Important new study details mountaintop removal coal mining’s huge carbon footprint

March 17, 2010 by Ken Ward Jr.

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.

7 Responses to “Important new study details mountaintop removal coal mining’s huge carbon footprint”

  1. Monty says:

    I’m wondering just how high the stack of peer-reviewed scientific evidence about the wide and varied negative impacts of MTR is going to have to get before state regulators start paying attention?

    What I think will be the most interesting about this study is if the coal industry tries to attack the lead author – kind of hard to say he’s some out-of-state trouble maker; the UK civil engineering school is a good one.

  2. rhmooney3 says:


    Dr. Fox arrived at UK in August 2005.

    Dr. Fox was born and raised in Akron, Ohio. The son of a general contractor, he worked on construction sites through high school. After high school, he attended the University of Dayton (UD) where he received a B.S. in Civil Engineering and spent time at three consulting firms in Akron. In his latter years at UD, Dr. Fox began studying particle separation processes in fluidized bed reactors. This experience combined with the experience at an environmental consulting firm initiated a focus within fluid mechanics and sediment transport. (continued)

    Also: This paper was presented in December 2008.

    Study of terrestrial carbon cycling as impacted by mountaintop coal mining in the Southern Appalachian forest region using carbon elemental and isotopic data and remote sensing of land cover change

    Fox, J. F.; Campbell, J. E.; Martin, D.

    American Geophysical Union, Fall Meeting 2008, abstract #B31D-0318

    Publication Date:

  3. rhmooney3 says:

    It would be wonderful to actually tally up the amount of mined land within the U.S. — not just that minded for coal. Also, the amount of forest and other natual land coverages that been removed for other activities too.
    I’m not nay-saying this report, but seeing the total picture instead of a cropped image is important.


    Does anyone have these reports?

    Strippable reserves of bituminous coal and lignite in the United States.
    by United States Bureau of Mines, 1971
    Information circular 8531, 148 pages

    Ecologist Make Strip Mine Study

    Ben A. Franklin
    The New York Times
    January 30, 1972

    Washington, Jan 29 – The Friends of the Earth assert today that the coal industry was allowed to claim all the 45 billion tons of fuel that government studies have located in shallow beds, readily recoverable by surface, or strip, mining methods, the land area disrupted in the United States would total more than twice the size of Connecticut, or 10,276 square miles.

    In a study intended to focus attention on the strip mine control bill pending in Congress, the conservation group issued what was said to be the first compilation showing the potential disturbance of surface areas by past and future strip mining of coal.

    A Federal strip mining control bill is expected to pass this year.

    The report relies on estimates by the United States Bureau of Mines of “strippable reserves” of coal and sues a computation for each state, based on past experience of the area disturbed by each ton mined by surface methods. The study said that West Virginia alone, would suffer disruption of 2,983 square miles when all of its strip-mined coal was gone.

    This would be more than 12 per cent of the total surface — 24,090 square miles — of the state, the report said.

    3.2 Billion Tons in Reserves

    West Virginia is estimated by the Bureau of Mines to contain nearly 3.2 billion tons of stripable coal reserves, and the bureau has reported that 300 square miles had been disturbed through 1964. The Friends of the Earth report said that the recovery of the strip mine reserves along West Virginia steep mountain slopes would disturb an additional 2,683 square miles.

    The report also calculated the percentage of land area that would be disturbed in each of 15 states’ coal regions alone — those counties containing the strippable coal reserves. The largest figures were 16.3 per cent for the coal best of West Virginia, 9.1 per cent for Pennsylvania, 8.4 per cent for Virginia, 8.1 per cent for Kansas, 7.2 per cent for Indiana and 6.7 per cent for Ohio.

    The estimates of the potential area disturbed by strip mining did not take account of the contentions of the coal industry spokesperson that most strip-mined land today is being reclaimed for productive use. The National Coal Association, a mining industry group, has said that though reclamation of old, abandoned spoil banks, of excavated waste material, more ravaged land is being returned to use each year than is stripped anew.

    A Differing View

    But Louise Dunlap, a Friends of the Earth spokesman here, said in an interview that “we have reasons to doubt the industry’s definition of reclamation.”

    “If they are so earnest about it,” she said, “why do you suppose they object to the definition of reclamation in one of the pending bills that says ‘reclaimed land shall be returned to its original use’?”

    The study dramatically underscored the massive growth of strip mining that both Government and industry officials have forecast for the Far West where vast and virtually untapped coal reserves are being purchased and leased for future production.

    Using the 1964 figures of the Bureau of Mines on areas previously stripped as a base, the study showed that in the Appalachian coal states the original strippable reserves have already been so heavily depleted that when all the remaining strip coal is mined, the additional area disrupted would be no more than eight times as large as the 1964 area.

