Friday roundup, March 11, 2011

March 11, 2011 by Ken Ward Jr.

Indian coal workers are silhouetted as they work at a coal factory on the outskirts of Amritsar, India, Monday, March 7, 2011. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)

The New York Times had an interesting story yesterday headlined, Clean-coal Debate Focuses on Gasification Plant:

A bill now on Gov. Pat Quinn’s desk to build a plant on the far Southeast Side that would supply Chicago customers with substitute natural gas made from Illinois coal has turned up the heat on the “clean coal” debate.

Proponents are billing the proposed plant, to be built by Chicago Clean Energy, as a key ingredient in the Midwest’s energy future. They say it would be a model for storing carbon emissions in the ground and provide hundreds of jobs.

Opponents — dozens of whom protested in front of the State of Illinois Building this week — say the plant is a bad idea environmentally and economically. They have packed two recent town-hall-style meetings to object.

The emotions and rhetoric prompted by the bill in Illinois, which has an abundant supply of coal, are emblematic of the debate about technological innovation, job creation and environmental benefits at a time when the economy is weak and the benefits of so-called clean-coal technology are unproven. The proposed Chicago gasification plant and others like it will not directly replace coal as an energy source, since the proposed plant would create gas for heating and cooking — competing with natural gas — rather than for electricity.

At issue is a bill passed by the state legislature in January that would require Peoples Gas and other utilities to buy gas for 30 years at a fixed rate from Chicago Clean Energy, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the New York firm Leucadia National Corporation. Chicago Clean Energy would build the $3 billion plant, which would also use petroleum coke from oil refineries. A related bill would require utilities in Southern Illinois to buy gas from a coal-to-gas plant that would be built there.

A Coal Tattoo reader pointed out two interesting stories from The Economist. One, headlined Climate Change in Black and White, reported:

AN IDEAL fossil-fuel power-plant would produce power, carbon dioxide and nothing more. Less-than-ideal ones—not to mention other devices for the combustion of carbon, from diesel generators to brick kilns and stoves burning dung—also emit various gases and gunk. These often cause local environmental problems, damaging lungs, hurting crops and shortening lives. And some of the gunk, notably soot or “black carbon”, can warm the planet, too.

Next week ministers attending the governing council of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in Nairobi will be presented with the summary of a new report on how fighting air pollution can help the global climate (the report itself is due to follow a couple of months later). The summary makes a powerful case for acting on two short-lived climate “forcings”, factors that change the amount of energy the atmosphere absorbs, as carbon dioxide does, but stay in it only briefly. One is black carbon and the other is ozone, which is vital for blocking ultraviolet rays in the stratosphere but hazardous in the bits of the atmosphere where plants live and people have to breathe.

In this Feb. 15, 2011 photo, from left, Chase Conaway, 10, Dylan Conaway, 12, and Kalyssa Conaway, 8, hold signs in support of power-plant operator TransAlta, the company that employs their father Patrick Conaway (not shown), at a rally at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash. TransAlta’s has paid for new athletic fields, given millions to the United Way of Lewis County and donated equipment and employee time when local rivers flooded in 2007. So when Debbie Campbell, the head of the United Way chapter who grew up in the area, learned legislators wanted to shut down the plant early, she took the unusual step of rallying support on the company’s behalf. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

In the other, Going Underground, the Economist discussed a new project to study more about the globe’s carbon cycle:

THE carbon cycle is the stuff of school books. It is a familiar tale of photosynthesis, forests, farming and fossils fuels. Understanding this cycle is important, both because it sustains life on Earth and because it is bound up with the rate of global warming. But are the outlines of the carbon cycle really that familiar?

One bit of big coal news this week came from Kentucky, where the Herald-Leader reported:

An environmental coalition filed a second notice of intent to sue a Kentucky coal mining company and called the state’s enforcement of the federal Clean Water Act an “abysmal failure.”

The group Appalachian Voices announced Wednesday it found that Bardstown-based Nally & Hamilton Enterprises submitted inaccurate water pollution reports to the state and might have failed to perform testing and monitoring. Appalachian Voices said it reviewed discharge monitoring reports, which are public records, and identified more than 12,000 violations of the Clean Water Act with potential penalties of more than $400 million.

“The company seems to have cut and pasted previous sets of data in later reports rather than monitoring the discharge and submitting accurate data for each month,” Appalachian Voices said in a news release Wednesday.

