Coal is making a comeback....
The markets do work...
These rugged green mountains, once home to one of Asia’s most productive coal regions, are littered with abandoned mines and decaying towns — backwaters of an economy of bullet trains and hybrid cars.
But after decades of seemingly terminal decline, Japan’s coal country is stirring again. With energy prices reaching record highs — oil settled above $135 a barrel on Thursday — Japan’s high-cost mines are suddenly competitive again, and demand for their coal is booming. Production has jumped to its highest in nearly four decades, creating a sensation rarely felt in these mining communities: hope.
“We are seeing a flicker of light after long darkness,” said Michio Sakurai, the mayor of Bibai, on Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido. “We never imagined coal would actually make a comeback.”
Soaring commodity prices have had distorting effects across the global economy, driving up food prices and prompting fears of future energy shortages. But they have been an unanticipated boon to the coal producing regions of countries like Japan that had written off coal mining as a relic of the Industrial Revolution.
In Bibai, once a thriving cultural center that had a ballet troupe and five cinemas showing first-run Hollywood movies in its heyday in the 1950s, the population shrank to 27,800, from 92,000. As mining jobs evaporated, they left behind rows of abandoned clapboard-fronted stores that give some neighborhoods the air of a ghost town.
While Japan’s coal industry remains tiny, its revival is an example of how higher commodity prices are driving a search for resources even in some of the world’s most urbanized and developed nations.
In recent months, South Korea has experienced calls to create a domestic coal industry in order to reduce dependence on imports. In the United Kingdom, where coal’s decline became a symbol of withered industrial might, companies are increasing production and considering reopening at least one closed mine as demand for British coal rises.