9 months ago

Alabama’s coal industry continues to fuel the expanding Port of Mobile

MOBILE – With the news breaking Monday that Alabama’s entire congressional delegation supports the proposed modernization and expansion – including major deepening and widening – of the Port of Mobile, I am once again left in awe at what the Port – and its success – means for the entire state.

It was a surprisingly cool summer day when I visited the Port in August, a steady breeze off the water making the normally blanket-like heat quite bearable. I was there on a tour organized by the Alabama Coal Association, with its President Patrick Cagle leading the charge.

We all shuttled in on a small transit bus, like you would find at a hotel, to the McDuffie Coal Terminal and proceeded into a small metal-sided office building for a quick briefing from the Port’s Deputy Director, Smitty Thorne, who is a longtime public servant set to retire in February.

I went into their conference room thinking I knew how important the Port was to the state and that the coal industry played a large role in that, but the facts and figures that the Port staff shared were staggering nonetheless.
First, let me just get this out of the way – the Port does not take a dime from the state budget, i.e. the General Fund. It is completely self-sufficient, generating around $160 million in annual revenue that is pumped back into continual improvements of the Port.

And the continual improvement is paying off – Alabama’s Port is the fastest growing container port in North America, at a 20 percent growth rate this year. It is now the 10th largest port between the U.S., Canada and Mexico and the second and third largest steel and coal ports respectively. The Port of Mobile also finds itself a major mover of automotive parts and breakbulk forest products.

They are constantly innovating, too. We are talking real-time tracking of individual slabs of steel with RFID chips, with them handling 3.3 million tons of slabs annually; a state-of-the-art “AutoMobile International” roll-on/roll-off (Ro/Ro) facility that will boost automotive exports considerably when it is completed in late 2019 or early 2020; a world-class transportation network to and from the Port, including five national (Class 1) railroads, three short line railroads and easy access to both I-65 and I-10; and now the proposed plan for deepening and widening.

The Port handled a massive number of vessels in fiscal year 2017 – 1623 to be exact – and is responsible for an irreplaceable 134,608 direct and indirect jobs. That number equals a staggering 15.08 percent of Alabama’s total wage and salaried employees.

This also leads to more huge top-line numbers, including the Port’s annual economic impact of $22.4 billion and their yearly generated tax revenue of $486.9 million.

Now, let me preface this again. I knew, probably more than most, that coal played a huge part in the Port’s business. I have been to an Alabama surface mine and greatly appreciate the tremendous economic impact the coal industry has on the Yellowhammer State. But I learned something new in a big way.

Coal accounts for fifty percent – yes, half – of the Port’s total business.

Needless to say, the “War on Coal” was a huge hit to the Port and to Alabama. For example, once serving seven steam (energy-producing) coal plants, the Port now only serves two.

(Sean Ross/YHN)

But there has been an improvement after President Obama left office, with conditions and optimism considerably and rightfully higher in the industry. The Port even saw a nine percent volume increase in coal transit last year.

For the Port, a large part of their recent boon has been the emergence of Warrior Met Coal – now the Port’s single biggest customer by far.

Warrior Met mines metallurgical (met) coal used to produce coke, which is pivotal in steelmaking and has been on a tear since it bought the high-quality mines left untapped by Walter Energy’s 2016 bankruptcy.

Trading on the New York Stock Exchange (HCC), the Alabama company is excited about the good market outlook for met coal exporting, which also spells more good news for the Port. Of the 14 million tons of coal mined in the state last year, Warrior Met accounted for 7.5 million – well over fifty percent.

At the end of the briefing, Deputy Director Thorne said that the surging economic conditions, for the Port especially led by strong outlooks for the Alabama met coal and steel industries, meant that they anticipated 2018 to show another year of double-digit percentage growth.

It was on that note of optimism that we embarked from the unassuming office to tour the McDuffie Coal Terminal itself.

Stepping outside the narrow office doors, you look around and can not help but see coal and containers. They each rise high – cities of containers, plateaus of coal towering as far as the eye can wander.

We got back on the shuttle bus, headed eventually to hop aboard a tugboat. On the first attempt to get there, we ran into a train stopped on an intersection we needed to get to. The driver of the Great Southern Wood truck in front of us might not have been too pleased, but the train being at a standstill was actually a good thing, a sign of the rising economic tide, as it had stopped to take double its normal load due to an uptick in business.

