Coal Tattoo

Friday roundup, Nov. 18, 2011

In this Saturday, Nov. 12, 2011 photo, the body of a miner killed after a gas leak at the Sizhuang Coal Mine lies on the ground in Shizong county of Qujing city, in southwestern China’s Yunnan province. The gas leak hit one underground platform of the mine Thursday and spread to another platform, trapping 43 miners. It was China’s second deadly mining accident in less than a week. (AP Photo)

Without a doubt the most interesting article about coal that I read this week was the one headlined Coal Exports Are Bigger Threat Than Tar Sands Pipeline, written by Eric de Place on on Sightline Daily, a website covering American’s northwest. The piece got much broader attention when it was cross-posted by Joe Romm on his Climate Progress blog.

Here’s what it says:

The planned Keystone XL oil pipeline has earned major national attention for the damage it would do to the climate. At the same time, another climate drama is playing out with much less attention as coal companies make plans to export huge quantities to Asia by way of Pacific Northwest ports. It’s pretty clear that both projects are environmental horror stories, but I’ve been wondering: which one is worse?

So, from the “King Kong versus Godzilla” files, here’s my analysis of their carbon impacts. It turns out, coal exports are actually the bigger problem—and that’s really saying something.

The result surprised me: coal exports look to be an even bigger climate disaster than the pipeline. There are, in fact, quite a bit more direct emissions from burning the coal than from the oil. That’s true even when one counts the energy-intensive tar sands extraction and processing—and, of course, there are plenty of upstream emissions associated with coal mining that I’ve left out of the equation here. (In order to make a roughly direct comparison, I also omitted emissions associated with both products’ mining, refining, transportation, and so forth.) Clearly we can ill afford either one of these projects, but until we have a clear energy policy that respects climate science we’ll be wrestling with these kind of killer projects one at a time.

Also from Climate Progress, there was a great piece called Big Coal: Children’s Health and Clean Air Are Not Worth Our Spending One Penny of the Billions in Cash We’re Sitting On that explains:

The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, or ACCCE, is a coal industry coalition leading the charge to block the mercury and air toxics reduction rules. These efforts include spending $35 million on misleading television ads. Its members include major utilities such as Southern Company and DTE Energy. Huge coal companies are also major ACCCE supporters, including Arch Coal and Peabody. Other members include railroads that haul coal.

ACCCE is a vocal opponent of the air toxics rule for utilities. They even have a “countdown clock” for the days until the safeguards are issued. Its members are primarily concerned that the air toxics rule “is the most expensive rule the EPA has ever written for coal-fueled power plants.”

But this claim ignores the fact that the 22 ACCCE companies have nearly $18 billion in cash reserves, which should substantially ease their ability to withstand any economic impact of cleanup.

Relatives identify bodies of killed miners at the Sizhuang Coal Mine after a gas leak in Shizong county of Qujing city, in southwest China’s Yunnan province, Friday, Nov. 11, 2011. Hundreds of rescuers took turns descending into the illegally operated coal mine to search for miners trapped by a gas leak in the country’s second deadly mining accident in less than a week. (AP Photo)

In other coal-related news and commentary this week:

— Criminal charges have filed in Pike River Mine Disaster in New Zealand that killed 29 workers a year ago, and a report indicates that the mine was a disaster waiting to happen:

The mine identified housekeeping, emergency and ignition issues and hazards, wrote them down, but did nothing about them, a safety expert told the inquiry today.

“In crude terms, the evidence I have seen indicates that Pike River mine was ‘an accident waiting to happen’, in the sense that an accident was probable,” says Dr Kathleen Callaghan, an expert on human strengths and weaknesses.

Spiegel Online had an interesting story about efforts to move toward renewable energy in the coalfields of Germany:

In just a few years’ time, an entirely different scenario could be unfolding in the mine, one that has little to do with Ruhrkohle AG’s classic coal-mining business. But it is one which could very well have a promising future.

