Coal Tattoo

Friday roundup, May 1, 2009


Thanks to Coal Tattoo reader Red Desert who pointed out this NASA-posted satellite image of large-scale surface coal mining in the mountains of Bosnia and Herzegovina.  You can get a better view at their site. NASA explained:

The transition from underground mines to more profitable large-scale surface mines has led to soil degradation, dramatic changes to terrain, and water and air pollution. Scientists at the University of Tuzla have estimated that open pit mining has degraded at least 20,000 hectares (about 50,000 acres) of land in the country, with the majority of the damage occurring in the Tuzla Basin. Remediating some of the worst pollution hotspots in the Tuzla Basin is part of a new agreement among cities and local industry to make industrial activities in the area more environmentally sustainable.

Today is the 1st of May, and my UMWA calendar tells me that it is Mother Jones birthday. But, of course, that is the date that Mary Harris Jones, the great activist and agitator, claimed as her birthday. Other sources indicate that she may actually have been born on Aug. 1, 1837. She may have chosen the May 1 date instead to commemorate the anniversary of the Haymarket Affair, which played a big role in the start of the international May 1 workers’ holiday.

Earlier today, reader and frequent commenter Tom Rodd pointed out this column by Paul Krugman of The New York Times about cap-and-trade policies. If you don’t read Krugman regularly, you should. And if you don’t want to, but are interested in the debate about how we’re going to deal with greenhouse gases, please do read this column. If you don’t know much about Krugman, read his profile here, and understand that  he’s got a Ph.D. from MIT and received a Nobel Prize in economics.

ts-krugman-190.jpgKrugman has bad news for both environmentalists who want to pretend that switching to a greener energy system and economy is easy and doesn’t cost much, and also for all you deniers out there who want to just complain about the costs being too high:

…It’s important to understand that just as denials that climate change is happening are junk science, predictions of economic disaster if we try to do anything about climate change are junk economics.

Yes, limiting emissions would have its costs. As a card-carrying economist, I cringe when “green economy” enthusiasts insist that protecting the environment would be all gain, no pain.

But the best available estimates suggest that the costs of an emissions-limitation program would be modest, as long as it’s implemented gradually. And committing ourselves now might actually help the economy recover from its current slump.

Krugman explains that cap-and-trade will raise costs of things, especially energy, and especially coal-fired electricity. But, he says, those costs won’t go up as much as some folks (are you reading this, Congresswoman Capito?) want the public to think:

If emission permits were auctioned off — as they should be — the revenue thus raised could be used to give consumers rebates or reduce other taxes, partially offsetting the higher prices. But the offset wouldn’t be complete. Consumers would end up poorer than they would have been without a climate-change policy.

But how much poorer? Not much, say careful researchers, like those at the Environmental Protection Agency or the Emissions Prediction and Policy Analysis Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Even with stringent limits, says the M.I.T. group, Americans would consume only 2 percent less in 2050 than they would have in the absence of emission limits. That would still leave room for a large rise in the standard of living, shaving only one-twentieth of a percentage point off the average annual growth rate.

Krugman also pointed out that if you really believe in the power of the marketplace (are you reading, Hoppy Kercheval?), you also have to believe that “the economy can handle emissions limits just fine”:

Right now, the biggest problem facing our economy is plunging business investment. Businesses see no reason to invest, since they’re awash in excess capacity, thanks to the housing bust and weak consumer demand.

But suppose that Congress were to mandate gradually tightening emission limits, starting two or three years from now. This would have no immediate effect on prices. It would, however, create major incentives for new investment — investment in low-emission power plants, in energy-efficient factories and more.

To put it another way, a commitment to greenhouse gas reduction would, in the short-to-medium run, have the same economic effects as a major technological innovation: It would give businesses a reason to invest in new equipment and facilities even in the face of excess capacity. And given the current state of the economy, that’s just what the doctor ordered.

This short-run economic boost isn’t the main reason to move on climate-change policy. The important thing is that the planet is in danger, and the longer we wait the worse it gets. But it is an extra reason to move quickly.

So can we afford to save the planet? Yes, we can. And now would be a very good time to get started.

