February 4, 2021
Issue 355  |  View Past Issues

Editor's Note

A common line of inquiry among analysts is how fast coal power might fade in the decades ahead. This week Morgan Stanley, a global financial services company, suggested the entire US coal fleet – which currently stands at about 225,000 megawatts (MW) – could all be gone by 2033. At a global scale, what happens in China remains pivotal. The latest Global Coal Plant Tracker data reveals how increasingly isolated China is in pursuing new coal projects. That may be about to change. A scathing investigation by China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment into the failures of the National Energy Administration suggests a significant realignment in the relative power of the agencies may be underway. In Taiwan, the national parliament has agreed to the closure of the huge 5500 MW Taichung power plant by 2035.

As the shift away from coal power gathers pace, the challenge of what happens with the communities left behind grows ever more urgent. In the US, the Navajo Nation is grappling with how to adjust to the closure of a big power station and associated mine. In Australia’s Hunter Valley some new industries are emerging as potential offsets to the decline of the coal industry. A painful reckoning is likely elsewhere too. In Colombia and South Africa, coal production has fallen to the lowest levels since 2004 and 2013 respectively.

As demand growth falters, some plans for the expansion of coal mining continue to encounter resistance. In Australia, the High Court of Australia has upheld a legal appeal by a group of farmers against the decision of a lower court to allow the New Acland mine. Despite the win, the ruling means another protracted challenge against the New Acland mine.

Bob Burton


The push for an equitable energy economy for the Navajo Nation

For two decades Navajo advocate Nicole Horseherder has campaigned for a just transition away from coal for her community, writes Jessica Kutz in High Country News.

Hunter Valley ponders jobs future as Asian giants commit to net-zero carbon emissions

New economic opportunities are emerging in the Hunter Valley in New South Wales as thermal coal mining has begun to decline, writes Stephen Long in ABC News.

Corruption in utility bailouts hurts ratepayers and the planet

The recent Ohio corruption scandal involving FirstEnergy is an example of the harm done to ratepayers and the energy transition when bad actors and dark money work together to conceal the true motivations behind utility bailouts, writes Colby Galliher in Brookings.

Top News

China dominates 2020 coal plant construction and proposals: According to the latest Global Coal Plant Tracker data, China built 38,400 MW of new coal plants in 2020, over three times the 11,900 MW commissioned in all other countries. Plans for a further 73,000 MW of new coal power projects were initiated in China in 2020, five times as much as in all other countries. Excluding China, in 2020 the global coal fleet declined by 17,200 MW led by retirements in the US, European Union and UK. After allowing for retirements, India’s coal plant capacity grew by only 700 MW in 2020. (Global Energy Monitor and the Center for Research on Energy andClean Air [Pdf])

Scathing agency report highlights failings of Chinese energy planner: A scathing inspection report by China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE) has found the National Energy Administration (NEA) failed to curtail the expansion of coal generation in 12 key provinces and cities where cutting air pollution had been identified as a priority. An investigation of coal mining in three provinces also found 121 mines were producing 30 per cent more coal than permitted. The report is seen as boosting the role of MEE compared to the previously dominant NEA. The NEA has been given 30 days to report measures to address the breaches identified and outline future plans to the State Council, the equivalent of Cabinet, and the Communist Party’s Central Committee. (Sixth Tone, South China Morning Post, Ministry of Ecology and Environment [Chinese])

Australian High Court backs new hearing on New Acland mine: The High Court of Australia has granted the Oakey Coal Action Alliance's appeal to have its objections against the proposed expansion of the New Acland mine reheard in the Queensland Land Court. The court ruled in favour of the alliance on all the grounds of its appeal and directed the mining company to pay the group’s legal costs. The alliance, comprising local farmers and residents, has been challenging the New Hope Group’s proposed mine expansion since it was first proposed in 2007. New Hope has proposed the mine’s output be increased by about one-third to 7.5 million tonnes a year and that the mine operates for a further 12 years. (Lock the Gate, Environmental Defenders Office, High Court of Australia)

French court awards damages to former mine workers: A French court has ordered the national government to pay 7.3 million euros (US$8.9 million) to 727 former coal miners for anxiety caused by the potential health impacts from their exposure to dust, coal, silica and asbestos fibers and fumes associated with mining, blasting, power stations and coking plants. French courts have previously awarded damages for anxiety to those exposed to asbestos who had not become sick. France’s coal mines were nationalised after World War Two, with the last operation closing in 2004. (France24)

