Coal Tattoo

MSHA announces next phase of ‘Rules to Live By’

Here’s today’s announcement from MSHA:

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration today launched the third phase of an outreach and enforcement program designed to strengthen efforts to prevent mining fatalities. “Rules to Live By III: Preventing Common Mining Deaths” will focus on 14 safety standards that were chosen because violations related to each have been cited as contributing to at least five mining accidents and at least five deaths during the 10-year period of Jan. 1, 2001, to Dec. 31, 2010.

“The goal of this phase of ‘Rules to Live By’ is to reduce numbers of deaths and injuries from the targeted standards by having mine operators identify and correct all hazardous conditions, direct MSHA enforcement toward confirming that violations related to these conditions are not present at mines, and ensure miners are better trained to recognize and avoid these particular hazards,” said Joseph A. Main, assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health.

From 2001 through 2010, 609 miners lost their lives in workplace accidents. Violations associated with eight coal standards contributed to 75 deaths during this period, while violations associated with six metal and nonmetal standards contributed to 50 deaths.

The coal standards are as follows:

75.362(a)(1) on-shift examination

77.404(a) machinery and equipment; operation and maintenance

77.405(b) performing work from a raised position; safeguards

77.1000 highwalls, pits and spoil banks; plans

77.1605(b) loading and haulage equipment; installations

77.1606(a) loading and haulage equipment; inspection and maintenance

77.1607(b) loading and haulage equipment; operation

77.1713(a) daily inspection of surface coal mine; certified person; reports of inspection

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Gazette photo by Chip Ellis

We’ve written before about the proposal from the good folks at the West Virginia Center for Budget and Policy for a long-term trust fund to prepare our state for the day the coal and natural gas run out … well, today, the center has a new report out that discusses this notion in much more detail. They conclude:

West Virginia would benefit greatly from the creation of a permanent severance tax trust fund. An Economic Diversification Fund would help the state meet many of today’s economic challenges, while ensuring that future generations benefit from the mineral wealth of their state. In the past, West Virginia did not gain broadly shared prosperity for its residents, despite the tremendous wealth of natural resources in the state. As the Marcellus Shale gas play begins to boom in West Virginia, the state should take action today to ensure that it truly benefits from the extraction of its valuable natural resources. Without a permanent fund, the economic benefit from the natural resource extraction will decline along with the natural resources themselves.

The center proposes a 1 percent additional severance tax on coal and natural gas that could go into this fund, and be used a bit at a time to help pay for a variety of economic development efforts — everything from early childhood development programs and college grants to workforce training and infrastructure improvements.

Authors Ted Boettner, Jill Kriesky, Rory McIlmoil and Elizabeth Paulhus helpfully provide an overview of similar programs in other states — Alaska, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota, Utah and Wyoming — that tax the extraction of non-renewable resources to pump money into state development efforts and put funds aside for future use.

According to the report, if West Virginia had created such a program in 1980, the state would now have a trust fund with assets of nearly $1.9 billion — that’s BILLION, with a B.  If started now, the fund would have generate revenues of $5.8 billion by 2035.  The report says:

If West Virginia wants future generations to benefit from the extraction of its natural resources, it must set aside a portion of the severance tax revenue from all natural resources to invest in important public structures that will build a stronger, more vibrant future for the state. To accomplish this task, West Virginia could follow the lead of six other energy states by creating a permanent severance tax trust fund (hereafter referred to as a permanent fund) that converts non-renewable natural resources into a source of sustainable wealth that serves the state today and in the future through targeted investing. Even after the state’s natural resources are depleted, West Virginia could use income from the fund to diversify the economy, make much-needed investments in infrastructure and human capital, lower future tax burdens, and deal with costs associated with past and future mineral extraction.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin waves to the crowd Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2012 prior to delivering his state of the state address at the Capitol in Charleston, W.Va. (AP Photo/Jeff Gentner)

UPDATED: The state mine safety office’s spokeswoman, Leslie Fitzwater says today:

The WVOMHS&T report [on the UBB Disaster]  is in the final stages of completion, and we expect to release it by the end of February 2012.

Nearly three weeks into the legislative session, and Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s mine safety bill — promised in the State of the State address — has finally been introduced. The Senate version is SB 448, and I’m told the House version should come out today.

Of course, the House leadership has its own legislation, and it will be interesting to see if lawmakers and the governor insist on weakening the language in one or a combination of these bills to ensure that the coal industry is on board with the changes — or if Delegate Mike Caputo can manage to get the Legislature to focus not on compromise but on what’s best for miners’ health and safety.

A few points to consider about the governor’s legislation:

–In expanding the requirements for new miners to work as supervised apprentices, the bill increases from 90 days to 120 days the length of time “red hat” miners must work within sight and sound of an experienced miner. The state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training had wanted to increase that apprentice period to 180 days.

