Coal has a rich and storied history. The natural resource has buoyed empires, created millionaires, and killed thousands of laborers. Now all of the coal industry's former allies throughout history are abandoning it. It is only fitting that coal nears its own death in accordance with a changing, more conscious world.

American history is irrevocably connected to the rise and fall of coal. Ever since it was first used by Hopi Indians for heat in the 14th century and discovered to generate electricity in the 1880s, coal has been a newsworthy energy source. It ushered in railroads, steel, and the Industrial Revolution. In a new labor movement, coal miners struck for higher wage, better conditions, and an eight-hour workday. Presidents and financiers alike allied with coal industrialists. In 1902 J.P. Morgan crafted an agreement with striking miners. Coal helped power American victory in two world wars. Wall Street and classic American companies such as General Electric (GE  ) and ExxonMobil (XOM  ) earned billions in profits thanks to coal. But in March, Peabody Energy (BTU  ), the world's largest private-sector coal company, announced that bankruptcy protection is a possibility. The future has never looked bleaker for coal.


Coal sitting inside the sealed storage dome at a thermoelectric coal-fired power station
Coal sitting inside the sealed storage dome at a thermoelectric coal-fired power station

Coal's old friends, government and finance, are spurning coal for two main reasons. The first reason is that coal has rightfully become a political enemy due to its serious effects on pollution and climate change. Coal, even clean coal, a much dirtier nonrenewable than either oil or natural gas, will be the first energy source to be completely replaced in transition to a more renewable, sustainable future. In the US, Democrats often denounce coal, and Republicans who accept anthropogenic climate change are no friends. Global accords such as the 2016 Paris Agreement necessitate the end of coal consumption to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The second reason is that coal is no longer profitable. Coal is fighting both strong competition from cheaper alternatives like natural gas and tough environmental regulations from more conscious governments. According to the New York Times's "As Coal's Future Grows Murkier, Banks Pull Financing," big banks, hedge funds, and private equity are avoiding even the most secure loans to coal companies. Although most American banks like JPMorgan Chase (JPM  ) are still lending to developing markets where coal demand remains high, they have stopped funding new plants in developed nations. Deutsche Bank (DB  ) and Citigroup (C  ) are trying to raise debt for Bowie Natural Resources's purchase of three of Peabody's mines but committing no money of their own. Financials are irreversibly pulling back from coal.

It is no surprise that coal is poised to fail. The stock price of Peabody has reached an all-time low around $2. The stock price of coal giant Consol Energy (CNX  ) has fallen over 77 percent since its 2014 high to settle between the $5 to $12 range in 2016. Yes, the death of coal will kill thousands of jobs in Appalachia and across the world. But the social and environmental benefits of coal's collapse far outweigh any costs. Conscious investors are already writing coal's obituary. 

The author does not hold any positions in any of the stocks above.