Coal isn't cool anymore. Earlier this year, for the first time ever, use of natural gas for power generation in the United States passed the use of coal. Coal use has since regained the lead, but the trend line of coal consumption is plummeting. The advent of hydraulic fracturing (fracking), for all of its own challenges, has created a large enough supply that power generators have widely converted to cheaper natural gas as a fuel source to power generators.
Fracked natural gas has a key advantage over coal: It is near the beginning of its life cycle, where coal is near its end. The shadow of resource limitations hangs over both, but constrained access is already manifest in the coal industry. For some time, fracking will continue to yield a massive supply of natural gas—so much so that the market is seeing a glut. Coal can't match that production.
It is unhealthy. Which is an understatement. Coal is deeply unhealthy, in at least two ways. Burning coal emits a variety of unpleasant chemical compounds and microscopic soot particles. The Environmental Protection Agency suggests that particulate pollution can cause nonfatal heart attacks, worsen asthma, reduce lung function, and lead to premature death. In a 2010 report, the Clean Air Task Force suggested that coal plants lead to tens of thousands of deaths a year, as well as hundreds of thousands of heart attacks.
Oh, also: Coal is responsible for about one-fifth of the greenhouse gasses that contribute to climate change. Climate change is extremely unhealthy—and coal's contribution to it is the focus of the hardest-fought efforts by the EPA.
Over the course of the recent presidential campaign, there was a localized undercurrent of debate over coal. Those not paying close attention may have missed the ads that ran on repeat in southern Ohio and western Virginia: Obama repeatedly citing Romney's anti-coal rhetoric from his time as governor; Romney picking up the argument that Obama has launched a "war on coal," a mantra of the industry.
That "war on coal," manifested in harsh EPA action on coal pollution, is, according to the slogan’s progenitors, why coal is collapsing. It isn't. Given that the EPA's mercury and greenhouse gas regulations aren't in effect and that Obama killed any tightened smog regulation, the claim is factually inaccurate and willfully misleading. It's expense that's closing coal plants, not the government. But the EPA and its efforts to halt the intangible, distant "climate change" offers the coal industry its best chance at pointing the finger elsewhere.
As its fortunes have slipped, the coal industry has mounted a deeply ironic defense, visible on billboards along the Pennsylvania Turnpike and in print ads around the country. The industry promises "clean coal technology," a "green" coal that we can use safely to wring power out of each of those 239 years. Clean coal doesn't exist—and any arguments that it does rely on external technologies like the aforementioned scrubbers that make the output of coal consumption cleaner. "Clean" coal is coal that's burned just like normal coal, but its sulfur and particulates are removed from the smoke, and its carbon dioxide is captured and stored underground. There are literally no plants that do this—in part because no power generator would build such an expensive facility unless the EPA enacts the sort of regulation that the coal industry is fighting tooth and nail.
And there's the irony of coal's last, best argument. When industry cedes the point that coal needs to be clean, you know that coal has lost. Once it admits that its ideal product would meet the unattainable goal of being clean, it admits that an ideal world contains no coal at all. Suggesting that clean coal is the answer is coal's first slip at the top of the downward slope toward obsolescence.
That slide won't be without pauses. As an entrenched industry, coal will continue to try and wring every last dollar out of the West Virginia hills that it can. Its longevity is based on two key advantages: an ongoing and artificial inexpensiveness and booming international demand.
Coal remains cheap. Its high-energy density makes it a cost-effective way to quickly create the heat that produces the steam that turns the turbine of a generator. But it is also cheap in the literal sense. The government leases federal land to coal companies for small fractions of what the coal is worth, in some cases getting one quarter for a ton of coal that sells for $35. The cost of coal is kept low by externalizing the effects of pollution, forcing people who live near power plants to pay doctors to clean up the effects of particulates they inhale instead of the power producers cleaning the smoke before it escapes.
Meanwhile, there's a massive market for coal in China, Europe, and India—one that promises to offer domestic coal producers a customer base for decades to come. Coal exports are booming, and the industry is working (with varied success) to expand the number of ports on the West Coast from which it can ship its product to China. Without that expanded access, the industry's ability to eke out a subsistence drops fast.
Even getting discount rates from the government to sell coal to Asia won't be enough over the long term to protect coal. The reason coal is at its most precarious condition right now—health—is the reason that it can't exist as an energy source over the long term. And the push to rebrand as "clean coal" means that the industry reads the wall as clearly as do its opponents.
At some point during your imaginary tenure running those Apple Stores, a thought probably would have occurred to you. "Maybe," you thought while stuffing hundred-dollar bills into a money-counting machine, "maybe I should quit while I'm ahead. Walk away." But it's hard to walk away from the table when you're winning—and easy to grasp desperately for salvation when you're not.
Coal will die. The only question is when. And how painful the death will be.