Coal Tattoo

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I just got done reading a fascinating new paper published in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science and Technology.

It’s a real eye-opener about the relationship between mountaintop removal coal mining and global warming. The paper, Terrestrial Carbon Disturbances from Mountaintop Mining Increases Lifecycle Emissions for Clean Coal, is available online here. A subscription is required to read the whole thing, but you can see the abstract (a summary) for free.

Written by James F. Fox of the University of Kentucky and J. Elliott Campbell of the University of California, Merced, the paper leaves no doubt that, even if CCS works and is widely deployed, questions will remain about the climate change impacts of mountaintop removal.

How so? Well, Fox and Campbell attempted to quantify the carbon dioxide released by the huge land disturbance involved in blowing up a mountaintop to get at the coal underneath. They concluded:

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the life-cycle emissions of coal production for MCM [Mountaintop Coal Mining] methods were found to be quite significant when considering the potential terrestrial source.

In fact, this paper reports that mountaintop removal’s life-cycle carbon dioxide emissions are 17 percent greater if you include carbon dioxide from sources other than the actual burning of the coal — emissions from cutting down and burning forests, potential release of carbon previously locked up in the soils of the mountains, and from mining and transportation equipment.

That’s the potential high-end of those emissions if you assume coal is burned in a conventional power plant.

If the industry switches to CCS-equipped plants that capture most of the emissions from coal-burning, then these other carbon dioxide sources would actually account for nearly twice the emissions of coal burning.

As the paper explains:

Notwithstanding the importance of CCS efforts to improve the imprint of coal burning on the environment, the life-cycle emissions also should be further investigated and quantified to determine their significance under coal production scenarios.

In both cases, the current combustion practices and future CCS goals, the terrestrial carbon storage impacted by the disturbance of MCM is shown to be significant. It is argued here that the terrestrial carbon impact be included in the ongoing discussion of coal mining life-cycle emissions and be considered when discussing energy production and environmental sustainability.

Further,  terrestrial carbon redistributed under CCS technology should be accounted when setting future goals. A discussion is needed of what incentives may be put in place in order that interactions between terrestrial carbon disturbance and coal production via surface mining methods can be optimized, e.g., optimal mining surface disturbance practices, soil and biomass storage, and reclamation practices.

My translation: It’s all well and good for coalfield politicians to tout Carbon Capture and Storage as a way to deal with the carbon dioxide emissions from burning coal, but if we are going to talk about addressing coal and climate change, finding a way to reduce the impacts of mountaintop removal needs to be part of the discussion as well.

I first read about this study in The Carbon Footprint of Mountaintop Mining, an item in the Switchboard blog by Rob Perks of the Natural Resources Defense Council. The study itself actually went online about a month ago, and hasn’t gotten nearly the attention it deserves.

Among other things, the study cites previous research in concluding that over the last 20 years, mountaintop removal in Appalachia has resulted in the removal of 6.8 percent of the region’s forests to produce 23.2 percent of the nation’s coal. And, it notes that coal-fired power plants accounted for 36 percent of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions and 38 percent of world CO2 emissions between 1997 and 2006.

One potential suggestion from the study is that more of the forests that are removed to make way for surface mining be actually harvested and used for some purpose — rather than bulldozed and burned, as is frequently the practice. Net carbon emissions are 2 percent smaller if wood is harvested, and 12 percent larger if it is burned at the mining site.

The study argues:

In order to agree on informed decision-making, the sustainability discussion begs the need for ongoing and future scientific research, discussion, and thereafter management to address a sustainable trajectory for terrestrial carbon and coal production interactions.