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In Kentucky, who's to blame for coal's decline?

Mon, 2014-04-07 02:17

An official with the Federal Reserve recently made this rosy prediction: the jobless rate could dip below six percent this year. But there are still pockets of double-digit unemployment around the country. Take eastern Kentucky, where layoffs in the coal industry have helped push the jobless rate to 16 percent in some places. 

Some point the finger at what they call President Obama’s “War on Coal.” “I blame him for trying to regulate coal fired power plants,” says 30-year-old Ryan Trent, a laid-off underground miner from Busy, Kentucky. “Because if it weren’t for that, we’d still have jobs.”

Certainly, the EPA’s crackdown on power plant emissions and mountaintop removal means fewer coal jobs in eastern Kentucky. The area has lost 40 percent of its coal-related jobs in just the last two years, acccording to Jason Bailey, director of the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy.

Yet Appalachian coal would still be at a disadvantage, according to Michael Dudas, managing director at Sterne, Agee in New York. “The cost to mine the coal in Wyoming is $10 a ton," he says. “The cost to mine that coal in eastern Kentucky can range from the low to mid-40s to upwards of $70 a ton.”

One reason it costs more to mine in eastern Kentucky is that coal companies have mined the mountains there for well over a century. They’ve already exhausted the easy coal. What’s left takes more work to get at.

“I don’t hardly see how there can be any more coal in these mountains," says Lee Sexton, 86, a legendary banjo player who retired from mining decades ago because of black lung. "There been so much of it took out, y’know.”

East Kentucky coal is also now competing against higher-sulfur coal from the Illinois Basin. That cheaper coal was a problem for utilities trying to meet federal clean air standards, but once many power plants invested in expensive scrubbers to “clean” the sulfur out,  it gained a foothold in the marketplace. 

Greg Pauley, president and COO of Kentucky Power, says his company will be burning less coal in the future, wherever it comes from. “As the cost of using coal continues to rise, we go away from that," he says. "And what do we go away to? Right now we go to gas.”

The EPA’s upcoming carbon pollution standards mean burning coal will cost more. Bill Bissett, president of the Kentucky Coal Association,  believes eastern Kentucky coal will “continued to be mined for generations to come,” but the industry will play a smaller role in the region’s economy.

"Chances are," he says, "companies will be more privately owned,  less multinational in footprint, and they’ll likely be taking more advantage of the spot markets than long term contracts, which can create uncertainty but I think at the same time it still provides livelihoods and puts food on people’s tables.”

Dee Davis, founder of the Center for Rural Strategies in Whitesburg, Kentucky,  says it’s now up to east Kentuckians to figure out an economy beyond coal. “Coal is our history.  Coal is our heritage. It’s been one pathway into the middle class for a lot of families. It’s been a friend, but it’s not our future.”

A weaker earnings season for banks

Mon, 2014-04-07 02:00

Later this week, the nation's big banks begin releasing profit reports for the latest quarter, and expectations are not high.

"I expect that earnings are going to be fairly lackluster," says Nancy Bush with NAB Research, which focuses on the banking industry. "This doesn't imply that we're back to 2007. It's just that earnings have stopped going up on a year-over-year basis."

Banks that have focused on borrowing and lending are expected to outperform firms that have been "a little more involved in Wall Street-type activities," says Morningstar analyst Jim Sinegal.

That includes banks like Wells Fargo.

Still, some analysts anticipate a bump in economic activity this spring, with an increase in home and car loans. That could boost the bottom line at banks in the months ahead.

Bitcoin ATM in the halls of Congress

Mon, 2014-04-07 02:00

If you’re tired of hearing of about Bitcoin and tired of hearing about Congress, we’ve got great news for you: Congress gets its first Bitcoin ATM this week.

Okay, it’s just a demonstration from the company Robocoin, but it highlights some of the changes virtual currency has to go through in the non-virtual world. For one thing, registering securely with Robocoin to use the Bitcoin ATM involves setting aside the pseudonymity Bitcoin users love online – phone number, photo ID, and palm-scan required.

Bitcoin: How Washington is reacting

By Marc Sollinger

Those demanding a ban

It’s safe to say that Senator Joe Manchin (D-W. Va) doesn’t like bitcoins. He thinks they are disruptive to the economy and have allowed users to participate in illegal activity. So he wrote a letter to federal regulators demanding bitcoins be banned. Unfortunately for him, Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen told a congressional committee that the Fed can’t really impose rules on Bitcoin, as it’s outside their purview. In response, Manchin has backed off, though just slightly.  

Holding hearings

Even though Bitcoin is more than five years old, lawmakers are still trying to get a handle on it. So, they’ve held hearings. In a meeting the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs held last year, Ben Bernanke, then the Fed chair, said virtual currencies like Bitcoin might hold promise. At a hearing last month, lawmakers heard about the benefits and drawbacks bitcoins might have for small businesses. So far, none of these hearings have resulted in any legislation to regulate cryptocurrencies.

Proposing legislation

Though no national Bitcoin regulations have passed, that doesn’t mean that there hasn’t been talk about rules, both at the federal and state level. U.S. Senator Tom Carper (D-Del) recently urged the U.S. to lead the way in virtual currency regulation. The IRS is classifying Bitcoin as property for tax purposes and saying that people who successfully mine bitcoins have to report that in their gross income. Lawmakers in California are trying to pass legislation expressly declaring bitcoins are legal.  State regulators are also getting in on the action. The Texas State Securities Board issued an emergency cease and desist order against a company using bitcoins. And New York’s Department of Financial Services will require Bitcoin exchanges to get ‘BitLicenses’ if they want to operate in the state.

Andy Warhol's 'fame' quotation may not have been his own

Mon, 2014-04-07 01:03

"In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes." You've heard the quote, but who said it? Long-attributed to Andy Warhol, the line and its provenance are actually not so simple.

Art-critic Blake Gopnik joins Marketplace Morning Report host David Brancaccio to explain the history of the quote, who said it, and why -- as a matter of branding -- it doesn't really matter. Read more of Blake Gopnik's research on the subject and everything else Andy Warhol over at Warholiana.com

Full audio for this story to be posted soon. 

 

Taking national security to the cloud

Mon, 2014-04-07 00:02

Over the past few months, there has been growing evidence that online surveillance conducted by the U.S. government is impacting the tech industry.

One area in particular? Cloud Storage. Tech companies have started to move some of their facilities overseas under pressure from foreign governments. Some of those governments have even considered building their own infrastructure, so that their citizens information won't be stored in the U.S.

Germany, in particular, is talking about a so-called "bundescloud."

But Jonathan Zittrain, founder of Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, says these attempts are misguided. He thinks we should  stop worrying about where data is physically in the world. People will be held accountable by the legal system, but data should be free to roam the clouds. 

"The ultimate goal would be to make it what the goal may be for electricity generation on a grid," says Zittrain. "And you could see at some point, people with extra storage would offer it up as a commodity to the overall web ... or they might need extra storage."

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