Coal Tattoo

Friday roundup, Sept. 18, 2009


A survivor of a mining accident is brought to a hospital in Siemianowice Slaskie, Poland, Friday, Sept. 18, 2009. A methane leak in a Polish coal mine set off an explosion that killed 12 miners on Friday, Sept. 18, 2009 officials said. (AP Photo) 

This week ended tragically, with a methane gas explosion that killed 12 miners at a coal mine in Ruda Slaska-Kochlowice, southern Poland.

polandblast2.jpgAccording to the BBC, the explosion is the worst mining accident in Poland since a methane gas explosion killed 23 miners at the Halemba mine in Silesia three years ago. Other media reports quoted Jan Pajor, a 55-year-old miner at a different operation, saying he knew four of the men killed:

When there’s a methane blast, it’s like an atom bomb.  These people died for no reason. They were young men with wives and children, and now they have been left on their own.

Meanwhile, the United Steelworkers union went to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to object to the treatment of coal miners whose union struck Drummond Coal’s Colombia operations over safety conditions that led to the death of a colleague.  In a letter to Clinton, Steelworkers President Leo Gerard wrote:

It has come to our attention that Drummond has already fired the entire executive board of the local Drummond union of Sintramienergetica, and has petitioned the Colombian Labor Ministry for permission to fire all of its 4,000 or so unionized workers in retaliation for a recent work stoppage carried out by the union. This work stoppage, which the employees had the right to carry out under Colombian law and ILO Conventions 87 & 98, was carried out to protest the work-place death of miner Dagoberto Clavijo, one of numerous work place deaths in Drummond’s dangerous Colombian coal mines.

Further, a Colombian judge has just ordered that top Drummond executives, including the Alabama-based President, Garry Drummond, as well as President of Colombian operations, Augusto Jiminez who also works out of Alabama, be criminally investigated for conspiring with paramilitaries to carry out the murders of union leaders Valmore Locarno, Victor Orcasita and Gustavo Soler in 2001. This order is consistent with the USW’s ongoing efforts to hold Drummond responsible for these killings.

We call upon the U.S. State Department to pressure the Colombian government to refrain from permitting the firing of Drummond’s workers in retaliation for the aforementioned strike, to order Drummond to improve safety conditions in its mines, and to continue the investigation and prosecution of all those responsible for the killings of Valmore Locarno, Victor Orcasita and Gustavo Soler.


Drummond, of course, was already the target of a federal court lawsuit alleging that the coal company paid millions of dollars to a Colombian paramilitary terrorist group responsible for the deaths of 67 people in an effort to disrupt union activities at its South American mine and railway operations.  Read Sue Sturgis’ account of that here, and learn about the protests in the U.S. against Drummond’s Colombian activities here.

One of the best stories out there this week about coal focused on coal’s impacts on global warming, and the continued inaction by Congress on this problem. Living With Coal: Climate Policy’s Most Inconvenient Truth, was written for Boston Review magazine by University of Californi-San Diego professor David Victor and StanfordUniversity researcher Richard K. Morse.  The piece is part of Meeting Demand, a year-long series of articles on resources and climate change.  The coal article concludes:

Getting serious about global warming will require efforts on three fronts. One is to put a price on carbon dioxide and emissions of the other warming gases. Higher prices will help encourage efficiency and some switching to less carbon-heavy practices. But even in Europe, where carbon dioxide prices are the highest in the world, prices are still much lower than needed to stimulate investment in low-emission coal technologies, notably CCS. And prices in the United States are likely to be even lower than Europe’s.

A second effort must be technological. Stopping global warming will require deep cuts in emissions worldwide over the coming decades. Reductions on that scale will require new technologies. No private company will back those technologies on its own initiative. A major effort is needed to find new, more efficient ways to burn coal and also to bury the pollution. So-called clean coal is now the object of scorn from skeptical observers, but to serious engineers and environmentalists it is a key venture in need of support. Only governments can credibly justify and afford the kinds of investment required.

Developing countries sit at the third vital front. Coal is abundant, cheap, and indispensible. Developing countries, which already account for most of the world’s coal consumption and nearly all of the coal industry’s growth, are not likely to shift to rival fuels. Huge success in driving down the cost of technologies such as advanced wind and nuclear power systems might allow them (and the rest of the world) to shift away from coal without much economic pain. The decreasing cost of more efficient coal technologies has already made it possible for China and India, among others, to justify buying some of the most advanced technologies on commercial terms. But the more likely scenario is that the best low-emission technologies, including clean coal, will be more expensive than what these governments are willing to pay on their own. An indication that the world is not yet really serious about global warming is that no system exists to finance the use of these technologies in the countries that will dominate the energy future.