My buddy Jim Bruggers at the Courier-Journal got two blog posts out of this story. One discussed whether such situations merit criminal investigation:

One question about today’s story in The Courier-Journal about the Bardstown-based coal company that’s facing accusations from several environmental groups, and notices of violations from the state regulators. Should any of the violations be criminally investigated.

Robert Kennedy Jr. thinks so:

When Kennedy discussed similar alleged violations of faking Clean Water Act discharge reports by Frasure Creek and ICG mining companies last fall, Kennedy called for a criminal investigation –— and he did so again on Wednesday with Nally & Hamilton.

He said the repetitive nature of the reporting — like cutting and pasting months of the same data together — suggests a crime was committed, Kennedy said. And he questioned why Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway and the U.S. Attorney’s Office have not pursued criminal charges.

“Apparently there is no stomach by the U.S. Attorney or the Kentucky Attorney General to prosecute, …” Kennedy said.

Jim also took a look at the way the company involved responded to the allegations:

Faced with some negative publicity about alleged violations of the Clean Water Act, Nally & Hamilton Enterprises, Inc., took down its home page that provides information about the company, and replaced it with a photographic slide show of verdant and elk-covered reclamation sites.

And they didn’t return phone calls from The Courier-Journal about the allegations.

Their approach is very different from the International Coal Group. Every time I’ve called them up, they’ve answered the phone and answered questions head on. They even invited me out to see a surface mining operation first hand, including blasting.

Regular Coal Tattoo readers know that ICG’s Gene Kitts took the time to write a guest blog for us called “Why Surface Mine?” and I would agree with Jim Bruggers that the folks at ICG have generally been willing to engage, discuss and educate me and others in the media about their industry.

Meanwhile, Sue Sturgis at Facing South also had a take on the new Kentucky case:

The citizen groups were disappointed to see Gov. Steve Beshear’s (D) administration repeatedly take the industry’s side over the public interest. But it’s precisely because of that phenomenon dubbed “agency capture” that that the Clean Water Act included a citizen lawsuit provision to bring lawbreakers to justice, notes Waterkeeper Alliance President Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.

To illustrate why the provision is so critical, Kennedy asks us to think about a child who’s learning to read in a Kentucky schoolroom and discovers she can’t keep up with her classmates — not because she doesn’t have the God-given ability but because she was exposed to neurotoxins like mercury and lead from the mine pollution contaminating her drinking water.

“Nally and Hamilton took that capacity away from her,” he says. “Why is that a lesser crime than robbing a bank or stealing from a store?”

Also this week, the AP out of Kentucky reported:

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency would have to review mining permit applications more quickly under legislation filed Tuesday by two Appalachian lawmakers who say they want to boost coalfield employment.

U.S. Reps. Hal Rogers of Kentucky and Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia introduced a House version of the so-called Mining Jobs Protection Act that they say would protect Appalachian coal miners from “strangulation by regulation.”

The House bill, similar to one filed in the Senate last week, would give the EPA up to 60 days to accept or reject permit applications so that mining companies aren’t left waiting indefinitely to learn whether they’ll be allowed to open new operations or to expand existing ones. Kentucky Coal Association President Bill Bissett said the current waiting period is one of the top complaints of the mining industry. He said some companies have had to wait years for a response.

Howard Berkes at NPR reported on another lawsuit filed against Massey Energy over the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster.

And finally this week, our friend Dan Radmacher, the former editorial page editor here at the Gazette, is leaving his current job at the Roanoke Times:

He will become communications director for the Appalachian Center for the Economy & the Environment, a Lewisburg, W.Va.-based watchdog organization tuned into issues such as mountaintop removal and coal-fired power plants. He will stay with the paper through the end of March and will continue to live in Roanoke.

That story included this interesting comment from Dan:

Radmacher said he won’t miss “the assumption by some people that we’re not operating in good faith.” It’s one thing to disagree with someone’s opinion, he said, but another to question his integrity.

8 Responses to “Friday roundup, March 11, 2011”

  1. rhmooney3 says:

    So OSMRE has already paid millions to accept work from a contractor that is now considered not good — $3.5 million of the $5 million contract.

    http://appropriations.house.gov/index.cfm?FuseAction=Hearings.Detail&HearingId=13&Month=3&Year=2011

    http://www.nasdaq.com/aspx/stock-market-news-story.aspx?storyid=201103081914dowjonesdjonline000393&title=us-officials-threaten-to-fire-company-analyzing-coal-mining-rule
    (Excerpt)
    U.S. Interior Department officials are threatening to fire a company they hired to look at the impacts of tighter coal mining standards, after the company said the standards would lead to thousands of job losses.

