Peabody Coal, workers, and executives – what’s up? Plus, a narrow escape in Montana

Cross-posted from David Roberts on Vox.com

Peabody Energy, headquartered in St. Louis, Missouri, is the world’s largest private sector coal company, with operations across the world from China to Germany, and the largest producer of US coal.  It has also paid climate skeptics for research and funded climate skeptic organizations. (CEO Greg Boyce, before retiring in 2015, dismissed “climate theory” and its “flawed models.”) It has paid prominent lawyers to concoct arguments against Obama’s Clean Power Plan, the latest battle in a long war on clean air and water regulations. Lately it’s been trying to sell the idea that coal is the only cure for poverty, which organizations like the World Bank and Oxfam reject out of hand.  All that is well-established.

Item 1: Peabody is heading into bankruptcy, workers are getting screwed, and executives are profiting

This week, Peabody signaled that it is likely to file for bankruptcy.  It’s not a huge surprise. After a peak share price of $1,079 in 2011 (during the heady market for metallurgical coal), its stock has fallen some 99 percent, all the way to $2.19 a share.

 (Yahoo Finance)

Last year, Moody’s downgraded Peabody’s credit rating and officially gave it a negative outlook.  Naturally, Peabody has been laying off lots of workers — more than 20 percent of its global workforce between 2012 and 2015.

But that’s not all it’s been doing.  You see, Peabody made promises to its US workers. In exchange for doing the dangerous, unhealthy work of mining coal, their health care would be covered, for life.

But those obligations are expensive, especially given the prevalence of black lung among retirees. Peabody needed a way to get them off the books.  So in 2007, Peabody created a new entity, Patriot Coal. Reporter Alec MacGillis tells the story in the New Republic:

[Peabody] transferred to [Patriot] 13 percent of its coal reserves. It also transferred to it about 40 percent of its health care liabilities—the obligations for 8,400 former Peabody employees. A year later, Patriot Coal was loaded up with even more liabilities when it acquired Magnum Coal, an offshoot of the country’s second-largest mining company, Arch Coal. This left Patriot with responsibility for another 2,300 retirees, and, by last year, total liabilities of $1.37 billion.

Eventually Patriot Coal was larded up with more than $3 billion in liabilities from Peabody and Arch, representing 22,000 miners, retirees, and spouses.  “Oddly, for a 5-year-old company,” labor journalist Mike Elk wrote, “Patriot wound up with nearly three times as many retirees as active employees, more than 90 percent of whom never worked for the company.”

Can you guess what happened next?

ohio coal miner

Yup, Patriot Coal filed for bankruptcy in 2012. And it wasted no time asking a bankruptcy judge to let it jettison health care liabilities. (The judge said yes, just as she said yes two weeks prior when Patriot asked for permission to pay their executives almost $7 million in “retention bonuses.”)

Patriot had no loyalty to these retirees, of course. For the most part, they’d never even worked for Patriot. But what about Peabody? Doesn’t it have any loyalty to the workers who gave it so much of their lives? The Wall Street Journal asked:

A spokesman for Peabody, the nation’s largest coal company by production, said Peabody has lived up to its obligations. “This is a matter solely between the union and Patriot Coal,” the spokesman said.

The coal-employee pension funds have since sued Peabody and Arch, accusing them of designing Patriot to fail as a way of escaping their obligations.

Ditching its obligations to workers — “restructuring,” in the antiseptic language of corporate law — didn’t save Patriot. It filed for bankruptcy again in 2015. Its efforts to escape its liabilities are ongoing.

Dumping obligations onto Patriot didn’t save Peabody either, which is now on the verge of going under itself. It currently has hundreds of millions in unfunded liabilities, which are likely to be jettisoned in some future deal between a corporate restructuring lawyer and a bankruptcy judge.

But have no fear! The Peabody executives who oversaw all those mergers and big bets on metallurgical coal — and the subsequent destruction of virtually all the company’s value — are in no danger. In fact, they’re doing great.

This 2015 report from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis reveals that the top five Peabody executives pulled down about $27 million in compensation in 2011, when the stock was at its peak.

In 2014, after the company’s stockholders had lost $16 billion in value, thousands of workers had been laid off and Peabody was headed for bankruptcy, they pulled down about … $25 million.

As atonement for his sins, Boyce, the CEO, saw his compensation slashed from from $10 million in 2011 to … $11 million in 2014. (Boyce also made $26 million selling stock options in the years just before the crash.)

peabody executive compensation(IEEFA)

The mismatch between corporate performance and executive compensation is afamiliar tale in US coal these days. This is from a 2015 report on fossil fuel executive compensation, by the Institute for Policy Studies:

Stock goes down, executive pay goes up.(IPS)
Stock goes down, executive pay goes up.

Anyway, that’s the first item regarding Peabody. Now to the second.

Item 2: Peabody has been heavily subsidized by federal taxpayers

Turns out US taxpayers are helping to pay for all this.

According to a new report from Greenpeace, based on Department of Interior data obtained via FOIA, Peabody relies heavily on coal mined from federal land. In fact, the three biggest US coal companies all rely heavily on it.

coal corporate welfare

Here’s the thing about coal on federal land: For decades, the US public has been letting coal companies mine it for dirt cheap, well below market rates. Over time, that adds up to a lot of forgone revenue.