The United States has a critical role to play in this effort. At home it must adopt serious policies to push investment in new technologies to reduce emissions. Abroad, it must be prepared to help pay developing countries to test and deploy these technologies as well. And the keystone to all these efforts is coal. So far, however, real investment in low-emission coal is at a tiny fraction of the level needed. As the politicians dither, the world keeps warming.

byrd1.jpgCoal Tattoo wrote last week about Sen. Robert C. Byrd’s efforts to get more funding for coal and carbon control into the Senate version of the climate change bill.  That prompted this post by Joseph Romm at Climate Progress, noting Byrd getting involved in crafting the bill, rather than just opposing it. Like many experts, Romm is skeptical about Carbon Capture and Sequestration technology’s chances for being much help to the planet, but he says:

I could be wrong, and it’s early well worth finding out if CCS works.  That’s especially true since if it does, the future is cofiring coal and biomass with CCS and producing negative-carbon electricity.  If more money for CCS gets Byrd’s vote — at least to block a filibuster — and the votes of people like Baucus, it’s well worth it.  True, he might well bail on the final bill, but engaging him in the process seems like a positive step.

The biggest flaw in the proposal seems to be that gives too much money upfront to new coal plants that promise to do CCS, but then has no penalties if they fail to deliver on the CCS.  That needs to be fixed, but I can’t see many scenarios where new coal plants without CCS get built after this bill passes.  And the only CCS plants that get built will be ones that the government essentially covers most of the cost of, which means not bloody many until costs drop sharply, probably post-2030.

rockychange.jpgAnd, my buddy Darren Samuelsohn at ClimateWire (via The NY Times) had a story about West Virginia’s junior Senator, Jay Rockefeller also choosing to engage on the climate change bill — rather than taking the route of Massey Energy President Don Blankenship, most of the rest of the coal industry, and the general business community in West Virginia, and just opposing the bill outright, mostly based on misleading rhetoric.  The story quotes Rockfeller:

I cannot strategically negotiate and fight for West Virginia’s future if I just say no outright.

I think doing nothing at all on legislation causes three horrible things to happen, all of which mean the end of the coal industry. And people don’t think of that because they hear ‘cap and trade’ and they say they don’t like it.

How many don’t understand it is another question. But if you don’t do it at all, you just do nothing, and just say no, natural gas probably is firing all present coal power plants within three or four years. Secondly, Wall Street, there being no legislation, therefore no predictability, lends no money to people trying to build power plants. And it just cedes completely to the EPA newly empowered by the Supreme Court under very strict terms to just tear at carbon related things. All of that is talking about the end of coal and that is not where I want to be at all for West Virginia.

Meanwhile, Kate Sheppard had some interesting quotes from Jim Rogers, CEO of Duke Energy, about “clean coal” technology:

Jim Rogers, CEO of Duke Energy, raised questions on Wednesday about the viability of capturing and storing carbon dioxide emissions from coal plants underground, and suggested that coal may not even be part of the energy mix by 2050.

“I actually can see a future where coal is not in the equation in 2050,” Rogers told reporters at an event in Washington.

He argued that it’s unlikely that the United States will be able to develop and bring to scale carbon-capture-and-storage – often called “clean coal” technology. “I think there’s no way we can scale in this country,” he said. “It’s more likely that China will develop and bring CCS to scale. I’d like to be China for a day so we can get CCS done. They’re more likely to get it scaled and deployed than we are. We’re going to be buying their technology.”

And Rogers had this to say about mountaintop removal:

I’m under incredible pressure on moutaintop mining. Most of the coal we use in the southern part of the country is from mountaintop mining. I’m doing the math now and looking to determine my contracts and posing the question to my team, what if we made a policy decision that we’re not going to buy coal as a consequence of mountaintop mining.

The New York Times’ story on water pollution violations, focused on the situation down in Prenter, W.Va., got a lot of attention this week.  There is some commentary here from Jeff Biggers on The Huffington Post and here by Rob Perks of the NRDC.