    In a hearing Tuesday before a House Appropriations subcommittee, Interior Deputy Secretary David Hayes said the unidentified company’s analysis was not a “good work product” and disputed its findings.

    http://www.nasdaq.com/aspx/stock-market-news-story.aspx?storyid=201103101411dowjonesdjonline000550&title=dust-up-over-contractor-could-delay-usmining-regulation
    (Excerpt)
    The contractor, Polu Kai Services LLC, was hired to draft an assessment of the proposed rule’s environmental impact this year. Office of Surface Mining Director Joseph Pizarchik said Thursday that the government was evaluating whether the firm’s work complied with the contract requirements and with federal law.

    “We had some very strong concerns about the quality of the work,” Pizarchik said Thursday at a House Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on his office’s budget. “We are taking our time to very thoroughly, closely and thoughtfully review” the draft environmental impact statement that Polu Kai submitted.

    Pizarchik said all options were on the table, including terminating the contract. Among the administration’s concerns, Pizarchik said, was that the company, or one of the five subcontractors it hired, was using “placeholders” when calculating the impact that the proposed rule would have on jobs.

  2. Thomas Rodd says:

    Quite a smorgasbord of information in this post.

    I skimmed the Economist articles. The one on air pollution and how it is affecting climate change is full of interesting information details. At the very end of the article the main expert says he got into this issue because progress on actually limiting carbon emissions has been going so slowly.

    From my reading in this area, I have so far concluded that anything less than actually reducing emissions using currently know methodologies, substantially and relatively quickly, will not have much value in preventing the terrifying consequences of big-time climate change, which is the path that humanity is still headed on.

    The fossil-fuel owners and profiteers are going to try to divert public attention to basically unhelpful but facially attractive other notions, like “geo-engineering,” and lots of “research” into non-emitting energy sources. (As one commenter here put it, “let coal do what coal does.”).

    Respectfully, this line is transparently a lot of hooey. The “research” and “geo-engineering” and “breakthrough” approaches to the climate change problem are — for the fossil fuel owners and their camp — a useful diversion, like filter cigarettes were for the abominable tobacco PR folks. Yes, it may make some difference, but not enough to prevent catastrophe.

    But it’s an effective kind of ruse — it sold a lot of smokes, no?

    Eyes wide open!

  3. Forrest Roles says:

    Tom Rodd’s screed is depressing. He had convinced me he was truly and passionately convinced that global warming brought on by increasing concentrations of CO2 is a real threat and drastic steps necessary to ameliorate it. His strong desires for action, appears not apply, however, to steps which do not involve severe harm to the coal industry. Those actions are only ‘diversions” or “smokescreens”.
    They are not. Indeed, because those steps do not require much of the developing world to allow large portions of their populace to fall back into abject poverty, the hopeful developments reported by the Economist are politically possible. Moreover, I believe, they are far more likely to provide relief than the costly “green energy” initiatives our government now finances. I am sure they are more promising than the laudatory, but ineffective, self sacrifice of many who, for instance, bike or walk where most of us ride.
    This blog concerns coal and the ongoing effort to deal with global warming is relevant only to the extent that reduction of CO2 emissions would be aided by the burning of less coal. However, as a matter of scientific theory and fact, the increased heating of the earth by virtue of increased greenhouse gases can be stopped by reductions in other gases, the reduction of energy entering the atmosphere and by eliminating CO2 from the atmosphere. To dismiss these solutions as pretenses of the profiteering coal industry is to demean the UN’s efforts and sponsored research and, in my view, to condemn the global campaign to solve what many like Tom believe is a terrible problem to failure. That is a awful price to pay to injure those who make their living by mining coal. Rather, the debate should be about what politically possible worldwide steps have the best chance of insuring against the sort of disaster some foresee.
    Forrest.

  4. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    Forrest,

    I’m not sure that the Economist article suggests — and I’m not aware of any experts in the field suggesting — that cutting back on pollutants such as black carbon or ozone alone would do the trick. Perhaps I misread, though, and I’d be please for you to point out the specific language if I did.

    Most of the science I’ve seen from the UN, the National Academy of Sciences and other respected groups focuses on carbon dioxide. Obviously, at least in this country, there’s been little success at dealing with that issue — for the economic reasons you point out, but also for the very political ones that Tom talks about.

