Roundup: Coal in Decline

Coal industry in trouble • Update on rural suicide report • Rural schools and counties funding bill approved • Farmers meeting the pope • Rural phone service quality bill introduced

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From the “We Knew It Was Bad But Not This Bad” department, the coal industry in America may be entering a death spiral. A new report by the Carbon Tracker Initiative claims the U.S. coal industry has lost 76% of its value in the last five years (emphasis mine as my head exploded). Peabody Energy, whom we know from the John Prine song and also being the world’s largest private coal company, lost 80% of its share price over the same time span. The report blames cheap and accessible shale gas and regulations for the steep decline. Not everyone is convinced that coal is dead, though.

… Chiza Vitta, a credit analyst from Standard and Poor’s, said he did not believe coal was in a terminal decline, although its share of the US electricity market would diminish somewhat in the coming years.

Vitta said the drop in share prices noted by Carbon Tracker was due to a complex series of factors, including a cyclical dip in metallurgical coal demand. He said despite the slowdown “coal will continue to be an integral part of the energy portfolio. It’s going to get a little smaller so the share price is going to fall. But there is always going to be a place for coal.”

— Shawn Poynter

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Here’s a little more on the JAMA Pediatrics study that found higher suicide rates among young adults living in rural areas between 1996 and 2010. The rural rate by 2010 had was almost double that of urban centers. Many reasons were given as possible reasons: Isolation, unemployment, mental health problems untreated due to doctor shortages. One stat that really jumps out, though, is the number of suicides committed with a gun.

More than half of the youths who killed themselves in this time period did so with a firearm, and gun suicides (though generally on the decline) were particularly common in rural areas—nearly three times more common. This may be because gun ownership is higher in rural regions. According to2014 Pew data, 51 percent of people in rural areas kept a gun at home, compared to 25 percent in urban areas, and 36 percent in the suburbs.

“Suicide is in many ways the oft-ignored part of gun tragedy in America, the part that few talk about, especially those who resist any efforts to decrease access to guns,” writes Frederick Rivara, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington, in an editorial accompanying the study. He points out that 86 percent of suicide attempts using guns end in death, compared to 2 percent of attempts using drugs.

“Rural residents often grow up with guns, have guns in their homes and there’s just a general culture of guns in rural areas,” [lead author of the study Cynthia] Fontanella says. Even so, she says, suicide rates by all methods were higher in the country than in the city.

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The U.S. House of Representatives approved a bill this week that provides funding for rural schools and counties.

The measure, which was attached to the unrelated Medicare Access Act, will provide two years of funding for the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self Determination Act. One year of the funding would be retroactive.

“The Secure Rural Schools Act provides an alternative source of education funding for counties with a high percentage of national forests and is designed to make up for lost timber receipts, which were shared with local communities,” reports the Idaho Statesmen.

The Senate still needs to act on the measure.

The bill passed the House with strong bipartisan support, 392-37. Idaho U.S. Representative Raul Labrador was in the minority that opposed the bill. His office said he “advocated a lasting solution for Secure Rural Schools.”

If passed into law, funding would expire again in less than a year, says Mark Haggerty with Headwaters Economics. (In a recent Daily Yonder article, Haggerty argues that the county-payment system needs reform.)

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A delegation of Farmers Union state presidents met with the pope this week to discuss the importance of family farmers in food security. The conversation, at some point, expanded from food security to include water security, an urgent issue for many farmers.

“After spending time revisiting the values we hold, with the emphasis on our spiritual, moral and physical responsibilities to the land and the production of food, Montana Farmers Union grassroots membership should be proud that these same ideas are held high around the world,” [Montana Farm Union resident Alan] Merrill said in a news release issued by the Montana Farmers Union on Thursday.

The Farmers Union delegation said that one of its biggest challenges is to dispel the widely held myth that U.S. agriculture is completely dominated by large, multinational corporations and is inapplicable to the farming paradigms in most of the rest of the world.

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U.S. Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota) and Jon Tester (D-Montana) have introduced a bill to improve the quality of phone service to rural America.

The legislation directs the Federal Communications Commission to establish quality standards for telephone service providers. The bill would prevent phone companies from discriminating against calls that went to “any and all areas of our country,” according to a press release.

The FCC is already working on the problem of “rural call completion” through its own regulatory rulemaking. Since 2013, the agency has disciplined four phone companies for dropping calls to rural customers to avoid paying higher costs associated with the calls. The FCC’s last and largest settlement came in January, when Verizon agreed to pay a $2 million fine and spend $3 million on improved rural service.

If you are having trouble connecting to a rural area via telephone, the FCC website explains symptoms of the problem and what consumers can do about it.

 

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