We turned around and circled to the other side of McDuffie. As I first noticed when we had arrived, there were puddles everywhere – which was strange since it had not rained that day or the day previous. But it finally struck me as we drove by a sign that read “15 mph … think dust.” The Port is so dusty – think thousands of acres of dirt – that they have to water the barren ground just to stop it from kicking up into workers’ and drivers’ faces.

It was explained to us shortly after that the Port uses their own drainage water on the roads and shoulders to control the dust – another simple but cost-saving innovation.

When we arrived at the Parker Towing vessel to go out on the water, I could feel the teeming energy of the place building – the train cars rumbling, the salt air blowing softly and the peaceful ebb of the water making the buzzing optimism of the place come alive. Everything about the place was striking – even the simple contrast of little white birds flittering about on the jet-black masses of coal.

We boarded after a safety lesson and donning vests, out onto the water to see where the hard work happens. It was a confluence of characters, all who make the Port’s success possible, that made the tour so meaningful.

Besides the ever-so-important and equally under-appreciated Port employees, you had the Parker Towing employees, who are top-notch operators of barges and waterway freight up and down Alabama’s waterways; Warrior Met employees, many of whom have been in the coal industry for a lifetime and came over from Walter Energy or other companies that did not survive the Obama Administration; Alabama Department of Labor Secretary Fitzgerald Washington, who is helping lead Gov. Ivey’s historic employment successes; and public officials, including incoming state legislators Chris Elliot and Shane Stringer and Rep. David Sessions, who will be transitioning into the state Senate this coming term.

The Port is the lifeblood of Alabama, and the coal industry is largely the driver of this status – again, think fifty percent of the Port’s business. To experience first-hand what goes into making this possible was rewarding. But to see Alabama’s congressional delegation cross the normal partisan lines this week to ensure the Port’s future competitiveness was historic.

As Sen. Richard Shelby said, “This project will create an avenue for exponential growth.”

As the proposed plan for its expansion moves forward in the approval process, remember the real impact the Port has. Not only the dollars and cents, but the people – again, 134,608 jobs. If you take into account the average Alabama household size, this equates to over 340,000 people that rely on the Port of Mobile for their livelihood.

Without the coal industry, this number would not be nearly as large. So, when you hear a politician say that only a handful of counties have mines and are affected by the industry, just know the real facts.

From Sand Mountain through the Birmingham metro area even into the Black Belt and down to the Gulf Coast, coal is still king in Alabama.

Sean Ross is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

12 hours ago

Are you afraid to answer the phone?

Millions of Americans fear answering their phone due to a plague of billions of robocalls. These calls have made a mockery of the national Do Not Call Registry and touch on several public policy questions.

We had seemingly ended the problem of unwanted telemarketing calls. Congress authorized the Do Not Call Registry in 2003 after more than a decade of calls disrupting the peace and quiet of our homes. Fines of $11,000 per violation largely put telemarketing companies, with hundreds of thousands of employees, out of business.

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Why have unwanted calls returned? VOIP technology (voice over internet protocol) allowed anyone with a computer and an internet connection to make thousands of calls. A handful of responses can make thousands of calls worthwhile when the cost is almost zero. Furthermore, technology makes robocallers mobile and elusive.

By contrast, telemarketing firms employed hundreds of people at call centers. The authorities could find and fine telemarketers. Firms had to comply with the Do Not Call registry, even if forced out of business.

Technology further frustrates the control of robocalls. Spoofing makes a call appear to be from a different number. Spoofing a local number increases the chance of someone answering, defeats caller ID, and makes identifying the calls’ source difficult.

By contrast, technology allowed the elimination of spam email. It’s easy to forget that fifteen years ago spam threatened the viability of email. Email providers connected accounts to IP addresses and eventually identified and blocked spammers. Google estimates that spam is less than 0.1 percent of Gmail users’ emails.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) banned almost all robocalls in 2009 (political campaigns and schools were excepted). Yet the volume of calls and complaints from the public rise every year. And the “quality” of the solicitations is lower: legitimate businesses employed telemarketers, while most robocalls seem to be scams.