US utilities help fund group promoting Capitol rally: Thirteen US utilities – including NextEra, Duke, Southern and AEP – collectively contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars in 2020 to the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA), a group which promoted the rally in Washington DC preceding the riot at the US Capitol on January 6. The Rule of Law Defense Fund (RLDF), a related entity of RAGA, issued a robocall encouraging supporters to “march to the Capitol building and call on congress to stop the steal. We are hoping patriots like you will join us to continue to fight to protect the integrity of our elections.” The RLDF is not required to disclose donors but back in 2014 the Edison Electric Institute, a lobby group for investor-owned utilities, contributed US$25,000. (Documented, Documented)

UK Climate Change Commission decries approval for new coal mine: The chairman of the UK Government’s Climate Change Committee (CCC), Lord Deben, has written to the Secretary of State, Robert Jenrick, expressing concern about his decision not to review the Cumbria County Council’s approval of West Cumbria Mining’s proposed Woodhouse Colliery. Deben warned the decision “gives a negative impression of the UK’s climate priorities in the year of COP26” and will “have an appreciable impact on the UK’s legally binding carbon budgets.” The CCC, a government advisory body, urged the government to further consider “the UK’s policy towards all new coal developments” and requested a discussion regarding “the provision of guidance to local authorities.” (Guardian, Climate Change Committee)

Methane emissions from mines higher than previously estimated: A study by the US Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory estimates methane emissions from coal mining are about 50 per cent higher than previously estimated. The higher estimate is in part due to the inclusion of methane emissions from abandoned mines. The authors also found that coal mined from over 400 metres underground contains twice as much methane as coal produced from 200 metres deep. The study estimated that in 2010, 103 billion cubic metres of methane was released from operating mines and a further 22 billion cubic metres from abandoned mines. (Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, American Geophysical Union)

Indian utility breached ash limit on power plant coal: Documents obtained under the Right to Information Act have revealed state-owned Maharashtra State Power Generation Company has used coal at its Koradi thermal power station which had an ash content as high as 46.27 per cent. In June 2016 the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change regulated that power plants could not use coal with more than 34 per cent ash content. However, in mid-2020 the ministry rescinded the rule under pressure from industry lobby groups. (Times of India)

Taiwan commits to phasing out Taichung plant by 2035: The Taiwanese legislature has adopted a resolution supporting the decommissioning of the publicly owned utility TEPCO’s 5500 MW Taichung plant by 2035 to curb pollution. TEPCO previously proposed that the ten coal-fired units be shut down by 2046. The resolution supports the completion of two proposed gas units at the plant and proposes the construction of a further two units. Clean Air Taichung wants the plant closed by 2030. NGO groups remain hopeful the government will embrace alternatives to the proposed additional gas units. (Taipei Times, Chia-Wei Chao [Twitter])

“The challenge will be how we can find ways to an early retirement of coal plants – this is absolutely critical,”

said Fatih Birol, the executive director of the International Energy Agency.


Australia: Goldman Sachs analyst slashes the 12-month stock price target of coal rail haulage company Aurizon by one-third due to concern about fading global coal demand.

Canada: The Alberta Government is proposing free water allocation for new coal mines.

Indonesia: Planned coal-trucking road threatens the Harapan forest haven for Sumatran frogs.

New Zealand: Government advisers recommend closure of Huntley power station in 2020’s and dairies to end coal use in milk processing plants by 2037.

New Zealand: Activists lock on to railway to block a coal shipment from Bathurst Resources’ Takitimu mine to Fonterra’s Clandeboye milk factory.

Russia: Evraz contemplates spinning off its metallurgical coal mines to cut emissions profile and focus solely on steel production.

South Africa: Exxaro Resources rules out further investment in thermal coal but will continue to supply Eskom’s Medupi and Matimba plants.

UK: Eighty residents evacuated from homes after a flood caused by the bursting of a disused underground mine shaft.

US: Key Democrat Senator, Joe Manchin from West Virginia, retains a US$1–5 million stake in Enersystems, a coal brokerage firm he formerly ran.

US: Senator Sheldon Whitehouse calls for “climate corruption” investigation into connections between the Trump administration and the fossil fuel industry.

“The insurance industry can, almost single-handedly, exert pressure on coal energy producers, which other industries are less well-placed to do,”

stated a report by Societe Generale.

