Coal Tattoo

Friday roundup, March 27, 2009


 “I will tell you that there’s some pretty country up there that’s been torn up pretty good … not taking that into account because of short-term economic concerns, I think, is a mistake.”

 President Barack Obama

It’s been quite a week. EPA’s announcement on Tuesday that it was going to start taking a closer look at mountaintop removal mining permits pending before the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers  went off like explosions at the Kayford Mountain strip mine, shown above in a photo by Antrim Caskey.

There was other coal-related news this week, and we’ll get to that. But I want to run back through some things on mountaintop removal first.

Cries from the coal industry and coalfield politicians that the EPA move was an immediate threat to thousands of jobs reminded a few folks in the local media that mountaintop removal was an issue. Unfortunately, much of the media coverage has provided coalfield readers with more heat than light.

Not to be outdone by the Daily Mail’s editorial writers, Dan Page over The State Journal business newsletter wrote:

The coal industry’s worst fears are coming true. President Barack Obama appears prepared to push coal to the margins of the American economy.

My buddy Hoppy Kercheval, host of West Virginia MetroNews’ Talkline show, wrote a commentary that recalled the words of the late Gazette Editor Don Marsh, a Logan County native who “considered coal operators to be the oppressors of the people of Southern West Virginia” and “believed the state would have been better off had there been no coal beneath the mountains.”

Hoppy even sounded like a voice of reason, when he went on to urge EPA to clarify what it was doing.  Hoppy wrote that West Virginia “urgently needs answers” to some questions like:

Is the agency going to use its authority to discourage the use of coal because it doesn’t like coal?  Or is the EPA simply going to make a more thorough review of mine permits to make sure operations are in compliance with the law.

But this made me think that Hoppy and a lot of other folks in the media need to go back and read EPA’s initial press release. Here’s the link to it again, and a summary: EPA sent two letters to the Corps, raising serious concerns about whether permits for one mountaintop removal mine in West Virginia and one in Kentucky would violate the Clean Water Act. Those letters are posted here on EPA’s Web site. Media folks should read them carefully, too.


Nowhere in those letters or in its press release does EPA say it is halting, holding or blocking any  mountaintop removal permits. Fueled by an Associated Press story that said otherwise, environmental activists, industry folks and politicians blew things out of proportion, and got way ahead of where things stand right now. It got so nuts that Adora Andy, press secretary for EPA administrator Lisa Jackson (pictured above, middle, with Council on Environmental Quality Chairwoman Nancy Sutley), issued a follow-up news release late Tuesday night (note that this release is not on EPA’s Web site, and many media outlets never got it, at least not directly from EPA):

The Environmental Protection Agency is not halting, holding or placing a moratorium on any of the mining permit applications. Plain and simple. EPA has issued comments on two pending permit applications to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers expressing serious concerns about the need to reduce the potential harmful impacts on water quality. EPA will take a close look at other permits that have been held back because of the 4th Circuit litigation.  We fully anticipate that the bulk of these pending permit applications will not raise environmental concerns.  In cases where a permit does raise environmental concerns, we will work expeditiously with the Army Corps of Engineers to determine how these concerns can be addressed. EPA’s submission of comments to the Corps on draft permits is a well-established procedure under the Clean Water Act to assure that environmental considerations are addressed in the permitting process.

Of course, EPA hasn’t done a great job here. It leaked the story in a way that started the confused firestorm. It later acknowledged that there was a third permit objection letter sent to the Corps that wasn’t part of the initial press release. And, EPA has continued to not make any top program or policy people available to answer media questions on all of this.

But anybody who reads the press release and the letters would see: EPA has concerns about the damage being done by mountaintop removal. Officials there aren’t sure that at least three pending permits can be issued in compliance with the law. It’s going to  review other pending permits to see if it has concerns about those.

The take-home message to all of that should be that top EPA officials — I’m told Jackson herself and one of her top deputies, Robert Sussman, are very engaged in this issue — have concerns about the environmental effects of mountaintop removal. They want to take a closer look at the permits.  Maybe doing so will prompt them to consider some bigger changes. But they haven’t said so yet. And, much to the chagrin of hard-core anti-mountaintop removal activists, the Obama administration has not come close to saying it will ban the practice.

Finally, and probably most importantly, so far there don’t appear to be any permits that have major issues that would require them to shut down or lay off workers in the near term, while EPA reviews the permit applications.  Keep in mind, I said so far … Maybe if industry folks and politicians will settle down for a while, everyone can have a reasonable discussion and debate about the issue, and EPA and other agencies can chart the correct path.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Calm down everybody. But stay tuned …

OK, now on to more coal-related news:

The mountaintop removal story kept me so busy that I didn’t blog about the other major development this week: EPA has apparently made its long-awaited “endangerment finding,” which will allow the agency to write administrative regulations to limit greenhouse gas emissions. There is coverage out there from Bloomberg, the Washington Post, Time magazine, and Grist.

This is huge, folks.

As Joseph Romm said at Climate Progress:

So what exactly does this decision ultimately mean for what EPA and team Obama can do restrict greenhouse gas emissions? Ultimately, the agency will be able to issue regulations that deal primarily with that generate substantial amounts of greenhouse gas emissions — new dirty coal plants, this means you!

Meanwhile, Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Va., has introduced legislation to help the coal industry and utilities find ways to capture the carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants. For the coal industry, the whole ballgame here is how fast the government mandates emission reductions. Many in the industry fear the reductions will be ordered too quickly, before they have time — as if they haven’t had enough already — to come up with carbon capture and storage technology that works on a broad scale.

And other mining news:

— A strike at U.S. coal miner Drummond’s operations in Colombia ended on Friday after a four-day work stoppage paralyzed production, union representative Joaquin Romero told Reuters.

WELLSVILLE, Ohio — Citing legal challenges from a pair of environmental groups, developers behind a proposed coal-to-liquids plant in Columbiana County pulled out of their application for a loan guarantee through the U.S. Department of Energy.

–  After trying unsuccessfully for more than four years to collect thousands of dollars in unpaid fines from an Eastern Kentucky coal operator, federal regulators have taken the unprecedented step of ordering the underground mine closed.

— From The Associated Press, we have:

Known as an influential cheerleader for green energy jobs, Ohio State University’s President E. Gordon Gee also holds a seat on the board of one of environmentalists’ top energy targets.

The head of the nation’s largest university has promoted renewable energy jobs, sustainable energy technology, and the need for his giant university to reduce power use to save the environment. On Tuesday, he was named co-chair of a national effort by public universities to use their research to reduce American energy independence.

Gee also sits on the board of directors of Richmond, Va.-based Massey Energy Co., whose coal-mining practices have been the target of frequent protests, especially in West Virginia.

— There’s a lengthy story in The Nation magazine called, “The Dirt on Clean Coal” that is a Must Read:

Critics argue that “clean coal” means anything the industry wants it to, pointing out that of the country’s 616 coal plants, none are carbon-free or close to it. The viability of an environmentally sustainable future for coal is questionable, and so is the industry’s commitment to cleaning itself up.

— And finally, my favorite story this week — in large part because it appeared in The State Journal, is a commentary by Carl Irwin, from the West Virginia University National Research Center for Coal and Energy. Here’s the best part:

There is no greater calling for West Virginia at this time than for working on the transition from our current carbon-based energy infrastructure to a low- or no-carbon energy economy of the future.