    The eightfold figure was for West Virginia. The study for cast an increase of about one and a half times in the strip mined area of Pennsylvania and Ohio, two times in Indiana and three times in Kentuck and Virginia, and five times in Illinois.

    Growth in Western Areas

    But west of the Missiippii River, the Friends of the Earth said that the growth of the strip area in recovering all the ready reserves would be three times as large in Iowa, four times in Oklahoma, six times in Kansas and 19 times in North Dakota, and 52 times in Wyoming, 125 times in Montana and 136 times in New Mexico.

    The study lists 25 counties in eight states in which it said the future surface mining of strippable coal reserves could add a newly disturbed area as large or greater that the District of Columbia’s 69 square miles. Those counties are the following: Illinois — Fulton, Peoria, Perry and St. Clair; Kansas — Bourbon, Cherokee, Crawford and Linn; Kentucky — Henderson, Muhlenburg and Ohio; Montana — Powder River; Pennsylvania: Butler and Clearfield; Tennessee — Buchanan; West Virginia — Boone, Fayette, Kanawha (Charleston), Logan, McDowell, Mingo, Nicholas, Raleigh and Webster; Wyoming — Campbell.

  4. Clem Guttata says:

    This also looks like a relevant study for future discussions.

    Carbon Dioxide Emission Factors for U.S. Coal by Origin and Destination
    Jeffrey C. Quick*
    Utah Geological Survey, P.O. Box 146100, Salt Lake City, Utah 84114-6100
    Environ. Sci. Technol., Article ASAP
    DOI: 10.1021/es9027259
    Publication Date (Web): March 16, 2010
    Copyright © 2010 American Chemical Society
    Corresponding author e-mail:


    This paper describes a method that uses published data to calculate locally robust CO2 emission factors for U.S. coal. The method is demonstrated by calculating CO2 emission factors by coal origin (223 counties, in 1999) and destination (479 power plants, in 2005). Locally robust CO2 emission factors should improve the accuracy and verification of greenhouse gas emission measurements from individual coal-fired power plants. Based largely on the county origin, average emission factors for U.S. lignite, subbituminous, bituminous, and anthracite coal produced during 1999 were 92.97, 91.97, 88.20, and 98.91 kg CO2/GJgross, respectively. However, greater variation is observed within these rank classes than between them, which limits the reliability of CO2 emission factors specified by coal rank. Emission factors calculated by destination (power plant) showed greater variation than those listed in the Emissions & Generation Resource Integrated Database (eGRID), which exhibit an unlikely uniformity that is inconsistent with the natural variation of CO2 emission factors for U.S. coal.

  5. hebintn says:

    It’s great to see this paper and Palmer, make such an impact. Hopefully, these kinds of publications will have the impact on regulators and law makers that is needed to cease surface mining. I have posted previously what I consider the critical need for research in the economics of MTR. The splash that big coal always makes is that MTR is the cheapest way to get coal out of the earth. I question this assumption. I would like to see data on all the cost to consumers of coal from any source, especially MTR. The cost per ton is just the start. We need to total up ALL the costs. Cost of machinery, fuel, disposal/hiding the waste, cleanup (LOL), remediation, taxes, cost of dealing with the garbage at the end of the process, cost of CO2 cleanup or global warming, cost of cleaning up water, lost miner jobs, cost, cost, cost…. My guess is we pay a lot more for coal than big coal would have us believe, and WE pay for most of it not them. With this kind of arguement and the science, continued MTR or any surface mining should be banned. If it isn’t I have to question the integrity of the government and regulators. Perhaps there are agenda that the public never sees….

  6. Vernon says:

    Hebintn, here’s an economic study done of MTR vs. wind on Coal River Mountain. One finding is that, even not considering the economic benefit of a wind farm, MTR is a net drain on the local economy.
    Mountain Association for Community Economic Development (MACED) recently completed a study finding that the coal industry (not just MTR) cost Kentucky $115 million in 2006. That is, comparing revenue to the state from coal, such as severance taxes, income taxes, etc to the cost to the state for maintaining roads, supporting research, etc. to support the coal industry, the state spent $115 million more than it received.
    I’m beginning to believe that no amount of scientific and economic research will ever convince our decision-makers that MTR is bad as long as coal lobbyists are wining and dining them.

  7. Monty says:

    Dr. Fox is a faculty member at the University of Kentucky, which, to me, makes him local and which, to me, gives the study a little more weight in my mind because it was done by someone who has at least seen the issue firsthand, as opposed to someone from, say, New Hampshire who may or may not have any concept of mountaintop removal mining. When Dr. Fox started working at UK is immaterial and I don’t see the point of bringing that up.

    The fact that it is a peer-reviewed paper simply gives its conclusions added weight and (we can all hope) makes it a little harder for state regulators to ignore.

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