Coronavirus is accelerating the demise of coal power in the US

Image: Reuters/Valentyn Ogirenko
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First, it was oil and gas. Now coal is facing a financial cataclysm.

As the coronavirus crushes energy demand around the world, the bottom has fallen out from under an already weak coal industry. Moody’s Investors Services recently warned coal firms are facing a wave of bankruptcies—with few ways out.

Declining coal use by utilities has reduced consumption by almost 40% since 2001. Exports, a rare bright spot, have risen only slightly. Adding to the sector’s woes, financial institutions’ new environmental, social, and governance policies (ESG) are restricting capital to high-emitting industries such as coal.


That combination, said Moody’s in a March 26 research report, “will likely push a significant amount of coal capacity into bankruptcies and lead to new closure announcements over the next year or two.” Since 2016, at least 11 coal companies have already declared bankruptcies.

As the virus dims the industry’s prospects, Moody’s gave three-quarters of US coal companies negative outlooks. Moody’s now believes its original forecast of a 15% to 20% drop in US coal production due to the virus was overly optimistic. It expects even steeper declines amid falling electricity demand.

Coal companies have not weathered the news well. Share prices of top coal firms have cratered. Their average market capitalization down 40% since January.

Michelle Bloodworth, president of coal industry group America’s Power, said to Quartz it was too soon to forecast the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on electricity demand. She noted in an email that US coal plants, which generate 24% of the US electricity mix, were listed as critical infrastructure by the US government.

But declining electricity demand has still put enormous pressure on companies without strong balance sheets. And with capital markets turning away from the industry, it’s unclear how many coal firms can survive the crisis.