    You both might be interested in this new publication, just out today, from the National Academy of Sciences … http://dels.nas.edu/Materials/Booklets/warming-world … The summary says:

    Emissions of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels have ushered in a new epoch during which human activities will largely determine the evolution of Earth’s climate. This booklet, based on the National Research Council report Climate Stabilization Targets: Emissions, Concentrations, and Impacts Over Decades to Millennia (2011) outlines the scientific information that makes it clear that emission reductions today matter in determining impacts that will be experienced over the next few decades and into the coming centuries and millennia. The booklet explains how policy choices can be informed by recent advances in climate science that show the relationships among increasing carbon dioxide, global warming, related physical changes, and resulting impacts. Expected impacts are identified and quantified when possible, including impacts on streamflow, wildfires, crop productivity, the frequency of very hot summers, and sea-level rise and its associated risks and vulnerabilities.

    I haven’t read more than that, but thought I would pass it on anyway.

    As a side note, Forrest, surely you would concede that the fossil fuel industries (not just coal, but oil, too ) have spent an awful lot of money trying to spin the science to convince the public there isn’t a problem here … I think that’s one of the things that’s so frustrating for folks like Tom (and myself as well).

    Ken.

  5. Thomas Rodd says:

    Forrest: if you have one well-respected climate policy group that believes that catastrophic change can be avoided without drastically reducing carbon emissions from coal burning, then cite to that source.

    It is a terrible catastrophe that coal, a magnificent fuel (I heated my house with it for two decades) and the basis of our modern civilization, has become such a danger to humanity. But (unless CCS can be soon made to work economicaly, and I think it may well be possible to do so) — coal burning has to stop. That’s the science, period.

    Will humanity get on this path? Yes, but when? And what will be left when that finally happens?

    If you look at who is pushing the “let’s focus on the other angles and let coal do what coal does” line, you will see people who make money off owning and burning coal. It’s not hard to figure out what their main motive is, and who would expect anything else?

    However, like many West Virginians, I have watched the advocates for the coal industry obfuscate and worse for four decades about everything from acid mine drainage to black lung. I am hardly going to buy into their latest meme about beating catastrophic climate change without stopping atmospheric carbon emissions from coal mining.

    Can’t be done — it’s a pity, but there it is.

  6. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    Tom and Forrest,

    This is a fascinating turn-around, actually.

    Back in the early 1990s, I remember writing about how terrible the Kyoto Protocol was, because — according to the coal industry and the UMWA among others — it required the United States to cut its greenhouse emissions, but required no action by developing countries such as China and India. Part of the argument was that if we cut our emissions and didn’t make them cut theirs, then we would be at a competitive disadvantage, and our industries and workers would lose out to China, India, etc.

    Now, the forces of the fossil fuel industry and global capitalism in general (and its voices in the media, from places like the Economist and Forbes — both great and fascinating publications) are arguing, for example:

    “It’s absurd for people in the developed world to try to deny those in the emerging markets the opportunity to use coal to power their growth–because no other energy source is cheap enough or sufficiently scalable to compete.” (See http://blogs.forbes.com/christopherhelman/2011/03/11/peabody-energy-chief-coal-is-the-fastest-growing-fuel-in-the-world/?partner=yahootix … thanks to reader Casey for the link)

    Back then, it was wrong to do anything about climate change because the plan under consideration would allow developing countries’ to grow. Now, it’s wrong to do anything about climate change because doing so would keep them from growing.

    Which is it?

    There are reasonable arguments to be made that we in the developed world need to be considerate of those in developing nations that only want the things we want: A higher standard of living for their families.

    But I’m not sure that’s really what is behind some of this turn-about in industry talking points against doing anything to stop the climate crisis.

    The world’s top scientists believe this is an urgent problem that demands action. They’ve also said that we need to do just about everything in the toolbox — there is no one silver bullet. Folks who don’t understand this should read the last IPCC “Synthesis Report” and then the more detailed report on “Mitigation of Climate Change.” Both are available here, http://www.ipcc.ch/publications_and_data/publications_and_data_reports.shtml

    Yes, Forrest, this is a blog about coal. And most experts around the world believe that for coal to survive in a carbon-constrained world (one in which we humans want to save our climate and ourselves), CCS is a must. Yet the industry and its political forces have continued to beat back any efforts to pass comprehensive legislation that would help force CCS forward, by both setting a price on carbon emissions and spending more money to rush to development and deployment of the technology.

    The world’s climate doesn’t much care what is politically possible.

    Ken.

