World’s largest coal company goes bankrupt

PHOTO: Jeffery Scism, Flickr CC

A stripmining operation for Peabody Energy. PHOTO: Jeffery Scism, Flickr CC

Today Peabody Energy filed for bankruptcy. Peabody is the largest privately-held coal mining company in the world. It has long been a titan of America’s Appalachian mining region.

Reports indicate the company owes creditors more than $10 billion and holds only slightly less than $11 billion in assets. Peabody lost $2 billion just last year alone.

It’s not just that environmental laws now discourage reliance on coal as America’s dominant source of energy, it’s that other forms of energy are now becoming significantly cheaper. Natural gas is a cheaper base load power source, while the cost of solar and wind energy are now competitive or even cheaper still.

I’m from Minnesota’s Iron Range, a mining region, and am a big John Prine fan (case in point). So you can imagine how much I enjoy Prine’s signature song “Paradise.”

“Paradise” is often described as an environmental anthem, but I’ve always found it to run much deeper than that.

Prine opens the song talking about his childhood memories of a idyllic western Kentucky town we learn has since been consumed by coal mining. Here’s the reveal:

Then the coal company came with the world’s largest shovel
And they tortured the timber and stripped all the land
Well, they dug for their coal till the land was forsaken
Then they wrote it all down as the progress of man.

And daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County
Down by the Green River where Paradise lay
Well, I’m sorry my son, but you’re too late in asking
Mister Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away

Anyway, we now see what’s happened to Mr. Peabody. The progress of man doesn’t just take out landscapes, it takes out companies and whole economies, too, and with similar detachment.

No, the coal business isn’t the same as the iron business. But this is the folly of wrapping a region’s entire future around one industry.

Meanwhile, from a strictly business standpoint, it’s hard to imagine how companies like Peabody continue mining the coal face in Appalachia. America will still need coal, but much, much less than ever before. Further, we can get coal that burns cleaner and costs less from a number of other places.

But as Prine reminds us, the soul of a place can’t be hauled away. That’s what we need to remember here in Northern Minnesota and everywhere else rendered by unseen forces.


  1. Independant says

    I agree with you on the diversification needed but I just couldn’t hold back on the pointing out that electricity generated by wind and solar is not even close to competitive or cheaper than that generated by coal. Natural gas prices certainly play a role in the reduction of coal usage but the use of solar and wind to generate power is happening because of government imposed regulations which require “Green” power generation by law. The real cost of wind is working out to between .15 and .20 dollars per KWH now that maintenance and full system infrastructure costs are being based on actual installed system history and not the less than .10/KWH numbers that were projected just a few years ago.

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