OK, everybody got that? Good.

There’s lots of other coal-related news to run over, so here goes …

First off, the good folks over at West Virginia Public Broadcasting had a couple of interesting pieces this week that I wanted to commend to Coal Tattoo readers.

One of them, by Erica Peterson, dug into the age-old issue and controversy of how much coal we have left, and how much of that coal might be mined (especially by large-scale surface mining or mountaintop removal). Coal Tattoo readers may recall that I’ve written about this before in “Peak Coal.” In particular, it’s important to note that a National Academy of Sciences study published in 2007 called into question whether the government or industry have adequate information about coal reserves to really be making decent projections. There was also a recent U.S. Geological Survey report that warned of depleted reserves in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin, and a study by Clean Energy Action warning that oft-cited optimistic estimates of remaining coal reserves were off the mark.

Jessica Lilly, meanwhile, covered a forum on coal’s future sponsored by the Beckley-Raleigh County Chamber of Commerce.  It featured Gene Kitts, a top mining engineer and senior vice president of International Coal Group. I know Kitts and he’s one smart fellow. And he’s among the few coal industry experts — real experts, not PR people — who will get out there and talk, answer questions and deal with the public and the media. I respect him for that, and thank him for engaging in the debate.

Kitts made a good point, when he explained that there are environmental dangers associated with underground mining. But he lost me when he tried to convince folks that the only thing EPA is making a fuss about in its mountaintop removal permit reviews is damage to a particular type of mayfly. But public radio included comments from an audience member who did a good job of explaining why Kitts was off base on that one:

Eric Autenreith was one of the audience members. He says Kitts is oversimplifying the situations by saying it’s jobs versus mayflies.

“When you present it that way, of course human lives and jobs seem much more important than the life of the mayfly,” he said. “However, mayflies are harpengers are like the canaries in the coal mine. They are the canaries in the environment and humans live in the environment. When stream quality declines it is likely that the quality of life is likely to decline. That’s why it’s important.”

Other coal news this week:

— U.S. EPA has identified 44 highly hazardous coal-ash impoundments around the coalfields that it plans to inspect. But the agency won’t identify those facilities, according to this report from Gannett’s Washington Bureau. In a related matter, my buddy at Radford University, Bill Kovarik, pointed out this article in The Nation, which questioned the data the TVA has used to try to show it’s huge coal-ash disaster has not damaged water quality.

— Kind of an odd thing to do, given that another Boone County anti-mountaintop removal activist, Maria Gunnoe, just won this year’s Goldman Prize, but Newsweek published a lengthy interview with Judy Bonds, who won the award a few years back.

— Lots of coal industry earnings reports coming out, including those from Massey Energy,  Patriot Coal, International Coal Group, Alliance Resource Partners, Arch Coal, and CONSOL Energy.

— Just today, there’s a very interesting study out there from the U.S. Geological Survey which shows how air pollution (re: Coal-fired power plant emissions) is responsible for polluting seafood with toxic mercury.

— The Louisville Courier-Journal’s Ralph Dunlop has a story about the Kentucky attorney general’s office is investigating Betty Sue Whitaker, the former state mine-safety analyst who resigned amid allegations that she had falsified more than two dozen reports and received more than $33,000 in salary she didn’t earn. This is a follow-up to a story that Dunlop originally broke a few weeks ago and is well worth reading. Here’s a bit of it:

For at least a year, Betty Sue Whitaker allegedly lived a lie that threatened coal miners’ health and safety, as well as the reputation of the state agency that employed her.

But even after determining that Whitaker had falsified more than two dozen inspection reports — pretending to evaluate workers at mines that she visited briefly or not at all — the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet allowed her to resign last month without making her repay the thousands of dollars in salary it had concluded she did not earn.

(Thanks to my buddy Tony Oppegard, the great Kentucky mine safety lawyer and advocate, who always keeps me up on stories I miss out of his state)

— Another one Tony pointed out to me was this story from the Lexington Herald-Leader, about MSHA coming to the defense of a miner who said he was fired for complaining about a safety problem.

That about does it for this week. Have a good weekend everybody.