Meanwhile, the Rural Blog  and the Society of Environmental Journalists’ TipSheet  point out that the Times made the data it used for its story available for the public and for other reporters to use. But the Knight Science Journalism Tracker blog pointed out some questions about the way the story was handled by the Times:

The meat of the piece is evidence that the Times reports uncovering that  violations of the Clean Water Act are on the rise and, further, that “the vast majority of … polluters have (sic) escaped punishment.” The series – as any investigative piece ought – has a stiff and alarming tone. This is crusading journalism. But one wonders if there is some selective data citation here, and perhaps use of statistics that don’t quite reinforce how common are some of its most alarming examples. One passage for example describes coal mining waste as having as much as 1000 percent (which sounds so much worse than ten times) the legal level of heavy metals. But it’s not clear whether that’s the legal level for waste, or for drinking water. And “up to ” leaves the statement’s meaning in limbo. It then follows up with reference to 4,200 water pollution violations – but of what severity? One wonders.

There is much to admire in this series – including the vast amount of data and obscure reports that the Times and [reporter Charles] Duhigg have sifted. The results need reporting. But one wonders further, given the occasional disclaimers the story itself provides saying it is impossible yet to know how many or which ailments are caused by what pollutants,  whether its suggestion of demonstrated and considerable public harm is justified.

And in other coal-related news and commentary this week:

— West Virginia Blue covered the idea of a New Deal for Appalachia,  and the Lexington Herald-Leader had coverage of the same issue, featuring a speech by Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

— The Oak Hill Gazette in Austin, Texas, reports on U.S. EPA’s promise to study the water quality and human health effects of coal-tar sealants.

—  The New York Times reported on TVA’s plans to spend more than $40 million on economic development projects in the area where the company’s coal-ash disaster occurred.

— Grist had this story about whether President Obama might propose eliminating economic subsidies for fossil fuel industries,  and the Times Online reported:

The World Bank is spending billions of pounds subsidising new coal-fired power stations in developing countries despite claiming that burning fossil fuels exposes the poor to catastrophic climate change.

— The New York Times had this article examining the decision to abandon a new railroad into the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Dustin Bleizeffer of the Casper Star-Tribune reported on declining coal production in Wyoming.

International Coal Group announced that  had acquired international patent rights to sell its ADDCAR highwall mining system beyond North America. Key coal-producing countries added to the ICG ADDCAR marketing area include China, Russia and South Africa, ICG said.

— There was an interesting mention of coal in this Wall Street Journal blog about natural gas:

So what does market see in natural gas? Analysts at Barclays Capital and Raymond James & Associates say the driver for the gas rally is coal. As natural-gas prices dropped to the lowest level in seven years in early September, it dethroned “King Coal” to become a cheaper fuel source for power plants. Natural gas is still down about 40% this year.

— The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported on a judge’s ruling throwing out local government efforts in that state to control coal-mining damage:

Blaine Township supervisors, in an attempt to protect the local environment, passed two ordinances to try to stop mining and drilling there.

One local law prohibits any corporation from doing business within the township if it has a history of more than three violations against it over the past 20 years. The ordinance also says that the township will not recognize corporations as having the same rights as individuals.

The other ordinance prohibits corporations from mining in Blaine.

— Following up on my Coal Tattoo posts (see here and here) about WVU naming a department chair for coal operator Bob Murray in exchange for a $1 million donation,  Jeff Biggers pointed out in The Huffington Post (Headline: Blood Money) that WVU had also recently collected $500,000 from Massey Energy:

While no one begrudges WVU for cashing these checks in these hard times, and while no one is calling for the institution to return the donations–as many universities did with tainted tobacco industry contributions–the WVU president needs to explain to his students, faculty, the alumni, the governing board of the university, the United Mine Workers of America, and the general public, why he has chosen to honor two of the most denounced and controversial coal barons in the country instead of his state’s own children, and our nation’s coal miner heroes and mining safety workers buried in Crandall Canyon.


And finally, the Sierra Club has launched a Campuses Beyond Coal Campaign described this way:

While our nation’s colleges and universities should be leaders of innovation and technology, they have a dirty secret: most are still running on dirty, 19th century coal. Whether they operate their own coal plants right on campus, or purchase coal-generated electricity form the grid, these schools are stuck in the past. They need to act now, investing in 100 percent clean energy solutions, to move beyond coal.

There’s more in the Sierra Club magazine here,  and there were demonstrations on campuses across the country, including the one shown above at the University of Missouri. I didn’t see any coverage of such an event at WVU (if I missed it, please some reader point it out), but I did see an editorial in my old student newspaper, The Daily Athenaeum about The New York Times coal water pollution story:

It is clear from the stories shared to The New York Times and from our own recent examples of water pollutants that swift action is needed.

There should be no reason that in the 21st century a resident of the United States shouldn’t expect clean, potable water.

In addition to investigation into the causes of such poor, unusable water, we should also investigate those who allowed it to happen.