Coal Tattoo

Friday roundup, Feb. 12, 2010


In a Friday, January 29, 2010 photo, Spencer Nanigha, a firefighter with Hopi Fire Department breaks up coal to be transported to stranded Hopis without fuel to heat their homes in Kykotsmovi on the Hopi Reservation. Hopi and Navajo people are still stranded in their homes from snow and mud-ridden roads a week after a major winter storm. Continued inclement weather has made recovery and rescue efforts difficult. (AP Photo/ The Arizona Republic, David Wallace)

Lots of interesting takes on current coal industry controversies this week, starting with a Huffington Post commentary by William S. Becker of the Presidential Climate Action Project,  about President Obama, “clean coal” and the future of the Appalachian coalfields.

Becker is one of those folks — often criticized by Coal Tattoo readers  — who think coal ought not be part of America’s energy future. Many of my readers won’t agree with what he has to say, but it’s one of the more thoughtful arguments brought forth from that side of the table. Here’s part of it:

As the dirtiest and the most abundant of fossil fuels, coal is a dangerous bridge to a clean energy economy. 

How has the president who vowed to restore America’s leadership on climate change become coal’s First Friend? One explanation may be the advice he is receiving from his inner circle — Emanuel, Axelrod, Gibbs and Jarrett — political savants who may assume that expedient politics is the same as good public policy. According to an analysis by Edward Luce in Financial Times, Obama may be relying on these four advisors far more than he listens to his talented Cabinet, including Secretary Chu. None of the four is an energy expert, and it shows in Obama’s position on coal.

For example, if our objective is jobs, renewable energy technologies have been found to produce more than fossil fuels. Coal is not our “most bountiful natural resource.” Assuming the President was referring to energy resources, that honor goes to sunlight. We have a 7 billion year supply. The fuel is free and we don’t have to blow the tops off of mountains to get it. Collecting sunlight doesn’t kill rivers, contaminate groundwater, make people sick or destroy their culture, as is happening today, every day, in the rape of Appalachia. We don’t have to capture the sun’s greenhouse gas emissions because it doesn’t produce any. So if abundance, cost, jobs and low carbon are our criteria, then the money we’re dumping into coal should be invested in pre-fossilized solar energy.

Instead, Obama is taking the path of least political resistance — the position that to meet America’s energy appetite all our supply options must be on the table. With respect, that’s a cop-out designed to evade hard choices and to keep coal-state congressmen pacified. If we assume we do not have enough taxpayer money to subsidize all supply options and if we want to simultaneously achieve energy independence, economic vitality, global competitiveness and greater national security while managing the risks of climate change, then some options need to come off the table as quickly as possible . One of them is coal.

It’s worth noting that there isn’t much indication that Obama agrees with Becker, and in fact his essay plays off an encounter the President had with Gillian Caldwell of the anti-coal group 1Sky. Here’s the video of that discussion:

Also, earlier this week, The New York Times distributed a Greenwire piece that examined the role coal issues are playing in the re-election campaigns of West Virginia Reps. Nick J. Rahall and Alan Mollohan:

Since last June, Republicans have been using a vote in favor of the House energy and climate bill as ammunition against vulnerable Democrats in the upcoming 2010 midterm election.


But Republicans in West Virginia are going one step further and using the cap-and-trade bill to target two veteran Democrats who actually voted against the bill: Reps. Nick Rahall and Alan Mollohan.

Although the filing deadline only closed recently, potential challengers are already attacking the incumbents over coal issues. And Republican state officials argue that voters are starting to believe that their representatives are not doing enough to protect their interests.

This story came just after the release of a Gallup Poll which showed West Virginians giving President Obama his third-worst job approval rating among the states. The AP’s Larry Messina reported on that in his Lincoln Walks at Midnight blog.

I’m not sure how I missed this, but Bill Estep of the Lexington Herald-Leader had a very lengthy story on Sunday, Jan. 31, about a University of Kentucky study aimed at finding a way for coal companies to dispose of waste rock and dirt without destroying downstream water quality. Here’s the lead and nut graphs:

A shallow, winding stream in Breathitt County could play a role in the future of Appalachian surface mining, showing a different way to reclaim watersheds than the approach coal companies have used for three decades.

That’s because until just over a year ago, there was no stream at the site in Robinson Forest — just a flat of crushed, compacted rock.

