Skip to main content
A view of Duke Energy's Marshall Power Plant in Sherrills Ford, North Carolina, U.S. November 29, 2018.  Picture taken November 29, 2018. To match Special Report USA-COAL/POLLUTION. REUTERS/Chris Keane - RC150344BDC0
Report

The risk of fiscal collapse in coal-reliant communities

, , and
Editor's Note:

This report was originally published by the Center on Global Energy Policy (CGEP) at Columbia University SIPA on July 15, 2019. It was presented at the 8th Annual Municipal Finance Conference. The recorded presentation and related panel are available here and slides from the presentation are available here.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

If the United States undertakes actions to address the risks of climate change, the use of coal in the power sector will decline rapidly. This presents major risks to the 53,000 US workers employed by the industry and their communities. 26 US counties are classified as “coal-mining dependent,” meaning the coal industry is a major employer. In these areas, the industry is also an important contributor to local government finances through a complex system of property, severance, sales, and income taxes; royalties and lease bonuses for production on state and federal lands; and intergovernmental transfers.

Authors

Noah Kaufman

Research Scholar - Center on Global Energy Policy, Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs

While climate-related risks to corporations have received scrutiny in recent years, local governments—including coal-reliant counties—have yet to grapple with the implications of climate policies for their financial conditions. Importantly, the risks from the financial decline of coal-reliant counties extend beyond their borders, as these counties also have significant outstanding debts to the US municipal bond market that they may struggle to repay.

To be sure, national climate policy in the United States is uncertain. Experts have long recommended strong policy action to reduce emissions, and for years, policy makers have largely ignored their advice. Nevertheless, with growing support by the public and policy makers, meaningful climate policy in the United States may be on the horizon, and those dependent on coal should be looking ahead to manage their risks.

This paper examines the implications of a carbon-constrained future on coal-dependent local governments in the United States. It considers the outlook for US coal production over the next decade under such conditions and explores the risk this will pose for county finances. The paper also considers the responsibilities of jurisdictions to disclose these risks, particularly when they issue bonds, and the actions leaders can take to mitigate the risks. In short, the paper finds the following:

  • Coal production in the United States fell by one-third between 2007 and 2017. Projections of the US energy system show this decline continuing gradually under current policies. However, even a moderately stringent climate policy could create existential risks for the coal industry, with potential declines in production of around 75 percent in the 2020s.
  • A careful look at three illustrative counties shows that coal-related revenue may fund a third or more of their budgets. The exposure is compounded because school districts and other special districts within the counties also receive coal-dependent revenue. The complex system of local revenue instruments and intergovernmental transfers plus a lack of sufficiently detailed budget data make it difficult to parse out just how reliant jurisdictions are on the coal industry.
  • Estimates of the direct linkages between the coal industry and county budgets will almost certainly understate the risks because lost economic activity and jobs will have ripple effects across the economy. Case studies show that the rapid decline of a dominant industry has led to downward spirals and eventual collapses of local governments’ fiscal conditions, including the inability to raise revenue, repay debt, and/ or provide basic public services.
  • Coal-dependent communities have a variety of outstanding bonds, and the risk of collapse of the coal industry threatens their ability to repay them. Despite regulations requiring disclosures to reflect risks to the financial health of municipalities, our review of the outstanding bonds indicates that municipalities are at best uneven and at worst misleading (by omission) in their characterizations of climate-related risks. Ratings reports are not much better than official statements in describing the risks associated with the exposure of some local governments to the coal industry.
  • Climate policies can be combined with investments in coal-dependent communities to support their financial health. A logical source of funding for such investments would be the revenues from a price on carbon dioxide emissions, a necessary element of any cost-effective strategy for addressing the risks of climate change. A small fraction of revenue from a federal carbon price in the United States could fund billions of dollars in annual investments in the economic development of coal-dependent communities and direct assistance to coal industry workers.
  • In considering reforms, several questions emerge for stakeholders. These include whether regulators should develop additional requirements for the disclosure of risks from future climate policies; whether ratings agencies should increase attention to the risks to local governments of climate policies; and whether stakeholders in the municipal bond market, such as borrowers, insurers, and underwriters, are appropriately accounting for risks to the coal industry.

Get daily updates from Brookings