Friday, September 11, 2015

Coal collapse and the first burst carbon bubble

The last few months have seen major bankruptcies among American coal companies and the near-elimination of the market value for the rest over the last 5 years (another Hockey Stick, except mirror-imaged and with the stick part also tilted down). What hasn't changed much is the amount of coal reserves these companies have. To the extent that these companies had been valued based on the reserves they own, usually the major component of their value, then the climate divestment argument that fossil fuel stocks are overvalued by a carbon bubble gets a lot of support. The market appears to be saying that a lot of that coal these companies own is now worthless and will stay in the ground.

I shouldn't overplay that argument as it applies to climate divestment. A number of these companies took on a lot of debt several years ago buying other coal companies (and their reserves) in a bet that there would be a major expansion in coal usage - a bad bet. The low-to-negative valuation reflects that debt in part, not a market assessment that all of their reserves are staying in the ground. OTOH, even before these purchases the coal companies had a much higher valuation, so if you assume that the recent coal acquisition is balanced out by recent debt, you still have to explain why the all the coal owned by the companies from prior years is valued so low.

Some parts of the bankrupt companies are still profitable under current law which allows them to impose pollution costs upon neighbors and the entire planet, so some of their reserves will still get used. We might have a better idea based on the valuation when they emerge from bankruptcy and can see then whether the carbon bubble in coal bounces back.

This is a pretty useful example for climate divestment. Six years ago no one could have predicted it. While natural gas had started its expansion back then, everyone expected unabated demand in China and India. Now it's much more up in the air, and meanwhile the bankruptcy papers are shaking out some interesting connections between climate denialists and previously undisclosed coal funders.

During the years that natural gas got primary credit for driving out coal, the renewable industry grabbed nearly half as much away from coal (see page 3, and good reference on coal's problems in general). That trend can accelerate.

One other question is whether climate divestment played a role in coal's trouble. You hear zero credit given to the movement, which I think is slightly unfair. We're now in a situation where at one point I'm watching a random business cable channel and see a discussion of the carbon bubble, and I think divestment helped highlight that risk to investors. And while I'm no stock expert, I don't see a lot of opportunistic buying of the still-standing companies even though you can get them over 90% cheaper than they used to be - as divestment grows and increasingly focuses on coal, it can help create uncertainty that blocks funding for the companies.