When coal companies go bankrupt, the mining doesn't always stop

The largest pillar of the coal industry has now fallen. In filing for bankruptcy last week, Peabody Energy joined Arch Coal, Patriot Coal, Walter Energy and Alpha Natural Resources among the largest coal mining companies recently facing this fate.

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Coal emits more air pollutants and climate warming gases than any other fossil fuel, and its mining can devastate local ecosystems and watersheds. Curtailing the amounts of coal mined and burned would thus yield a myriad of benefits for the environment and health.

However, the road to bankruptcy court doesn't necessarily mark the path to a sustainable energy future. It is time to think afresh about how the environment and health can be considered in coal bankruptcies.

Like most of its peers, Peabody chose Chapter 11 for its bankruptcy filing. Unlike a Chapter 7 liquidation, Chapter 11 allows a company to continue operating while it manages its debts and seeks to emerge as a viable corporation. Peabody's statement said it intends to continue operating its mines uninterrupted as the bankruptcy process proceeds.

Thus, while bankruptcy can crimp the finances of creditors and investors, it won't necessarily cut coal mine output. In fact, coal companies seeking to pay off creditors may face pressure to maintain revenues from coal.

The challenge of maintaining revenue has grown as coal prices have fallen. Coal from Wyoming's Powder River Basin, widely used for its low sulfur content, has fallen to $9.35 per ton. I'd call it dirt cheap if I knew anywhere selling dirt for less than half a penny per pound.

With coal so cheap, its sales likely generate far less revenue than its damage to health and the environment. Since coal is composed primarily of carbon atoms, each of which combines with two oxygen atoms to form carbon dioxide, burning coal generates about 1.87 times its own weight in carbon dioxide.

In other words, Powder River Basin coal mines are receiving only about $5 per ton of carbon dioxide that their coal generates when burned. The revenue per ton of pollution would be even lower if we consider life cycle impacts such as the diesel emissions needed to mine and transport the coal and the methane released from the mine.

Virtually all estimates of the social cost of carbon to climate change are many times higher than $5 per ton. That's even before considering environmental impacts beyond climate such as damage to air quality, water and wildlife.

In other words, society as a whole pays a very high price as coal mining companies seek to pay off their creditors in bankruptcy. It could even be argued that a domino effect of coal mining bankruptcies has taken hold, as the urgency of already-bankrupt companies to pay off creditors has kept coal mine output from falling sufficiently. Though coal mining is down sharply, unusually large stockpiles of coal show that mining has not fallen fast enough to offset the effects of cheap natural gas and growing deployments of renewables.

Bankrupt coal companies create an additional burden if they do not cover the environmental damages they have caused. Communities near coal mines have reason to be concerned about whether adequate steps will be taken to remediate coal mines owned by bankrupt companies.

All of these factors receive insufficient attention in bankruptcy proceedings, as repayment of creditors and restructuring of debts dominates deliberations. How best to give the environment and public health seats at the table in bankruptcy court requires legal expertise far beyond my training as an environmental engineer. Nevertheless, the prices and emissions calculations provided here demonstrate that the coal assets owned by these bankrupt companies may be far more valuable to society if left in the ground rather than mined to pay off creditors.

Cohan is associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University.