It was a hollow fill, where a company had dumped millions of tons of rock blasted from a hill while uncovering coal. The fill buried headwater channels that had carried water down to a stream called Laurel Fork.

Researchers from the University of Kentucky built a new stream and wetlands atop the fill and planted vegetation and trees to figure out how to restore a headwater stream system after surface mining.

The project at Guy Cove is still in the early stages, but the results have been promising so far, researchers said.

The stream is stable, vegetation such as bulrush and sedge has taken root and trees planted nearby are doing well. Frogs, salamanders and lots of tiny bugs such as mayflies — whose presence is an indicator of stream health — use the stream and wetlands.

And tests have shown the quality of the water in the engineered creek is better than in the water draining out of the fill elsewhere, said Christopher D. Barton, one of the UK professors involved in the research.

“From the water quality perspective … the results are very encouraging,” said Barton, a forest hydrologist.

Now, before my coal industry readers start jumping on this bandwagon, it’s important to note that no results of this research have yet been finished or published any any scientific journals.

The Herald-Leader story includes lots of quotes from EPA’s Greg Pond and from the University of Maryland’s Margaret Palmer, describing their work documenting the water quality damage being done by surface mining.

But my take is — after reading it through a couple of times — the Herald-Leader could have done more to explain to his readers the current state of the science on these issues, represented in the Science journal article published in early January. It would be easy for folks in the coal industry to say, “See, we can rebuild streams, what’s the big deal” or for casual readers to find the story to be a bit of a ping-pong match between scientists.

The U.K. work seems significant, and it could provide some very valuable guidance for surface mining … but it’s too soon yet to say for sure. Still, it’s got my attention, and I sent out some inquiries to U.K. yesterday to find out more about their work.

And in other coal news and commentary:

— The fine folks at Counterpunch published a piece about black lung that is worth a read. Here’s part of it:

As dangerous an undertaking as coal mining is, there’s no comparison between the risks of cave-ins or flooding or explosions, and the risks of contracting this deadly disease.  In the last decade alone, 10,000 miners have died from black lung, compared with fewer than 400 from mine accidents.

What was most alarming about NIOSH’s findings was the number of younger miners—those in their thirties and forties—found to be suffering from black lung.  That these younger miners didn’t begin their careers until after passage of the landmark 1969 Coal Mine Health and Safety Act (which established strict coal-dust standards)—the law designed to prevent black lung—shows that something is very wrong.  


There are several theories for the rise of black lung:  Miners are being forced to work longer hours, thus exposing themselves to more dust at a given stretch; more efficient machinery is being used, creating finer and greater volumes of dust; and with the demand for coal and the price of energy rising dramatically, mines thought to have been “panned out” are being reopened.  These mines have smaller seams of coal which require cutting through more rock to get to, which, in turn, creates more deadly dust (respirable crystalline silica).

But one statistic that cannot be denied is the correlation between the increase in black lung and the decrease in union membership, and that correlation, while disappointing, should come as no surprise.  No one—not the government, not the media, not the company—knows or cares more about the welfare of a coal miner than a miners’ collective.  And those collectives are being phased out.

— Coal Tattoo readers who have been commenting about export coal and China might find this piece interesting,  and I would also recommend this piece from Yale Environment 360 about the U.S. race with China over clean energy, and this one by Andy Revkin about what happens with CO2 accounting when coal flows from one country to another.

— Also along those lines, The Wall Street Journal did a piece about how Coal India Ltd., the world’s largest coal producer, may invest about $2 billion over the next four years to buy stakes in overseas coal assets, as it wants to boost local availability of the fuel to meet rapidly rising demand.

— The New York Times distributed this Greenwire piece: British Columbia won’t allow energy and mineral exploration in the headwaters of Glacier National Park.

— And, following up on the big deal for FirstEnergy to buy Allegheny Energy,  the Wall Street Journal ties that transaction to what it says are the slim chances of a climate change legislation passing Congress this year.

Finally, my buddy Jim Bruggers at the Louisville Courier Journal posted some nice video of my friend Kathy Mattea, who during the anti-mountaintop removal rally in Frankfort, Ky., yesterday repeated her call for a “civil conversation” about coal issues here in Appalachia. At the end, she sings Jean Ritchie’s “Black Waters.” Here’s the link.

And, because it’s almost the weekend, here’s some video of the original version: