Coal Tattoo

Friday roundup, Oct. 21, 2011

In this undated photo, changing water levels and sediment deposits leave their mark on mud flats and sand bars on the Conejohela Flats in Manor Township, Pa. The darker material is deposited coal dust. The Conejohela Flats, a string of low-lying floodplain alluvial islands between Columbia and Turkey Point, is undergoing a major facelift. (AP Photo/Intelligencer Journal, Ad Crable)

For the climate deniers and skeptics among Coal Tattoo’s readership, this is a tough week … just look at the news:

— The Economist reported:

Marshalled by an astrophysicist, Richard Muller, this group, which calls itself the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature, is notable in several ways. When embarking on the project 18 months ago, its members (including Saul Perlmutter, who won the Nobel prize for physics this month for his work on dark energy) were mostly new to climate science. And Dr Muller, for one, was mildly sceptical of its findings. This was partly, he says, because of “climategate”: the 2009 revelation of e-mails from scientists at CRU which suggested they had sometimes taken steps to disguise their adjustments of inconvenient palaeo-data. With this reputation, the Berkeley Earth team found it unusually easy to attract sponsors, including a donation of $150,000 from the Koch Foundation.

Yet Berkeley Earth’s results, as described in four papers currently undergoing peer review, but which were nonetheless released on October 20th, offer strong support to the existing temperature compilations. The group estimates that over the past 50 years the land surface warmed by 0.911°C: a mere 2% less than NOAA’s estimate. That is despite its use of a novel methodology—designed, at least in part, to address the concerns of what Dr Muller terms “legitimate sceptics”

… the Berkeley Earth study promises to be valuable. It is due to be published online with a vast trove of supporting data, merged from 15 separate sources, with duplications and other errors clearly signalled. At a time of exaggerated doubts about the instrumental temperature record, this should help promulgate its main conclusion: that the existing mean estimates are in the right ballpark. That means the world is warming fast.

The Guardian says:

The world is getting warmer, countering the doubts of climate change sceptics about the validity of some of the scientific evidence, according to the most comprehensive independent review of historical temperature records to date.

Scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, found several key issues that sceptics claim can skew global warming figures had no meaningful effect.

The Berkeley Earth project compiled more than a billion temperature records dating back to the 1800s from 15 sources around the world and found that the average global land temperature has risen by around 1C since the mid-1950s.

This figure agrees with the estimate arrived at by major groups that maintain official records on the world’s climate, including Nasa’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (Noaa), and the Met Office’s Hadley Centre, with the University of East Anglia, in the UK.

— And as described by The Daily Climate:

… As the impacts of climate change become apparent, many predictions are proving to underplay the actual impacts. Reality, in many instances, is proving to be far worse than most scientists expected.

“We’re seeing mounting evidence now that the scientific community, rather than overstating the claim or being alarmist, is the opposite,” said Naomi Oreskes, a science historian with the University of California, San Diego. “Scientists have been quite conservative … in a lot of important and different areas.”

Meanwhile, there was more bad news this week from China, as Reuters reported:

A blast at a coal mine in southwestern China has killed 13, state news agency Xinhua said on Wednesday, in the latest disaster to hit the accident-prone industry.

The explosion happened on Monday at the colliery in Chongqing when 16 miners were working underground, the report said, citing a government statement.

Three miners managed to escape, and police have detained six people in connection with the incident, Xinhua added.

Meanwhile, West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Jessica Lilly reminded us of the dangers coal miners face every day and why they do the work they do:

Keith Mitchelson stands on the edge of the main field. His son his practicing.

“I coached some of the kids on this team when they was down here,” Keith Mithcelson said. “My son is down her playing on the midgets.”

Keith Mitchelson is still wearing coal miner’s stripes. He says the time he spends watching his son is precious. As a coal miner, a 6-day work week is the norm.

“You know a lot of times we sacrifice not getting to watch them grow up,” he said, “but it’s either you don’t have money and you struggle or you go work somewhere that you make money and your kids lives a lot easier life and your wife does too.”

Mitchelson lives in Athens, but drives two hours and 10 minutes to Clay County to work deep underground.

“Yea, I mean it’s worth it,” he said. “We got good pay and benefits good insurance and you know I’ve been there almost 7 years so my time I like staying there for retirement really.”

Mitchelson says he had mixed emotions about going back underground after hearing that 29 men had died in the Upper Big Branch explosion.

“Kids and then your wife you know something like that happens they don’t want you going back,” Mitchelson says as he laughs. “But you know you got a job to do just like anybody else.”

“Most of the time when you go in the coal mines you get used to it it’s not scary like a lot of people thinks there’s a lot of safety that goes into.”

“You depend on your guys to do the right thing.”

Mining fatalities rose 74 percent from 2010 to 2011 but Mitchelson says he faces the dangers for his family.

But, a New York Times piece explains why regulations don’t cost money, they just decide who pays:

Think about it: when we write a safety rule, we do so to eliminate or reduce deaths and injuries that consumers suffer daily in product-related accidents. The commission estimates that roughly 31,000 people die and 34 million people suffer product-related injuries every year. These deaths and injuries impose significant costs on consumers — roughly $200 billion annually. They do so first as household tragedies and then as higher premiums for health insurance (or higher taxes to pay for the uninsured). Moreover, product-related tragedies almost always result in lost economic productivity.

Anyone who insists that regulations necessarily impose new costs on society shouldn’t be taken seriously. The costs are already there, in the form of deaths and injuries — and are often as much of a drag on our economy as any safety rule. So the real issue is who should bear the costs.

The Times also published a Greenwire piece that took a closer look at the disaster at Dunkard Creek, and also had some interesting stuff about EPA biologist Lou Reynolds’ discussions with CONSOL Energy about new regulations on mining discharges:

Whether from coal mining or gas drilling, Reynolds got resistance from Consol on the idea of new regulations for TDS. After a meeting with Consol officials and West Virginia environmental officials, Reynolds expressed frustration (pdf).

“It would be like the surgeon general inviting Marlboro to the table to lead a discussion on smoking as a cause of cancer,” he wrote. “I learned nothing new in two days except how hard Consol will fight to keep TDS from being regulated.”

Over in Kentucky, the Herald-Leader published an op-ed by former mine inspector Stanley Sturgill about Gov. Steve Beshear and the coal industry:

I’ve got a gripe, and it’s for the people who suffer each day with poisoned orange or black water running from their faucets. Or their drinking-water wells that burn with methane.

The people of our area have had enough, and the so-called “War on Coal” is only propaganda. King Coal’s not under attack. It’s the good folks who are trying to survive in the surface-mining areas who are being attacked.

These folks, too, “experience tremendous frustration over uncertainty” on a daily basis.

Beshear talks of creating coal-industry jobs. I’m all for this, but the only way this will happen, whether anyone will admit it or not, is to stop surface mining and mine coal using the underground method.

This will open up hundreds of new jobs immediately. But, if surface mining is allowed to continue, the coal jobs will be fewer and fewer each year.

Another myth is the ballyhoo about the benefits of flat surface-mined land. Flatten it, and industry will come. The truth is, less than 10 percent of the mined-out land has ever been used for anything; most looks as barren as the moon.

If surface mining were stopped, it might be the most “reasonable and pragmatic approach” to working with the EPA. Putting our unemployed miners back to work should bring sincere joy to everyone, especially Beshear, Obama and the Kentucky Coal Association.

But dreams rarely come true here. As long as the politicians are bought and paid for, sadly, things will probably stay the same.

Soon, the coal will be mined, the mountains gone, our water poisoned and our power bills so high that even coal won’t be able to keep our lights on.

The Herald-Leader also published an editorial, “What’s next after the coal’s gone?” which said:

Beating their chests about the Obama administration’s abuse of the coal industry enables the candidates for governor to avoid the real question: What’s the plan after coal?

That day is bearing down faster than many expect, as the Associated Press’ Dylan Lovan reported last week.

Coal production in Central Appalachia has fallen 30 percent since its last peak in 1997. Within four or five years, the decline is projected to accelerate into a “huge collapse” for reasons that have less to do with regulation than geology.

The thick, cheap-to-get coal seams are gone. It costs more — and is more destructive to the environment — to extract what’s left. The increasing production costs render Eastern Kentucky coal unable to compete with cheaper coal from Wyoming and with natural gas.

More than a year ago, a Morgantown, W.Va. consulting firm, Downstream Strategies, documented the coming collapse. “The Decline of Central Appalachian Coal and the Need for Economic Diversification” warns of substantial loss of jobs and tax revenues in coal communities and a loss of state taxes.

The report, reasonably enough, advises “state policy makers across the Central Appalachian region” to “take the necessary steps to ensure that new jobs and sources of revenue will be available in the counties likely to experience the greatest impacts from the declines.”

Yet, all we hear in the governor’s race is incumbent Steve Beshear and challenger David Williams competing to be most committed to an economic dead end.

The paper continued:

In this economy, the loss of any jobs is scary. But short-term economic anxieties do not cancel our obligation to leave future generations a Kentucky where they can be healthy and prosper.

Mountains of evidence tell us a strong EPA is the only hope Eastern Kentucky has of avoiding environmental catastrophe.

And once this election is over, can Kentucky please have a serious discussion about the economic future of our mountains?

That prompted this editorial from The Hazard Herald:

We have a few officials on both the local and state levels working to transform our mountains into a tourist destination, and there has been some limited success in Harlan and Knott County. Even so, both counties, like the majority of the region, are not being spared the downfalls of the recession.

Adventure tourism has promise, especially if counties can work together to draw people to our region to show them what we have to offer, but even at its full potential it won’t produce the kind of jobs needed to fill the void when our coal finally does run out, or when federal regulation prevents us from mining it all together.

As a region we failed to capitalize on the promise of the Internet, our manufacturing base is lackluster and if current projections hold, here in Perry County we’ll lose a quarter of our population over the next four decades while urban centers like Lexington and Louisville will continue to grow.

Here in Eastern Kentucky we’ve got a lot of promise. We always have. But it will take a concerted effort by more than a few to reverse current trends that show our region is in a state of decline. First, and perhaps most importantly, we have got to get a handle on our ongoing drug problem.

In a close second, we must find something to replace coal. We’re already an energy producing state, and here in this region we should be looking at other ways to capitalize on current energy trends such as biofuels. Mountaintop removal mining has left us with acres of flat land that could be used to grow a variety of flora to achieve that end. We should be taking advantage.

Coal is a political hot button right now, and in this region it’s a popular thing to support for obvious reasons. But at some point we need to look long term, and there’s no better time than now.