Telephone companies and entrepreneurs are deploying apps and services to block robocalls. The robocallers then respond, producing a technological arms race. The technology of this arms race, however, is beyond me.

I’d rather consider some issues robocalls raise. The root of the problem is some people’s willingness to swindle others. Although we all know there are some bad people in the world, free market economists typically emphasize the costs and consequences of government regulations over the cheats and frauds who create the public’s demand for regulation. People can disagree whether a level of fraud warrants regulation, but free marketers should not dismiss the fear of swindlers.

Robocalls also highlight the enormous inefficiency of theft. Thieves typically get 25 cents on the dollar (or less) when selling stolen goods. Getting $1,000 via theft requires stealing goods worth $4,000 or more. In addition, thieves invest time and effort planning and carrying out crimes, while we invest millions in locks, safes, burglar alarms, and police departments to protect our property. America would be much richer if we did not have to protect against thieves or robocallers.

Finally, having the government declare something illegal does not necessarily solve a problem. Our politicians like to pass a law or regulation and announce, “problem solved.” Identifying and punishing robocallers is difficult; the FTC had only brought 33 cases in nearly ten years. And less than ten percent of the over $300 million in fines and relief for consumers levied against robocallers had been collected. Government has no pixie dust which magically solves hard problems.

The difficulty of enforcing a law or regulation does not necessarily imply we should not act. The Federal Communications Commission, for instance, recently approved letting phone companies block unwanted calls by default, and perhaps this will prove effective. We should weigh the costs of laws and regulations against a realistic projection of benefits and laws failing to solve problems as promised should be revised or repealed.
Still, a law that accomplishes little can have value. Cursing robocalls accomplishes little yet can be cathartic. A law that costs little might provide us satisfaction until technology solves the problem.

Daniel Sutter is the Charles G. Koch Professor of Economics with the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University and host of Econversations on TrojanVision. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Troy University.

13 hours ago

VIDEO: Culverhouse vs. UA, Trump and Biden battle in Iowa, the Bentley saga could be over and more on Guerrilla Politics

Radio talk show host Dale Jackson and Dr. Waymon Burke take you through this week’s biggest political stories, including:

— Why did the media get the story with Hugh Culverhouse, Jr. and Alabama so wrong?

— Is the Iowa slap-fight between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden a 2020 preview?

— Now that former ALEA head Spencer Collier has settled his case with the state over his firing, is the sordid Bentley saga over?

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Jackson and Burke are joined by State Representative Mike Ball (R-Madison) to discuss medical marijuana, the prison special session and the lottery.

Jackson closes the show with a “parting shot” that calls out Joe Biden for lying about the lack of lies and scandals in the Obama administration.

VIDEO: Culverhouse/UA, Trump and Biden battle in Iowa, the Bentley saga could be over and more on Guerrilla Politics

Posted by Yellowhammer News on Sunday, June 16, 2019

Dale Jackson is a contributing writer to Yellowhammer News and hosts a talk show from 7-11 am weekdays on WVNN.

14 hours ago

Alabama team targets international connections at SelectUSA Investment Summit

Alabama is home to a diverse lineup of international companies, and the state’s business recruiters are looking to expand those ranks.

The economic development team is in Washington D.C. at the 2019 SelectUSA Investment Summit, which starts today and is the premier foreign direct investment (FDI) event in the U.S.

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FDI is a significant part of Alabama’s economy. Last year alone, it came from 16 different countries, for a total of $4.2 billion in investment and 7,520 new and future jobs.

Since 2013, the state has attracted $12.8 billion in FDI, according to the Alabama Department of Commerce. It’s spread across a variety of sectors, including automotive, aerospace and bioscience.

“Team Alabama is looking to capitalize on a record-breaking year for FDI in the state, by continuing to build partnerships with world-class international companies looking to grow in the U.S.,” said Vince Perez, a project manager for the Alabama Department of Commerce.

SHOWCASING ALABAMA

SelectUSA is led by the U.S. Department of Commerce, and its annual summit regularly attracts top industry leaders and investors from around the globe. This year’s event is expected to draw more than 2,800 attendees from more than 70 international markets and 49 U.S. states and territories.