— The bill does not close a loophole that allows mine operators to not report serious accidents to the mine safety office — the folks who dispatch mine rescue teams — within 15 minutes, as long as they call local 911 dispatchers within that time period. The language proposed allows calls to the state’s industrial accident hotline to come 15 minutes after that initial notification to 911.

As we’ve discussed on this blog before (see here and especially here), it’s not clear what any of these bills will actually do to deal with the root of mine safety enforcement problems: The control of the political process, and therefore captive regulatory agencies, by the coal industry.

Speaking of agencies, one last interesting thing here is that, while we’ve seen reports from special investigator Davitt McAteer, the United Mine Workers, and the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, we have not yet seen a report on the state mine safety office’s investigation of Upper Big Branch.  The last I heard, state investigators were to complete their report by the end of January, but it was not clear when it might be made public.

Friday roundup, Jan. 27, 2012

In a Monday Jan. 23, 2012 photo, Sheila Combs, president of the Upper Big Branch Mining Memorial Group, looks over a sign showing what the Upper Big Branch Miners Memorial will look like in Whitesville, W. Va. Media outlets report that work began Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2012 on a memorial for 29 miners killed in the 2010 explosion of the Upper Big Branch mine.   (AP Photo/The Register-Herald, Rick Barbero)

One of the more interesting stories out there this week was a glowing profile of our buddy Joe Main, the assistant secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health. It was published on a site called and is apparently part of a book about various Obama administration officials. Here’s a little to give you the flavor of it:

After an explosion in April 2010 killed 29 workers in Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia, Main faced the competing demands of disaster management and day-to-day operations. His experience provides three leadership lessons for all executives responding to a crisis …

While the instinct might be to shift all of an agency’s resources into responding to a major event like the Upper Branch mine explosion, Main knew MSHA’s routine operations must continue without interruption. “I’ve lived through these experiences before, so I knew what to expect,” he says. “You have to be careful not to let everyone run into the fire. I knew I had to leave some people here in headquarters in order to keep the place running.”

Looking back, Main says, “I’m proud that I was able to keep the agency running in spite of Upper Big Branch. We had a successful strategy in place and we kept it going. We kept doing our work . . . The key thing is to stay focused.”

Starting on the day of the tragedy and during the months that followed, MSHA took a close look at its operations, Main says. “You have to ask yourself and the agency, ‘What did we miss? How did this happen? What have we learned?’ he says. “And finally, ‘What changes do we need to make?’ “

Regular readers of this blog have a pretty good idea about some of the things that went wrong … if MSHA ever publishes its “internal review” report on Upper Big Branch, maybe we’ll find out more.

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The Associated Press is reporting on this, having picked up the story from the Morgantown Dominion Post:

An ex-mine foreman who admitted faking safety inspection reports is suing Patriot Coal Corp. and the Federal No. 2 mine bosses who he claims pressured him to falsify data. John Renner is awaiting sentencing on federal charges. He pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Clarksburg in March 2010, but prosecutors have repeatedly delayed his sentencing, citing his cooperation in an investigation of the mine.

The complaint says mine management pressured Renner to fake methane gas readings on sealed sections of the mine to avoid a shutdown that would have stopped coal production. The managers’ conduct was “atrocious, utterly intolerable in a civilized community and so extreme and outrageous as to exceed all possible bounds of decency,” the complaint charges.

We’ve reported on this before here, here and here, and noted that Federal No. 2 has long been held up by industry, labor and government officials as a model mine. Renner has never been sentenced in his criminal case, and the public has never really been told what’s going on with this investigation.

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter waits for the commencement of a town hall meeting Monday, Jan. 23, 2012 in Wallace, Idaho where residents and business owners sought answers about the recent Lucky Friday Mine closure. (AP Photo/Coeur d’Alene Press, Jerome A. Pollos)

After 29 miners died in April 2010 at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine here in West Virginia, a lot of people — including the local political leadership — made a lot of noise asking why, if conditions were so bad at Upper Big Branch, federal Mine Safety and Health Administration inspectors didn’t shut the place down. Well, if you really wonder about the answer to that question, look no farther than what’s going on right now out in Idaho, where the local media and the governor are raising quite a stink over closure of the much-troubled Lucky Friday silver mine.

Here’s the latest news from The Associated Press:

Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter plans to ask federal regulators to hold a town hall meeting in northern Idaho and further explain the decision to close one of the nation’s deepest underground mines for safety reasons.

Otter traveled Monday to Wallace to discuss the closure of the Lucky Friday Mine earlier this month and economic conditions in the depressed Silver Valley region, where dozens of workers recently received a pink slip.

There was standing room only as Otter held a public meeting Monday in Wallace to discuss the shutdown of the mine with local families and business owners. Otter said he would ask federal mine regulators to hold a public meeting in the Silver Valley to further explain their decision.