In his 2014 piece on coal leasing, Brad Plumer wrote about a study by Tom Sanzillo of the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis that “argued that the federal government had foregone as much as $28.9 billion in revenue over the past 30 years by getting below-market value for its coal in these non-competitive auctions.”

And that’s to say nothing of the social costs imposed by the coal thus mined. Consider this statistic from a previous Greenpeace report:

A ton of publicly owned coal leased during the Obama administration will, on average, cause damages estimated at between $22 and $237, using the federal government’s social cost of carbon estimates — yet the average price per ton for those coal leases was only $1.03.

This amounts to the American people subsidizing their own suffering.

Coal mining in the Powder River Basin, in Wyoming.

The new Greenpeace report goes on to detail all the ways that big coal companies have effectively taken over decision-making on coal leases, gamed the system to gain more access, underreported reserves, and engaged in all sorts of other shenanigans.  (Peabody Energy did not respond to request for comment.)

In January, in response to mounting concerns, the Obama administration announced a moratorium on new coal leases on federal land, while the program was reconsidered with its carbon impact in mind.  But for our purposes here, the damage was already done. Peabody’s growth was fueled by the coal that the US public sold it on the cheap.

Item 3:  Close call for Otter Creek Valley in Montana

Montana’s Otter Creek valley. Credit: Christopher Boyer, kestrelaerial.com

The writing has been on the wall as domestic and global coal markets have evaporated, but the announcement last week by St. Louis-based Arch Coal still came with a loud thud. Arch, the second largest U.S. coal producer, now in bankruptcy, announced it would no longer seek a permit for the largest proposed coal mine in the country, in Montana’s Otter Creek Valley.

The company cited “further deterioration in coal markets” in its decision to table its application to the Montana Department of Environmental Quality for a mine in southeastern Montana’s portion of the Powder River Basin that contains 1.4 billion tons of coal.

But while opponents of the mine celebrate, the coal leases have not been cancelled by Arch, so those leases, valid through 2022, can be sold. Considering current market and regulatory trends, though, it seems unlikely another company would invest in them.

The Montana Land Board had leased the Otter Creek coal tracts to Arch for $86 million in 2010, which coincided with the beginning of a precipitous drop in natural gas prices. Arch and other coal companies saw the looming shifts in domestic electricity generation, but planned an end run by exporting coal to booming markets in Asia.

In 2011, Arch partnered with BNSF Railway and billionaire candy bar mogul Forrest E. Mars, Jr., who owns property along the Tongue River, to acquire the Tongue River Railroad Company.

In 2012, Arch asked the DEQ to permit an open-pit mine, while the Tongue River Railroad Co. called for the Surface Transportation Board to green-light a rail spur, routed directly to the mine. The companies eyed a path to the handful of proposed coal-export terminals in the Pacific Northwest. Arch is a 38 percent shareholder in one of them, the Millennium Bulk Terminals project in Longview, Wash.

But since 2012, the coal export market has fizzled, too. China’s coal imports fell 30 percent in 2015, the biggest drop on record. The price of Australian coal, the regional benchmark, has fallen to around $50 per metric ton, its lowest price in nearly a decade.

Matthew Korn, a Barclays analyst based in New York, recently described the export market as “dreadful.” The U.S. can’t compete with Russia, Australia and Indonesia, among other major coal-exporting countries, for the remaining demand.

Late last year, the Tongue River Railroad Co. asked the Surface Transportation Board to suspend its railroad application until the DEQ issued mining permits. Arch had already delayed that process by not paying the DEQ for its work.

The DEQ found Arch’s mining and surface water discharge permit applications to be deficient, leaving the agency also waiting on the company to respond to many outstanding environmental concerns.

A DEQ spokesperson said Arch’s application had effectively been suspended long before the company issued its news release last week.

Prior to its bankruptcy declaration in January, Arch Coal had seen it shares drop to less than $1 a share, disqualifying them from the New York Stock Exchange. Arch was allowed to rebundle and combine its shares 10-to-1 to raise its per-share value back to around $10 last fall. But its value fell below $1 again prior to Arch’s bankruptcy filing.

Even though burning the valley’s coal over the life of the mine would release an estimated 2.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide, the Montana Legislature, in 2011, restricted the DEQ from considering such “cumulative impacts.” It did so by explicitly limiting the scope of the Montana Environmental Policy Act to “within the borders of Montana.”

For now, at least as it pertains to the proposed Otter Creek mine, that change in law is moot.

Montana politicians, however, seem to disregard the market factors and pin blame for the coal industry’s struggles elsewhere. Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines called the permit suspension, “a devastating loss” for the state’s economy. “This decision is an unfortunate repercussion of President Obama’s all-fronts assault on domestic energy production,” he said.

Korn, the Barclays analyst, estimates that two-thirds of the coal industry’s struggles can be attributed to cheap natural gas, which he calls “a success of American industry that has now led to massive, massive changes in geopolitics.”

As the Tongue River Railroad Co. itself stated in a Surface Transportation Board filing in 2012: “Indeed, the market is the best governor of the demand for a new rail line and here market forces are coalescing behind a determination that the coal resource at Otter Creek should be developed and transported.”

Market forces are coalescing behind quite a different determination today.

“Montana has a long history with mining companies walking away,” said Kate French, chair of the non-profit Northern Plains Resource Council, which has opposed both the mine and railroad. “We should count our lucky stars that Arch Coal walked away before this project was built, and before it wrecked the Otter Creek valley.”