, 2016 and 2017, S&P reported.

Since 2014, U.S. power generators retired nearly 62,000 megawatts of coal-fired generation capacity, with another 26,947 megawatts of retirements lined up through 2025, according to S&P.

That decade-long trend is unlikely to fade due to coal being a costlier option than natural gas and subsidized solar and wind energy. In addition, there continues to be public unease over coal's contribution to climate change.

The EIA on Tuesday reported that new electric-generating capacity this year will mostly come from wind and solar. 

The agency expects 42 gigawatts of new capacity to start commercial operations in 2020, with solar and wind representing nearly 32 gigawatts, or 76% of the additions, it stated. Wind energy will make up 44% of new power generation this year, followed by solar and natural gas at 32% and 22%, respectively, and the remaining 2% from hydroelectric generators and battery storage, according to the EIA.

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