“When I get home, that letter will be on its way to Washington, D.C.,” said Otter, who has also met with Hecla representatives to discuss the closure.

What exactly is MSHA up to here?

The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration ordered the operation closed following an investigation prompted by a series of accidents that killed two miners over the last year. The agency ordered Hecla Mining Co. for safety reasons to scrub the walls of the mile-deep shaft that is the main entrance to the mine.

Federal inspectors determined that sand and concrete material that had leaked from a pipe into a mine shaft over the years needed to be removed. The material is in the mile-deep Silver Shaft, the mine’s main access shaft, and workers will spend the next year essentially power washing the material from the walls of the shaft.

The shaft problems were flagged during a Dec. 20 inspection following two fatal accidents and a rock burst that trapped seven miners.

The Mine Safety and Health Administration’s closure order was initially issued Jan. 5, but Hecla officials said Jan. 11 that they had been negotiating for several days with federal regulators before resigning themselves to the lengthy shutdown.

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Here in West Virginia, most political leaders can’t say enough nice things about CONSOL Inc.’s plan for the Buffalo Mountain Surface Mine, a project associated with construction of the much-touted King Coal Highway from Bluefield to Williamson.

But officials from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have always had questions about this particular mining proposal, having objected to it from President Obama’s first day in office.  And now, top EPA officials have issued another major new letter about the Buffalo Mountain Surface Mine, basically challenging state regulators and the company to come up with ways to reduce the operation’s projected environmental impacts:

The EPA’s review of the mining operator’s proposal indicates that feasible, cost effective steps are available to be incorporated into the operation to avoid and minimize the significant, adverse environmental and water quality impacts associated with the Buffalo Mountain mine. Unlike Buffalo Mountain’s mine design, modern, technically feasible and cost-effective mining practices are being proposed and incorporated by many mining companies into their mine designs with the intent to significantly reduce the adverse effects to the aquatic ecosystem.

That’s from this letter, sent last week to WVDEP mining director Tom Clarke by Jon Capacasa, director of EPA’s water protection division at Region III headquarters in Philadelphia.

EPA said that this permit — a 2,308-acre proposal for the area between Belo and Delbarton in Mingo County — “is among the largest single mining projects ever proposed in Appalachia” and that “the scale and magnitude of environmental and water quality impacts from the mine as currently proposed are as significant as any mining operation we have reviewed in the pats 20 years.”

Federal officials noted that the mine will bury nearly 10 miles of streams with waste rock and dirt, and the Clean Water Act pollution discharge permit at issue in this letter (as opposed to the Section 404 permit from the Army Corps of Engineers, which EPA previously questioned) includes 159 water pollution outfalls, including 12 outfalls to handle discharges from the 13 proposed valley fills.

Citing its 2011 report, The Effects of Mountaintop Mines and Valley Fills on Aquatic Ecosystems of the Central Appalachian Coalfields and the 2005 Environmental Impact Statement on mountaintop removal, EPA said in its letter:

The current scientific literature has increasingly documented the adverse water quality, environmental, and public health effects of Appalachian surface coal mining. Mountaintop mines and valley fills (MTM-VF) generally lead directly to five principal alterations to stream ecosystems: (1) springs, ephemeral, intermittent streams and small perennial streams are permanently lost with the removal of the mountain and from burial under fill; (2) concentrations of major chemical ions are persistently elevated downstream; (3) degraded water quality reaches levels that can be lethal to stream life; (4) selenium concentrations are elevated, reaching concentrations that have caused toxic effects in fish and birds; (5) macroinvertebrate and fish communities are consistently and significant degraded.

(Not for nothing, but it’s interesting that EPA noted in passing impacts on “public health,” but provided no additional details, not citing the recent papers that link living near mountaintop removal to increased rates of birth defects and cancer. The agency has previously testified to Congress about these studies and cited them in rejecting the Spruce Mine permit.)

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WVDEP ‘clarifies’ Prenter water study findings

Following up on a tip from a Coal Tattoo reader, I passed a question on to state officials about the W.Va. Department of Environmental Protection’s study of the water in the Prenter area of Boone County … here’s a press release that resulted from that reader’s careful eye:

Triad Engineering has confirmed an error in a study it conducted for the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection on water supplies in the Prenter area of Boone County.

The study, which included the sampling of 33 domestic wells, was released on Tuesday and did not reveal evidence of widespread mining-induced impacts to groundwater quality in the study area. However, Triad said one laboratory sample of a domestic well exceeded the primary drinking water standard for lead.

Although the agency and Triad Engineering staff carefully reviewed the data, this parameter was accidentally overlooked by both.

“While this does not change the overall scope of the study, exceeding the drinking water standard for lead is serious and we are glad this error was found,” said Randy C. Huffman, cabinet secretary for the DEP.

A citizen who read the study pointed out the error.