The German government and the European Commission passed a resolution in 2010 that by 2018, the billions in subsidies which have kept the coal mining industry in Germany’s Saarland and Ruhr regions afloat over the past few decades will expire. When that happens, the last mines belonging to Ruhrkohle AG (RAG) will be closed for good. “Every day takes us a little closer to saying goodbye,” a miner says bitterly.

But on level seven in Bottrop, a small revolution is underway, one that remains largely invisible to the miners. There, at exactly 1,159 meters (3,802 feet) beneath the surface of the earth, in giant transfer halls directly in front of the mine’s steep shaft, RAG plans to generate large amounts of environmentally friendly power in the future.

It may sound utopian, but the plan is not all that far-fetched. The underground chambers are large enough to easily accommodate one or two large, hydroelectric turbines. Through giant pipes placed in the mineshaft, water is to plunge up to 1,000 meters from the surface into the mine, where it would then power the turbine rotors.

— Meanwhile, a joint statement by eleven of the world’s largest engineering organizations says we have the technology now to cut greenhouse emissions by 85 percent:

The statement says that generating electricity from wind, waves and the sun, growing biofuels sustainably, zero emissions transport, low carbon buildings and energy efficiency technologies have all been demonstrated. However they are not being developed for wide-scale use fast enough and there is a desperate need for financial and legislative support from governments around the world if they are to fulfil their potential.

— And a Bloomberg report noted that some critics of government efforts to help the solar industry have sought the same sort of aid for the coal industry:

Republicans who criticized the Obama administration for providing U.S. backing to the failed Solyndra LLC sought such federal loan guarantees for cleaner-coal projects they favored.

Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming asked Energy Secretary Steven Chu in a Feb. 8 letter to move the “review process forward” for a project in his state to convert coal to liquid fuel. Representative Ed Whitfield of Kentucky sought support for a company that says it developed a way to make coal burn cleaner, and Representative John Shimkus of Illinois wrote the department seeking aid for an effort to capture and bury carbon dioxide.

Republicans including Barrasso have said the failure of Solyndra, which filed for bankruptcy after receiving $535 million in federal loan guarantees, shows President Barack Obama was wrong to pick “winners and losers” among wind- and solar-power companies.

—  Over in Kentucky, our friend Erica Peterson reported for WFPL:

Coal-fired electricity is one of the reasons Kentucky’s utility rates are among the lowest in the nation. And as new pollution regulations take effect, coal is the reason Kentucky will be among the hardest hit states. Rate increases currently before the Public Service Commission are one sign of the changing tide.

— And it looks like there’s another appeals court fight brewing in Kentucky over mountaintop removal, while environmental group lawsuits also continue against National Coal in Tennessee.

— The journal Environmental Health Perspectives offered a lengthy overview of the scientific issues surrounding mountaintop removal’s environmental and public health impacts in this piece by David C. Holzman.

— The Colorado Independent had this story:

The United States Forest Service (USFS) Tuesday gave the green light to a 1,700-acre expansion of the West Elk coal mine 10 miles east of Paonia on Colorado’s Western Slope.

West Elk owner Arch Coal, based in St. Louis, Mo., praised the decision for its job-saving potential. Environmental groups blasted the USFS ruling for its possible industrialization of the pristine Sunset Trail roadless area adjacent to the West Elk Wilderness Area.

— Finally, the Salt Lake Tribune had a report about federal approval for plans to greatly expand a strip coal mine near Bryce Canyon National Park, and the paper also editorialized:

Residents of southwest Utah who rely on tourism and its steady, sustainable economic engine are worried about expansion plans for the Coal Hollow Mine near Alton, Utah’s only coal strip mine.

And they’re right to worry.

The possibility of 160 jobs for a limited number of years hardly seems worth the risks. The Dugout Canyon coal mine in Carbon County laid off half its workforce just last week, demonstrating the transitory nature of mining. The BLM should reject this proposal.