Conservative Media Ignore Role Of Natural Gas In Coal Layoffs

The National Review Online and a op-ed are citing recent layoffs by Alpha Natural Resources, a coal producer, to claim that the Obama administration is waging a “war” on coal miners. But both are ignoring that competition with natural gas is a major reason for the company's layoffs. 

Alpha Natural Resources recently laid off 400 coal miners (although about 270 of those workers will be reassigned to other jobs) and announced that it plans to eliminate 1,200 jobs by 2013. The National Review Online's Henry Payne and guest contributor Phil Kerpen used this announcement to claim that Obama is waging a “war on [mining] workers” and “war on American jobs,” respectively. Both quoted Alpha Natural Resources CEO Kevin Crutchfield  on the effects of “a regulatory environment that's aggressively aimed at constraining the use of coal.” But they cropped the quote to exclude that Crutchfield acknowledged the role of natural gas competition, according to the Associated Press' account of Crutchfield's remarks: 

Crutchfield called it “a difficult day,” but said the shutdowns and layoffs are a necessary part of ensuring Alpha survives in what has become a difficult U.S. market, where coal companies face a dual challenge: Power plants are shifting to cheap, abundant natural gas, while companies like his face “a regulatory environment that's aggressively aimed at constraining the use of coal.”

Payne only dismissively mentioned the role of increased competition from natural gas in reduced coal-fired electricity generation and resultant layoffs and Kerpen ignored natural gas competition altogether. Payne also completely ignored natural gas in a recent column in the Weekly Standard. He quoted a 24/7 Wall Street post saying “future sales forecasts also are being affected by a series of regulatory actions by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which has resulted in utilities announcing plans to shut down a number of generating stations that have traditionally used Central Appalachia coal.” Not included was the prior sentence, which said “In addition to lack of demand from power generating plants due to fuel switching to natural gas and a mild winter, the company also blamed an 'onerous regulatory environment' for the closures.”

In a post titled "UMW Is Dead, UAW Is Alive," Payne used the cropped quote from Crutchfield to suggest that it is wrong to attribute the layoffs to natural gas competition (and incorrectly suggest the laid off Alpha workers were part of a union):

By contrast, the zealot-in-chief has no use for coal -- and therefore no use for its workers or less significant electoral states like West Virginia and Kentucky. As has been covered here at NRO (and as I report in The Weekly Standard this week), hundreds of UMW [United Mine Worker] workers have been sacrificed on the altar of Obama's Global Warming Church.

The result of this assault is that, unlike UAW President Bob King, UMW President Roberts was nowhere to be found at the Democratic convention. In fact, the UMW is not endorsing Obama this year (after doing so in 2008) -- the first time the UMW hasn't endorsed for president in memory. 

The White House war on his workers continued this week as Alpha Natural Resources laid off another 1,200 coal workers because, lamented Alpha CEO Kevin Crutchfield, of “a regulatory environment that's aggressively aimed at constraining the use of coal.”

Despite this -- and other testimonials from the coal industry of the direct impact of the Obama EPA's War on Coal -- Phyllis Cuttino, director of Pew's Clean Energy Program and an advocate for Obama's green policies, told the Detroit News editorial board that the job losses are related to natural gas competition and are “not coming from EPA regulations.”

Huh? The hostility of the White House and activist groups like Pew to one of America's most abundant energy resources raises the question: When did greens shift from making sure energy sources were clean and safe to targeting energy sources for elimination?

But a recent brief by the nonpartisan U.S. Energy Information Administration stated that the relatively low price of natural gas and modest electricity demand growth were among the factors contributing to planned coal unit retirements, along with anticipated environmental compliance costs particularly for “older, smaller units that are not used heavily. Last year the Congressional Research Service stated that some extremely old plants that have still failed to control their emissions of sulfur dioxide, mercury and other hazardous air pollutants are planning to shut down, but that the low price of natural gas would have led these plants to close “almost regardless of EPA rules”:

The primary impacts of many of the rules will largely be on coal-fired plants more than 40 years old that have not, until now, installed state-of-the-art pollution controls. Many of these plants are inefficient and are being replaced by more efficient combined cycle natural gas plants, a development likely to be encouraged in the price of competing fuel--natural gas--continues to be low, almost regardless of EPA rules.


Since 1990, more than 80% of new capacity has been natural gas-fired. These plants are highly efficient; they are cost-competitive with coal; and they emit no SO2, no mercury, and no other hazardous air pollutants. Without scrubber sludge to manage, they also do not need to meet effluent guidelines. Natural gas-fired power plants also have an advantage with regard to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions: for the same amount of electric generation, they emit only half the GHGs of coal-fired units. In the last two years, gas has enjoyed a price advantage, as well.


In short, the “train wreck” facing the coal-fired electric generating industry, to the extent that it exists, is being caused by cheap, abundant natural gas as much as by EPA regulations. As John Rowe, Chairman and CEO of Exelon Corporation, recently stated: “These regulations will not kill coal.... In fact, modeling done on the impacts of these rules shows that up to 50% of retirements are due to the current economics of the plant due to natural gas and coal prices.”

Crutchfield also may have ulterior motives for partially attributing the layoffs to a “regulatory regime that is overtly designed to constrain the use of coal”: he and his company have donated thousands to Mitt Romney perhaps in the hopes that he would roll back these long overdue, legally required rules to protect public health.

To learn more, see our "Myths And Facts About Coal."