The owner of the well with the elevated lead value lives in an area served by public water. The DEP is trying to reach the owner to make him aware of the finding and will investigate the cause of the elevated lead levels.

None of the other 32 wells sampled in the study area exceeded the primary drinking water standards for metals.

“We have reviewed the domestic well data once again and confirmed that no other values exceeded the primary drinking water standards in the domestic wells.  The value was not highlighted on the spreadsheet and not called out in the report due to human error,” said John Meeks, lead geologist with Triad Engineering.”

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration today announced that federal inspectors issued 321 citations and orders during special impact inspections conducted at 10 coal mines and three metal/nonmetal mines last month. The coal mines were issued 174 citations and 19 orders, while the metal/nonmetal operations were issued 112 citations and 16 orders.

These inspections, which began in force in April 2010 following the explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine, involve mines that merit increased agency attention and enforcement due to their poor compliance history or particular compliance concerns, including high numbers of violations or closure orders; frequent hazard complaints or hotline calls; plan compliance issues; inadequate workplace examinations; a high number of accidents, injuries or illnesses; fatalities; and adverse conditions such as increased methane liberation, faulty roof conditions and inadequate ventilation.

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In a much-followed motion on a major permit challenge, U.S. District Judge Robert C. Chambers has refused to allow citizen groups to argue that the federal Army Corps of Engineers wrongly failed to consider the growing scientific evidence that links living near mountaintop removal mining operations to increases risks of serious health problems, such as birth defects and cancer.

Judge Chambers issued his ruling on Monday, and I’ve posted a copy of his six-page opinion and order here. Readers may recall that Alpha Natural Resources was fighting an effort by the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and other groups to present testimony about the long list of West Virginia University studies that have raised serious questions about mountaintop removal’s public health impacts. OVEC and the other groups are challenging a Clean Water Act permit the Corps issued for Alpha’s proposed Reylas Surface Mine in Logan County.

The judge cited the provisions of one of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, and a U.S. Supreme Court case that says that lawsuits like this one should generally be allowed to be amended or supplemented unless the proposed amendment would be “futile.” He also cited case law that describes how the National Environmental Policy Act purports to apply to these situations (see here, and here, for example).

Judge Chambers made two central points in this short decision.

First, he ruled that the Corps had already issued the permit, so that any federal action requiring NEPA review was over and done with — despite the fact that the actual, on-the-ground mining work that the plaintiffs are concerned about hasn’t started yet. Commenting on what citizen groups were trying to do, the judge wrote:

… The Corps’ duty to supplement [its analysis of the proposed permit] would continue so long as environmental impact remains to be realized from the permit decision. This position simply cannot be correct in a world where the impacts of permitting decisions are potentially permanent … Once the proposed action [which the judge defines as permit issuance — not mining activity] is completed, an agency’s duty to supplement terminates.

Second, the judge concluded that even if he allowed the citizen group lawyers to get the health studies into the case, they would still not be able to prove that the Corps’ failure to consider them in the permit review was arbitrary and capricious, the legal standard for overturning a Clean Water Act permit issuance. According to Judge Chambers:

Where, as here, the new claim is based on studies first published after the agency has met its initial NEPA obligation, the inquiry ‘must be framed in terms of information available during a specific time period, with recognition of the fact that an agency cannot have acted arbitrarily unless it has had a reasonable time to consider the alleged new information.

More specifically, Judge Chambers argued:

Having been presented with the newly published Hendryx studies for the first time in this lawsuit, the Corps has not had a reasonable opportunity [to] consider them, let alone to take action that could be found to be arbitrary and capricious.

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President Obama didn’t have much to say about coal during last night’s State of the Union address. But he did talk just a bit about a few things that certainly impact the coal industry. Here are the excerpts:

The differences in this chamber may be too deep right now to pass a comprehensive plan to fight climate change. But there’s no reason why Congress shouldn’t at least set a clean energy standard that creates a market for innovation. So far, you haven’t acted …

… Of course, the easiest way to save money is to waste less energy.  So here’s a proposal:  Help manufacturers eliminate energy waste in their factories and give businesses incentives to upgrade their buildings.  Their energy bills will be $100 billion lower over the next decade, and America will have less pollution, more manufacturing, more jobs for construction workers who need them.  Send me a bill that creates these jobs.

… But I will not back down from making sure an oil company can contain the kind of oil spill we saw in the Gulf two years ago.   I will not back down from protecting our kids from mercury poisoning, or making sure that our food is safe and our water is clean.

By my count, it’s been two years since the president directly mentioned coal in his State of the Union. Some may recall that this is what he said during his 2010 address:

… To create more of these clean energy jobs, we need more production, more efficiency, more incentives. That means building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country. It means making tough decisions about opening new offshore areas for oil and gas development. It means continued investment in advanced biofuels and clean coal technologies. And yes, it means passing a comprehensive energy and climate bill with incentives that will finally make clean energy the profitable kind of energy in America.