Companies + Markets

Morgan Stanley estimates US coal fleet will be gone by 2033: Morgan Stanley, a global financial services company, estimates US coal plants could all be gone by 2033 due to tighter climate policies. The election of President Biden will also increase pressure on power utilities to retire coal plants. In February 2020 Morgan Stanley estimated 47,000 MW of coal plant capacity beyond those plants already slated to retire would be more expensive to operate than renewables by 2024. Two months later Morgan Stanley announced it would no longer finance new coal plants or the expansion of existing operations. About 225,300 MW of US coal plants remains online, though analysts predict a rapid shift to plants operating at lower utilisation levels and only seasonally before final closure decisions. (BloombergQuint, S & P Global)

South African coal exports keep declining: Coal exports from the Richards Bay Coal Terminal (RBCT) declined by two million tonnes to 70.2 million tonnes in 2020. This is the third consecutive year of decline, with exports now at their lowest since 2013. South African coal exports have been hit by rapidly declining demand in Europe and are vulnerable to India’s aim to switch to domestic thermal coal instead of expensive imports. RBCT stated 92 per cent of its exports were destined for Asia with India and Pakistan the largest customers. The terminal has a nominal capacity of 91 million tonnes, with RBCT stating it aims to export 77 million tonnes in 2021. RBCT is owned by 13 coal mining companies, including subsidiaries of Glencore, South32, Sasol, Anglo American and Exxaro Resources. (Mining Weekly)

Colombian coal production fell to a 16-year low in 2020: According to preliminary 2020 figures, coal production in Colombia in slumped by one-third to 54.1 million tonnes, the lowest since 2004. Production declined due to a three-month-long strike at the Cerrejon mine and the suspension of mining operations by American Natural Resources subsidiary CNR and Glencore’s Prodeco. The government has said production in 2021 could increase by about 20 per cent, suggesting production of about 65 million tonnes. Colombia is the world’s fifth largest thermal coal exporter, with most destined for the European market. (Argus)

Dutch pension fund dumps KEPCO over coal plans: The Dutch pension provider, APG, has sold its stake in KEPCO after the South Korean utility approved investments in new coal plants in Indonesia and Vietnam. In a statement APG said KEPCO’s decision was a “litmus test” of the company’s commitment to the Paris Agreement. “The construction of these coal-fired power plants deepens the climate crisis and worsens the company's profitability in the long run,” APG stated. The pension provider said it has now sold its stakes in eight companies “because they had plans to expand coal-fired power stations.” (IPE, APG)

US carbon capture plant mothballed indefinitely: NRG Energy has announced it will indefinitely mothball the gas unit used to power the Petra Nova carbon capture and storage (CCS) unit at its coal-fired Parish Generating Station in Texas. NRG commissioned the CCS plant on its 615 MW Unit 8 in January 2017 with carbon dioxide sold for use in boosting oil production of the West Ranch Oil Field. In 2015 NRG Energy CEO, David Crane, told the Houston Chronicle that the Petra Nova project “made both strategic and economic sense at US$75 to $100 a barrel.” In May 2020 NRG revealed the CCS unit had been shut down as it was not economic due to the low oil price. The CCS plant, which was partly funded with a US$190 million grant from the US Department of Energy, suffered major technical problems resulting in lower-than-planned capture rates. The gas unit will be left in place at the plant in case the CCS unit is ever restarted. (Reuters, Gizmodo)

Chinese coal demand remains high as renewables rollout continues: The financial services company Fitch Ratings estimates China’s coal imports in 2020 rose 1.4 per cent to 304 million tonnes, the highest since 2014. The strong import demand is likely to continue ahead of Chinese New Year in mid-February benefiting Indonesian suppliers. The ban on Australian cargoes is still in place. After Chinese New Year, Fitch ratings estimates increasing domestic production from Inner Mongolia is likely to result in import demand easing. In a separate note the ratings agency estimates China added 71,700 MW of wind power capacity and 48,200 MW of solar capacity in 2020. It estimates new wind capacity is likely to decline in 2021 with the expiry of incentives for onshore wind farms. However, it notes new capacity is likely to remain high compared to pre-2020 levels as offshore wind farms must be commissioned by the end of 2021 to take advantage of favourable feed-in tariffs. Solar capacity is tipped to be on a par with, or exceed, 2020 levels as grid-parity projects need to be commissioned before 2022. (Fitch Ratings, Fitch Ratings)


“The Fossil Fuel Industry’s Push to Target Climate Protesters in the U.S.”, Pace Environmental Law Review, Vol. 38, No. 1, Fall 2020. (Pdf)

This 57-page paper reviews efforts by fossil fuel industry groups to punish, harass and sue climate protesters in the US.

Race to the bottom: Consequences of massive coal mining for the environment and public health of Kemerovo Region, Ecodefense, February 2021.

This 54-page report details the impacts on the environment and public health from the boom in coal mining in Russia’s Kemerovo Region, where almost two-thirds of Russia’s coal is produced.