Participants of the past five summits have announced $103.6 billion in greenfield FDI in the U.S. within five years of attending, supporting more than 167,000 U.S. jobs.

“We are excited to have another opportunity to showcase Alabama’s vibrant business climate that’s been cultivated over the years through business-friendly policies,” Perez said.

“This year’s Investment Summit is very timely as we will be armed with the recently passed Incentives Modernization Act, which upgraded our already-strong incentive tool kit, making us more marketable than ever.”

The measure targets counties that have had slower economic growth. In particular, it expands the number of rural counties that qualify for investment and tax credit incentives. It also enhances incentives for technology companies.

Joining the Commerce Department at the SelectUSA Summit are PowerSouth, the North Alabama Industrial Development Association, the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama, Alabama Power Co., and Spire.

Speakers at the summit will include key government and industry leaders who will discuss opportunities in a broad range of areas and industries, such as energy, infrastructure, agriculture and technology.

FDI supports nearly 14 million American jobs, and it is responsible for $370 billion in U.S. goods exports. The U.S. has more FDI than any other country, topping $4 trillion.

(Courtesy of Made in Alabama)

A ‘Story Worth Sharing’: Yellowhammer News and Serquest partner to award monthly grants to Alabama nonprofits

Christmas is the season of giving, helping others and finding magic moments among seemingly ordinary (and occasionally dreary) days. What better way to welcome this season than to share what Alabamians are doing to help others?

Yellowhammer News and Serquest are partnering to bring you, “A Story Worth Sharing,” a monthly award given to an Alabama based nonprofit actively making an impact through their mission. Each month, the winning organization will receive a $1,000 grant from Serquest and promotion across the Yellowhammer Multimedia platforms.

Yellowhammer and Serquest are looking for nonprofits that go above and beyond to change lives and make a difference in their communities.

Already have a nonprofit in mind to nominate? Great!

Get started here with contest guidelines and a link to submit your nomination:

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Nominations are now open and applicants only need to be nominated once. All non-winning nominations will automatically be eligible for selection in subsequent months. Monthly winners will be announced via a feature story that will be shared and promoted on Yellowhammer’s website, email and social media platforms.

Submit your nomination here.

Our organizations look forward to sharing these heartwarming and positive stories with you over the next few months as we highlight the good works of nonprofits throughout our state.

Serquest is an Alabama based software company founded by Hammond Cobb, IV of Montgomery. The organization sees itself as, “Digital road and bridge builders in the nonprofit sector to help people get where they want to go faster, life’s purpose can’t wait.”

Learn more about Serquest here.

15 hours ago

Alabama Power wins Electric Edison Institute awards for power restoration efforts following Hurricane Michael

The Edison Electric Institute (EEI) awarded Alabama Power with the EEI “Emergency Assistance Award” and the  “Emergency Recovery Award” for its outstanding power restoration efforts after Hurricane Michael hit Alabama, Georgia, and Florida in October 2018.
The Emergency Assistance Award and Emergency Recovery Award are given to EEI member companies to recognize their efforts to assist other electric companies’ power restoration efforts, and for their own extraordinary efforts to restore power to customers after service disruptions caused by severe weather conditions or other natural events. The winners are chosen by a panel of judges following an international nomination process.

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Alabama Power received the awards during the EEI 2019 annual conference.

Alabama Power’s extraordinary efforts were instrumental to restoring service for customers across Alabama, Georgia, and Florida quickly and safely,” said EEI President Tom Kuhn. “We are pleased to recognize the dedicated crews from Alabama Power for their work to restore service in hazardous conditions and to assist neighboring electric companies in their times of need.”

Hurricane Michael, the strongest storm to make landfall during the 2018 hurricane season, was a Category 5 hurricane with peak winds of 160 mph. The storm hit Mexico Beach, Fla., on October 10 before being downgraded to a tropical storm and traveling northeast through Georgia and several Mid-Atlantic states. Alabama Power sent more than 1,400 lineworkers and 700 trucks to help restore service to customers over the course of two and a half months.

Hurricane Michael also resulted in 89,438 service outages in Alabama Power’s territory. Due to their tireless work, Alabama Power’s crews restored power to 100 percent of customers within four days after the storm, dedicating more than 124-thousand hours to the recovery.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)