I haven’t seen statements from all of West Virginia’s congressional delegation members, but Sen. Joe Manchin never misses a chance to criticize his party’s president and defend the coal industry:

When it comes to energy and regulations, I’m hopeful that when the President looks for overregulation, the first place he looks is his own EPA, which is making it extremely difficult for us to provide the energy this nation needs at affordable prices. I still have a hard time understanding how you can have a comprehensive energy plan in America without coal – when coal produces nearly 50 percent of our energy and knowing that new technologies can make it much cleaner.

WVDEP releases Prenter water study

Here’s the release just issued by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection:

A year-long study commissioned by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection on water supplies in the Prenter/Sand Lick area of Boone County did not reveal evidence of widespread mining-induced impacts to groundwater quality in the study area.

The study, which began in December 2010, was conducted by Triad Engineering, of Scott Depot, and was ordered by the DEP to evaluate allegations of negative impacts to the quality of groundwater being used as a drinking source by residents in the study area. Triad was asked to determine what human activity, including coal mining and mining-related activities, might have negatively affected drinking water sources.

The study area included all residences along Hopkins Fork of the Big Coal River and tributaries of Hopkins Fork from Seth to Prenter. A large portion of the study area, from Seth, upstream to Nelson, now has public water.

Domestic wells sampled for water quality were well distributed across the entire watershed, and therefore provided a representative characterization of groundwater quality in the study area.

“This was a thorough, comprehensive study,” DEP Cabinet Secretary Randy Huffman said. “I hope the results help put the people in the Prenter community at ease because we can point to laboratory test results from the wells that say the water quality is within Primary Drinking Water Standards.”

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Anyone who is paying attention to government statistics, industry forecasts — and this blog — shouldn’t have been particularly surprised by the news about coal yesterday from the U.S. Department of Energy’s sneak peak at the Energy Information Administration’s 2012 Annual Energy Outlook:

Coal production in Central Appalachia may not decline as sharply over the next five years as previously projected, but the long-term forecast looks even worse, according to a new U.S. Department of Energy report.

On Monday, DOE’s Energy Information Administration increased its estimates of annual regional coal production for each of the next five years, but then projected steeper drops through the rest of the decade, with output reaching a low of 77 million tons in 2020.

Overall, production from Central Appalachia — mostly Southern West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky — is expected to drop to about 86 million tons, a decline of nearly 54 percent between 2011 and 2035.

If you’ve got any doubt about it, check out Kris Maher’s Wall Street Journal story, headlined, Coal Industry Losing Steam: U.S. Firms Face Double Threat of Cheap Natural Gas, Weak European Demand:

This year’s outlook is grim for the U.S coal industry, which after two years of rising profits has begun closing mines, signaling a new wave of production cutbacks and, possibly, another round of industry consolidation.

The country’s biggest coal producers, which begin reporting fourth-quarter results on Tuesday with St. Louis-based Peabody Energy Corp., should provide insight into how bad this year could be. Most should meet Wall Street’s earnings expectations for the last quarter of 2011 on export gains over a year ago, while tempering investor expectations for 2012, say analysts.

The two biggest threats facing U.S. coal companies are the low price of domestic natural gas, which is making thermal coal a less-attractive fuel for their utility-customers, and the shaky economic picture in Europe, which is damping exports of metallurgical coal.

Of course, there are plenty of reasons to be concerned about West Virginia’s coal industry — Things like the pervasive and irreversible impacts of mountaintop removal mining on our environment and the growing body of science that links living near mountaintop removal to serious health impacts like birth defects and cancer.  There’s also the incredible toll coal-mining takes on workers, through mine disasters, one-by-one deaths, and the continuing public health disaster that is black-lung disease. And there’s the untold damage to public health from power plant emissions, and coal’s huge contributions to global warming.

And if those things aren’t enough — and for most politicians in the region, they’re not — to make folks sit down and talk about the future of coal, you would think that the serious potential for seeing Central Appalachian coal production cut by more than half before the end of this decade might get some attention.

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Update: Declines projected for Appalachian coal

Here’s the latest from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration, in a preview of its 2012 Energy Outlook issued this morning:

Over the next 25 years, the projected coal share of overall electricity generation falls to 39 percent, well below the 49-percent share seen as recently as 2007, because of slow growth in electricity demand, continued competition from natural gas and renewable plants, and the need to comply with new environmental regulations.

The average minemouth price of coal increases by 1.4 percent per year in the AEO2012 Reference case, from $1.76 per million Btu in 2010 to $2.51 per million Btu in 2035 (2010 dollars). The upward trend of coal prices primarily reflects an expectation that cost savings from technological improvements in coal mining will be outweighed by increases in production costs associated with moving into reserves that are more costly to mine. The coal price outlook in the AEO2012 Reference case represents a change from the AEO2011 Reference case, where coal prices were essentially flat.