  7. Thomas Rodd says:

    Three years ago I read a comment by a top British climate/energy official who said that CCS was possibly the only way to save humanity — because those countries that are developing don’t have the alternatives to coal that we have in the USA — like gas and renewables.

    When we create a market and incentives for reducing atmospheric carbon emissions from coal, as Secretary Chu and Senator Rockefeller have said we must, and soon, then inventive and entrepreneurial forces will rise to the occasion.

    Will “clean coal” electricity cost a lot more than current prices? You bet! But it should be able to compete with other non-emitting sources, ensuring a long-term future for coal. Just as importantly, clean coal technology will be an exportable technology that we can sell to the developing world, as the planet moves into the carbon-constrained economy necessary for survival.

    A big obstancle to this change of direction remains in the resistance of fossil fuel owners. Having stalled cap-and-trade, the general solution that would have started the economic and political transition, they are now fighting on many different fronts. Here’s a quote from an article in the Nation magazine, at: http://www.thenation.com/article/156812/green-strategy-now:

    “For several years the Sierra Club, Rainforest Action Network, numerous local outfits and, more recently, Greenpeace have waged a grassroots campaign using mass protest and direct action like mountaintop occupations, as well as financial and political pressure, and so far have prevented the construction of 130 proposed new coal plants. Direct action against coal directly cuts emissions, and in so doing it supports the various regional cap-and-trade structures like RGGI in the Northeast and the Western Climate Initiative (WCI), Davies points out. “Those mechanisms only work if there are some real emissions reductions,” he explains.

    The Sierra Club, under the leadership of its new director, Michael Brune (who had headed the more radical Rainforest Action Network), is also redoubling its efforts against coal. The Club, which had supported Waxman-Markey and its EPA gutting before Brune took over, now considers protecting the EPA one of the “bright lines” that must not be crossed. Brune says, “Our top priority is our Beyond Coal campaign, to clean up and close down coal plants and replace them with clean energy.” Other priorities include building a movement by connecting with local activists, linking these antipollution and antimining fights to global climate issues, and working with the nascent clean-energy industry to help it become more organized and vocal.”

    The folks in the coalfields who actively oppose say, sludge injection or coal ash dumps or MTR — but who also say there is no “war on coal” — either have their heads in the sand, or are dissembling for a perceived tactical advantage. I understand their reasons. It’s not easy to be part of a “war on coal,” when your neighbors are making their living mining coal.

    But there is such a war. And it’s a war the coal owners picked — when they blocked cap-and-trade. They are willing to consign our children to a hellish future to protect their short-term profits. For shame!

    As in all wars, the first casualty is often the truth. That’s why this blog can be so useful and important. I appreciate all commenters here, and the informative discussions.

  8. Forrest Roles says:

    Ken and Tom,

    I’ve waited a while responding trying to figure out why we talk past each other. Perhaps is because we associate the writings of the other with the most extreme of those whose policy positions on coal regulation tend to coincide with ours. Neither the view that MTR is a sacrilege nor that Global Warming is without a real scientific basis will contribute to responsible policy. Paying some attention to all the possibly helpful actions in both research and policy, the consequences and cost of such steps, and the political realities of accomplishing them seem the only practical way of addressing the issue of coal use as affected by global warming.
    Both Economist articles reported ideas to ameliorate the problem without causing the harm reduction of coal use will cause. Neither of you expressed any doubt about the reality of their potential. Rather, each of you responded by attacking the coal industry for promoting unscientific arguments (Ken) and opposing cap and trade (Tom). Neither is relevant response to the news that other actions are potentially helpful.
    Assuming the idea was that any steps to abate global warming other than ones designed to reduce the burning of coal should be ignored because only that step will “do the trick”, you ignore the reality that world coal use will increase even if nearly eliminated in the US. It may not be right, but developing countries will burn substantially more coal in the next decade and have shown no inclination to do anything else. A US sacrifice of abandoning our use and harming our economy would not even help significantly; much less “do the trick.”
    That may or may not be a right step for those governments to take, but no one says it is not the one they have not taken and will not take for the foreseeable future. Any realistic effort to solve the world’s problem has to take that prospect into account. Failure to do so amounts to starting a war, with its costs and casualties, without any realistic analysis of the prospects of achieving the war’s objectives.
    The Europeans, whose coal reserves are exhausted, are making just such an analysis. http://www.economist.com/node/18333149. Note, however, the problems and uncertainties of doing so. They assume scientific improvements hardly assured. However, the approach at least is comprehensive and rational. So should this discussion be.
    Forrest

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