The Never-Ending Curse of Coal

Photograph Source: Jeremy Buckingham – CC BY 2.0

Last week Murray Energy, one of the largest coal mining corporations in the nation, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. That makes it the fifth coal company to do so in the last year. While the owners made millions, they are bailing into bankruptcy and leaving behind massive environmental disasters, crushed communities and unfunded pension debts — all of which are now looking for taxpayer dollars to somehow remedy.

It’s hard to miss the irony of Murray’s demise since its founder, Robert Murray, spent more than a million dollars on groups to support Donald Trump’s campaign in 2016 and kicked in another $1.7 million last year. Having led the effort to repeal Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan and gut the Environmental Protection Agency’s pollution and safety regulations, Murray was counting on Trump’s failed promise to bring back coal-fired energy and went deeply in debt with additional acquisitions.

As reported by the Washington Post: “The spending spree helped saddle the company with about $2.7 billion in funded debt, as well about $8 billion in actual or potential obligations to fund pension and benefit plans, according to court filings.” As stated by the United Mine Workers of America is: “Now comes the part where workers and their families pay the price for corporate decision-making and governmental actions.” Unfortunately, it’s likely taxpayers will also “pay the price.”

Montanans with good memories will recall that in the mid-’70s Colstrip and its mines were touted as “the boiler room for the nation.” Yet, only 10 years after the construction of Colstrip, Democrat Gov. Ted Schwinden led the charge to cut Montana’s coal severance tax in half to supposedly make Montana coal “more competitive with Wyoming’s.”

While Schwinden succeeded in forcing his tax cut through the legislature, the very real fact is that Wyoming’s mines were closer to market — and hence had lower shipping costs. So while Schwinden’s foolish move did absolutely nothing to make Montana coal more competitive, it did cost the state and its citizens hundreds of millions of dollars that should have gone into our Permanent Coal Tax Trust Fund. That impact continues to this day with reduced interest earnings from the hundreds of millions that Schwinden generously gave to coal corporations.

Like the Copper Collar before it, the Coal Collar came with its own deference from federal and state regulatory agencies because, after all, it was jobs, jobs, jobs — at any cost. And indeed, the costs have been enormous and will not end in the foreseeable future. Just as they have with numerous hard rock mines, Montana’s regulatory agencies utterly failed the future.

The legacy of those industry-friendly regulations has left Montana with “perpetual pollution” across the state. Colstrip’s unlined coal-ash ponds have been leaking half a million gallons of toxic water per day for 40 years and the groundwater is so polluted residents use water piped in from the Yellowstone River because their wells are poisoned. The cost to remediate this environmental disaster is estimated to be $400 million to $700 million and will take decades.

Unfortunately, there are thousands of mines and shuttered coal plants across the nation that will have to be addressed at enormous cost. In response, Trump’s EPA is “relaxing” regulations on coal ash and toxics across the board and eliminating them entirely for some plants. Meanwhile, Congress is facing requests for a taxpayer-funded bailout.

Coal has wracked the planet’s climate, land, water and air. And now, in its twilight, present and future generations will be asked to pick up the tab for yet another “free market” failure in the never-ending Curse of Coal.

George Ochenski is a columnist for the Daily Montanan, where this essay originally appeared.