Although coal remains the leading fuel for U.S. electricity generation, its share of total generation is lower in the AEO2012 Reference case than was projected in the AEO2011 Reference case. As a consequence, while still growing in most projection years after 2015, total coal production is lower in the AEO2012 Reference case than in the AEO2011 Reference case, with the gap between the two outlooks increasing substantially over the period from 2020 to 2035.
In the AEO2012 Reference case, domestic coal production increases at an average rate of 0.3 percent per year, from 22.1 quadrillion Btu (1,084 million short tons) in 2010 to 23.5 quadrillion Btu (1,188 million short tons) in 2035. Mines in the West account for nearly all the projected increase in overall production, although even Western coal production is expected to decline somewhat between 2010 and 2015 as low natural gas prices and the retirement of a sizable amount of coal-fired generating capacity leads to a decline in overall coal consumption in the electricity sector. On a Btu basis, the share of domestic coal production originating from mines in the West increases from 47 percent in 2010 to 56 percent in 2035, and the Appalachian share declines from 39 percent to 29 percent during the same period, with most of the decline occurring by 2020. In the Interior region, coal production remains relatively stable over the projection period, with production in 2035 higher than in 2010.

Friday roundup, Jan. 20, 2012

A lift unloads a coal barge that broke away on the Monongahela River , right, on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2012,  in Pittsburgh. U.S. Coast Guard officials say an incident that occurred about 2:30 on Thursday morning started a chain of events resulting in three loose barges going downriver and temporarily closing four bridges into downtown Pittsburgh, including the Liberty Bridge, top, and the Panhandle Bridge, just downriver . All of the bridges have since reopened after they were inspected. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

Let’s start this week with a nice takeout piece and good overview by Chris Nelder, written for Smart called “Regulation and the decline of coal power.” It starts off:

Coal is fading as the power generation fuel of choice in the U.S., but it’s not just because of the EPA.

Where have we heard this before? Well, here’s what Nelder says:

Coal-burning utilities and their industry partners have mightily protested new EPA regulations, due to go into effect last weekend, that would curb emissions of mercury, sulfur dioxides, nitrogen oxides, and other metallic toxics such as arsenic from power plants. A federal appeals court delayed enforcement of the regulations on December 30 after hearing a challenge brought by power-plant operators and utilities, six states, the National Mining Association and the IBEW electrical union. Their arguments hardly need recitation: The regulations are expensive and “draconian.” They’re job-killing. They’ll raise the price of grid power. The EPA is overstepping its authority. Yadda yadda yadda.

Having had a long look at the data, however, I think the industry doth protest too much.

Citing the great work of the fine folks at Downstream Strategies, Nelder writes:

Central Appalachian coal has ceased to be competitive on price largely because those mining operations are much older. As with oil, we burned the best, cheapest, and most abundant coal deposits first, and the Appalachian mountains have simply become mined-out. The best coal reserves are depleted, and producers now must move on to thinner, less productive, more geologically challenging deposits with lower energy content. Overall, domestic U.S. coal now has 20 percent less energy per kilogram than it did in 1949, and the quality is still declining.

Shifting from underground mining to surface mining (mountaintop removal) improved productivity through the 1990s, the researchers note, until it maxed out in 2000. At that point, labor productivity fell by 25 percent, and the price of Central Appalachian coal began to rise. By 2008 it had doubled and lost its price competitiveness.

His piece concludes:

So in reply to the coal-fired power sector’s bleating about regulatory uncertainty, I say: The only uncertainty is how quickly, and how much, the noose tightens around your neck. While I have questioned both the economics of shale gas production and the claims about its reserves, there is no arguing about price. As long as the shale gas phenomenon can bring gas to market for under $4 per million BTU, the economics are tilting in its favor. The cost of renewables will continue to drop, while the cost of coal will continue to rise. That’s the hard reality of price, and it has nothing to do with regulatory uncertainty.

And even though regulatory uncertainty does pose a problem for coal plant owners, those regulations can only be good news for the health of the public and the environment. It’s cynical and shameful to pretend to a principled stand against overweening federal regulation when you’re really just trying to squeeze a little more life out of filthy old plants that are destined for retirement anyway. The public has gotten wise to your game, and your onslaught of glossy prime-time ads isn’t convincing anybody that you’re clean or green. Concerns about killing acid rains, billions of dollars in health destruction, and general environmental contamination have begun to weigh more heavily than adding a fraction of a penny to the cost of a kilowatt-hour. The public now knows that the price of power from renewables and gas is on the verge of being competitive with coal, and that if no externalities (like carbon emissions) are allowed into the calculation, coal is already a hands-down loser. Your “jobs, jobs, jobs” mantra is wearing thin. We don’t just need any old jobs, but the right jobs, in order to become a more healthy, safe and sustainable society.

