Coal Tattoo

Coal and climate change: The industry’s fuzzy math


Do all of West Virginia’s trees take in enough carbon dioxide to make the state carbon neutral?

Well, that’s the line that coal industry has been pushing, and that some lawmakers are apparently buying. But whatever math they’ve got to back this up is pretty fuzzy, according to independent scientists I asked to check into the issue for Coal Tattoo. In fact, the industry is off by about a factor of 15 … read on and I’ll explain how that is.

Frankly, I had hoped this issue would go away. A friend among the statehouse press corps pointed it out to me during last year’s session, after at least one lawmaker spouted off about West Virginia’s ample forest cover making the state “carbon neutral.”


I didn’t believe this could be true, and wanted to check it out. So, I contacted the Union of Concerned Scientists, a respected group of experts in a variety of fields.

raney.jpgAnd I pointed them to this speech by my buddy Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, where Raney explained:

Although we make 99% of our electricity with coal
And our carbon footprint is pretty big
We absorb more carbon than we emit
Because of our maturing Appalachian hardwood forests
We’re the 3rd most forested state in the nation
So we have a natural advantage
We need to make sure the world understands
We can burn coal – without net emissions of carbon

A couple of scientists at UCS took some time to study the matter, and got back to me. But as I said, I hoped the issue would go away and never blogged about it. But then, a friend of mine pointed out this article from the Beckley Register-Herald, which reports that:

browning_richard.jpgSen. Richard Browning, D-Wyoming, agreed, noting West Virginia has a carbon neutral footprint due to the number of trees in the state.

So, I said to myself, “Self, let’s go ahead and debunk this and then move on” … so here goes:

Aaron Huertas, a press spokesman for the UCS, summarized his group’s analysis this way:

UCS estimates that West Virginia’s forests absorb less than 6 million metric tonnes of CO2 annually. Meanwhile, West Virginia itself burns enough coal to produce just under 91 million metric tonnes of emissions each year. So the industry estimate seems to be off by a factor of 15. Additionally, if you count emissions from coal produced in West Virginia, the state is responsible for 280 million metric tonnes of emissions.


How did they come up with this conclusion?

First, the forest numbers, put together by Doug Boucher, head of the UCS Tropical Forests and Climate Initiative, and Patricia Elias, who formerly worked for the U.S. Forest Service:

The Forest Service’s Inventory and Analysis for West Virginia estimates that in 2006 (the latest year data is available), West Virginia’s forests experienced 203,078,000 cubic feet of net growth. (That includes total growth minus trees dying and decaying minus trees harvested). At about 32.5 pounds per cubic foot (See Forest Service Wood Handbook, Chapter 3), that translates to 2,993,775 metric tonnes of growth each year. Half a tree’s mass is carbon, so that means tree growth in West Virginia sequesters 5,493,579 metric tonnes of CO2 each year.

Now, the West Virginia carbon dioxide emissions from coal, calculated by Barbara Freese, clean energy and climate policy advocate at UCS (and author of Coal: A Human History):

According to the Energy Information Administration, West Virginia emitted about 91 million metric tonnes annually from its own use of coal in 2005 in electricity and other sectors. The nation as a whole emitted 2,156 million metric tonnes from coal use in 2005. West Virginia produces about 13 percent of the coal mines in the United States, so we can roughly attribute 280 million metric tonnes worth of emissions to West Virginia coal. The latter number overlooks imported coal, but it is in the ballpark.

(West Virginia’s own CO2 emissions from coal use are available here.  In the left column is a category called state carbon dioxide emissions and a link labeled “by fuel.” That links to an Excel spreadsheet entitled Table 1, 2005 State Emissions by Fuel, showing 90.8 million metric tonnes for W.Va. for coal. At the bottom of that same table is the number for 2005 national emissions from coal: 2,155.8 million metric tonnes.

(West Virginia’s share of U.S. coal production is calculated from this table. It shows W.Va. coal production at about 13 percent of the U.S. total whether you use 2007 or 2006 figures).