The crushing forces prevailing against the U.S. coal industry have triggered an unprecedented shakeout, sparking bankruptcies of the industry’s biggest players — such as last week's collapse of Peabody Energy — and battering jobs in Appalachia even as mines in the west weather the fallout.
Peabody, the nation's largest coal company, slid into Chapter 11 bankruptcy last week, just five years after its market value reached a high of $20 billion, as the oil and natural gas shale boom shifts the seat of power to miners in states such as Montana and Wyoming, where extracting coal is cheaper.
Peabody's bankruptcy filing follows at least 50 in the industry over the last few years including Arch Coal in January and last year's filings of Patriot Coal, Alpha Natural Resources and Walter Energy.
In West Virginia — the heart of American coal country — production may hit lows in 2016 that have not been seen since crippling strikes rippled through the regionin the late 1970s, according to West Virginia University economist projections. The state's economy has already lost more than 35% of its coal jobs since 2011 — and that number is expected to continue rising.