In a Thursday, Jan. 19, 2012 photo, University of Kentucky students with the university’s Beyond Coal Coalition, unfurl a large banner on the lawn beside William T. Young Library on the UK campus in Lexington, Ky. They want UK to shutter their coal boilers. The banner was made of 6 king size sheets sewn together. Some of the students sat on the corners to keep the banner from blowing in the wind. (AP Photo/Lexington Herald-leader,Charles Bertram)

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Despite legislation that prohibits it from being enforced — at least until the GAO completes a report on the proposal — the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration has quietly announced plans to finalize its new rules aimed at ending black lung disease.

A new Labor Department regulatory schedule, posted on the Internet, but not publicly announced by the agency, lists a date for publication of the final rule as April 2012.  I asked MSHA spokeswoman Amy Louviere about it, and she said in an email:

The rider does not restrict MSHA’s ability to promulgate the rule, only MSHA’s ability to implement or enforce the rule.

It was kind of funny that last night’s public meeting on Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s plan to merger the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement with the Bureau of Land Management was held out at the West Virginia National Guard Armory, behind a door that was marked “War Room.” It had to wonder if President Obama and his aides flew into nearby Yeager Airport for a secret meeting with West Virginia environmentalists a while back, to plot the administration’s much-criticized “war on coal.”

But frankly, the meeting was pretty much a waste of time — and this is coming from somebody loves the very notion of getting the public together and making our government officials sit and listen to us for a while.

Turnout was pretty low, and only a couple of the 15 people who signed up to speak actually took advantage of their 3 minutes of fame to give OSMRE and BLM officials a piece of their mind about the proposed merger plans. The industry’s lobbyists — Jason Bostic of the West Virginia Coal Association and Bryan Brown of FACES of Coal  were both there — declined to say anything at the meeting, telling officials their groups would submit written comments later.

A representative of Sen. Joe Manchin read part of a prepared statement. Someone from Sen. Rockefeller’s office said something, but she was so quiet about it even the court reporter couldn’t hear her. My old buddy Lewis Halstead from the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection was there to listen, as were officials from several coal companies, including Alpha Natural Resources.

Vivian Stockman of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition was about the only person who had much to say, offered a pretty weak statement of support for OSMRE, saying:

We find ourselves in an awkward position of advocating for an agency that has often fallen short of its duties.

Perhaps if OSMRE could have gotten a couple of the local television stations to show up the politicians would have turned out as well and the industry lobbyists would have taken advantage of the chance to make with the “war on coal” narrative that they’re somehow seeking to make this OSMRE-BML deal sound like it’s a part of.

Continue reading…

There’s a new report on acid rain out this week from the folks at the U.S. Geological Survey. According to the agency’s press release:

Measurable improvements in air quality and visibility, human health, and water quality in many acid-sensitive lakes and streams, have been achieved through emissions reductions from electric generating power plants and resulting decreases in acid rain. These are some of the key findings in a report to Congress by the National Acid Precipitation Assessment Program, a cooperative federal program.

The report shows that since the establishment of the Acid Rain Program, under Title IV of the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments, there have been substantial reductions in sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) emissions from power plants that use fossil fuels like coal, gas and oil, which are known to be the primary causes of acid rain. As of 2009, emissions of SO2 and NOx declined by about two-thirds relative to levels in the 1990s. These emissions levels declined even further in 2010, according to recent data compiled by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Because emission reductions result in fewer fine particles and lower ozone concentrations in the air, in 2010 there were thousands fewer premature human deaths, hospital admissions, and emergency room visits annually leading to estimated human health benefits valued at $170 to $430 billion per year.

Continue reading…

Sad news this morning from Virginia, where the first U.S. coal-mining death of 2012 has occurred. The accident happened  on Jan. 11 at CONSOL Energy’s Buchanan Mine where, according to the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration:

… A miner was struck in the face and forehead by a damaged fire fighting valve under high pressure on a 6-inch waterline The valve had been isolated by shutting off cut-off valves both inby and outby the damaged valve. It is believed one of the valves was allowing water to leak through, which caused pressure to build up at the damaged valve. The valve blew off while the victim was in the process of removing it, striking him in the face/forehead area. Another miner was hit in the shoulder by the valve after it contacted the initial victim. The miner was transported to a local medical facility and then to a larger hospital in Bristol, VA. He is reported to be stabilized, but in critical condition. The second miner did not appear to be hurt but was taken to the hospital to be checked as a precautionary measure.

MSHA added:

On Wednesday, the doctors attending the injured miner removed him from life support yesterday at 4:12 PM after brain activity ceased. He was unable to breath on his own and died shortly thereafter. This is the first Coal fatality for 2012.

