For generations, coal has been king in this Appalachian town. It provided heat, light and jobs for the hundreds of people who worked in the nearby coal mines and the smoke-coughing Big Sandy power plant that burned their black bounty.
But now, coal is in a corner. Across the United States, the industry is under siege, threatened by new regulations from Washington, environmentalists fortified by money from Michael R. Bloomberg, the billionaire mayor of New York City, and natural gas companies intent on capturing much of the nation’s energy market.
So when the operator of the Big Sandy plant announced last year that it would be switching from coal to cleaner, cheaper natural gas, people here took it as the worst betrayal imaginable.
“Have you lost your mind?” State Representative Rocky Adkins, a Democrat and one of Kentucky’s most powerful politicians, thundered at Michael G. Morris, the chairman of the plant’s operator, American Electric Power, during an encounter last summer. “You cannot wave the white flag and let the environmentalists and regulators declare victory here in the heart of coal country.”
Coal and electric utilities, long allied, are beginning to split. More than 100 of the 500 or so coal-burning power plants in the United States are expected to be shut down in the next few years. While coal still provides about a third of the nation’s power, just four years ago it was providing nearly half.
The decline is largely because new pollution rules have made coal plants more costly, while a surge in production of natural gas through the process of hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, has sent gas prices plummeting. Together, the economics of coal have been transformed after a century of dominance in Washington, state capitals and the board rooms of electric utilities.
“The math screams at you to do gas,” said Mr. Morris, whose company is the nation’s largest consumer of coal.
Environmental groups, after years of targeting coal plants as leading sources of air pollution, have moved in for the kill. “We never thought we would get to a place where coal plants are falling so fast,” said Bruce Nilles, the director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal initiative. It has been aided by $50 million from Mr. Bloomberg, who views the campaign as part of a public health effort, and $26 million from an odd bedfellow: the top official of a natural gas company.
The environmentalists figure that if they can shut down a third of the nation’s coal burning plants by 2020, emissions of greenhouse gases in the United States could be cut at least as much as they would have under a landmark 2009 climate bill that died in Congress.
But the coal industry is mustering all the weapons it can: lobbying, legislation, litigation and a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign trumpeting the benefits of “clean coal.” The fight has even become an issue in the presidential campaign, with the industry blaming President Obama and the Environmental Protection Agency for the onslaught, and Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee, hinting that he would roll back some of the rules.