Bill Archer at the Bluefield Daily Telegraph has identified the miner who died as Joe Saunders, 44, of Princeton, W.Va.

The Aracoma Mine Fire, Jan. 19, 2006

My thoughts today are with the families of Don Bragg and Elvis Hatfield, the two coal miners who died six years ago in that terrible fire at Massey Energy’s Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine in Logan County, W.Va.

As I wrote a year ago on this date, readers will recall that Massey Energy’s Aracoma Coal Co. pleaded guilty to criminal mine safety violations that led to their deaths, and paid a record $2.5 million in criminal fines and $1.7 million in civil penalties. Five Massey foreman also pleaded guilty to criminal charges, but none of them went to jail.

But the U.S. Department of Justice and then-U.S. Attorney Chuck Miller agreed to a plea deal with Aracoma Coal in which the government agreed not to prosecute any employees or officers of the corporate parent, Massey Energy. This deal drew much criticism from the widows of Mr. Bragg and Mr. Hatfield.

Prosecutors said they had no evidence of any criminal wrongdoing by Massey or its officers or employees, but lawyers for the families wondered about a key memo that indicated then-Massey CEO Don Blankenship knew about the poor condition of the conveyor belts at Aracoma and knew mine officials were not accurately reporting those conditions on mine safety reports.

In last year’s anniversary post, I questioned whether the criminal investigation of the deaths of 29 more Massey miners at the company’s Upper Big Branch Mine would end any differently:

What will come of this new criminal investigation? Will prosecutors bring charges against a few mid-level foremen, or will they find and try to punish wrongdoing by anyone further up the corporate ladder?

Over the last few months, we’ve seen a flurry of action on Upper Big Branch.  In late October, the mine’s longtime security director, Hughie Elbert Stover, was convicted of two felonies, with a jury finding that he lied to investigators and tried to destroy evidence about Massey’s habit of warning underground workers of impending safety inspections — a practice that federal inspectors say played a major role in the April 5, 2010, disaster.  Stover faces up to 25 years in prison. Already, a former Massey miner had pleaded guilty to faking foreman’s credentials while he spent almost two years performing safety inspections for the company at Upper Big Branch. While there’s no direct evidence the actions of Thomas Harrah played any role in the disaster, U.S. District Judge Irene Berger sentenced Harrah to 10 months in prison.

Then in December, as the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration was preparing to issue the report of its investigation into Upper Big Branch, U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin announced that his office had reached a landmark deal with Alpha Natural Resources, which bought Massey last June. Alpha would agree to spend tens of millions of dollars on mine safety improvements, and Goodwin would agree not to bring any criminal charges against the company.

And just last week, the remaining families of the Upper Big Branch miners settled their wrongful death cases, agreeing to a deal through with Alpha will pay them undisclosed amounts of money to resolve those cases and allow the company to, essentially, turn the page on the disaster it inherited from Massey CEO Don Blankenship.

The families have made it clear that they want justice — not just money. As one of the family lawyers, Tim Bailey, told me:

Compensation is one thing, but justice is another. Based on what happened at this mine, there is not going to be justice until some people are indicted and some people go to jail.

Will more people go to jail? Well, we know that the Alpha-Justice Department deal does not include language to protect any individual officers, agents or employees of Massey from prosecution … and U.S. Attorney Goodwin has said his office has uncovered other crimes for which the appropriate individuals have not yet been charged.  The question is — will Goodwin and his staff find a way to bring charges against these individuals and to make those charges stick? A more cynical person that I might also ask if higher-ranking officials at the Justice Department, with Goodwin’s Alpha deal already in their pockets, think it’s time to move on and pressure Goodwin to just drop it?

West Virginia political leaders certainly don’t have the stomach for much more talk about 29 coal miners getting blow up … Every chance they get, our local elected officials encourage us all to forget about the bad old days of Massey, and focus on the new leadership at Alpha (the “new ownership in Southern West Virginia“, as my friend Rep. Nick Rahall likes to say), forgetting about Alpha’s willingness to keep some top Massey managers on board — and about the fact that Alpha CEO Kevin Crutchfield can’t seem to bring himself to say publicly that UBB could have easily have been prevented and wasn’t any sort of Act of God. It takes a congressman from California — ranking Democrat on the Labor Committee, George Miller — to bother to ask Crutchfield about any of this.

Before anyone in the federal government decides they should just drop this criminal probe, I wonder if it might be worth them being put into a room for a while with the widows of Don Bragg and Elvis Hatfield or at least read what their lawyer, Bruce Stanley, told me last month:

Sadly, aggressive prosecution against upper management in the Aracoma case might have spared us the horror of UBB. We’ll never know, of course. But we certainly hope that the lesson of making deals with the devil has been learned, that the criminal investigation makes its way into the boardroom as well as the guard shack, and that Alpha chooses a different path than its predecessor.