Coal Tattoo

Friday roundup, Feb. 3, 2012

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Train cars full of coal head to the FirstEnergy Corp., coal-fired power plant in Eastlake, Ohio is seen on Thursday,  Jan. 26, 2012.  FirstEnergy Corp. says it will shut down six older, coal-fired power plants in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Maryland, affecting about 530 employees on Sept. 1.  The Akron, Ohio-based utility said Thursday that the move is related to new environmental rules. (AP Photo/Amy Sancetta)

Well, folks, Sunday is the 3rd anniversary of the launching of this blog. In a post called, “Welcome to Coal Tattoo,” I wrote:

… One thing that I want to note is that it seems that there are really two separate discussions going on about coal.

One of them is out there in the broader world. Scientists, policymakers and even investors are becoming more and more convinced that the downsides of coal have to be addressed. One way or the other, coal-fired power’s contribution to global warming must be dealt with. To these folks, the question is: Can coal have a place in our energy mix in a carbon-constrained world?

The other discussion is happening here in West Virginia, and in other coal communities. Locally, the issues are different, and in many ways much more emotional. It’s a battle between families who rely on coal to put food on their tables and send their kids to college, and folks who live near coal mines and are tired of blasting, dust, and water pollution. To these folks, the questions are: How can we protect coal’s future or how can we shut down mountaintop removal?

These two discussions are starting to intersect a little bit. Activists who don’t like mountaintop removal are talking more and more about climate change. But there’s still a huge disconnect between the way the broader world talks about coal and the way we here in the coalfields do.

Perhaps the scientists and activists who understand what coal burning is doing to our climate should try to understand a little more about how a third-generation coal miner in Eastern Kentucky feels. And maybe that coal miner should be a little more open to hearing what the world would be like if we don’t do something about rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Most importantly, maybe the policymakers in Washington need to understand what the economic impact of climate change regulations is going to be on places like West Virginia and Wyoming. And maybe politicians and government officials in places like Charleston, W.Va., need to come to terms with the fact that change is coming to this industry.

I hope this blog contributes a little bit to helping these discussions along. I welcome thoughts, comments, suggestions and criticisms on how to get this job done.

As always, I welcome your thoughts and comments on all things coal and on how this blog can do better.

The news everybody who is on the inside of these controversies — mostly PR people, lobbyists, and journalists — is talking about comes from a Time magazine blog reporting (later picked up by Politico) earlier this week:

… The biggest and oldest environmental group in the U.S. finds itself caught on the horns of that dilemma. TIME has learned that between 2007 and 2010 the Sierra Club accepted over $25 million in donations from the gas industry, mostly from Aubrey McClendon, CEO of Chesapeake Energy—one of the biggest gas drilling companies in the U.S. and a firm heavily involved in fracking—to help fund the Club’s Beyond Coal campaign. Though the group ended its relationship with Chesapeake in 2010—and the Club says it turned its back on an additional $30 million in promised donations—the news raises concerns about influence industry may have had on the Sierra Club’s independence and its support of natural gas in the past. It’s also sure to anger ordinary members who’ve been uneasy about the Club’s relationship with corporations. “The chapter groups and volunteers depend on the Club to have their back as they fight pollution from any industry, and we need to be unrestrained in our advocacy,” Michael Brune, the Sierra Club’s executive director since 2010, told me. “The first rule of advocacy of is that you shouldn’t take money from industries and companies you’re trying to change.”

I see this whole thing as a bit of a sideshow … it’s fodder for some of the coal lobbyists I heard at this week’s West Virginia Coal Association meetings to make nasty comments about the Sierra Club. And it was too bad that the United Mine Workers of America union joined in that, issuing a name-calling news release about the Sierra Club so soon after former UMWA President Richard Trumka called for constructive discussions between differing groups about the future of coal.

This reminded me that one of the folks I know whose been wrestling with Chesapeake Energy over its impact on his homeplace is a fellow I met many years ago when he was walking a UMWA picket line and I was covering a coal strike. The people and communities impacted by these industries are quite a lot alike and are even sometimes one in the same. Dust-ups that cause more friction between citizens who suffer damage from extractive industries and the folks who work for those industries do little but play into the hands of those in these industries who don’t want to be reformed.

Moving on to the rest of this week’s coal news and commentary:

— The Economist had a take on how “Tighter regulation, bountiful natural gas and declining installation costs for renewable energy herald the end of America’s coal era“:

To some, regulations prove the current administration’s hostility to coal. To others, however, they are a long-overdue attempt to gauge a putatively cheap fuel’s true external costs. A National Academy of Sciences report estimated that the external costs unrelated to climate-change costs (to human health, crop and timber yields, building materials and recreation) of coal-fired power plants in 2005 totalled $62 billion. A study of coal’s effects on Kentucky’s budget in 2006 found that it contributed $528m in revenue, but its on-budget costs—training, support, repairs to the roads, R&D for the coal industry—totalled $643m. A study in West Virginia in 2009 also found the coal industry a net cost to the state.

Continue reading…

This morning’s sessions over at the West Virginia Coal Association’s Annual Mining Symposium didn’t disappoint, that’s for sure. Especially if you — like most of the industry crowd there — can get worked up about just about anything that criticizes President Obama.

I’m not sure which was the highlight … but here are my two nominations:

— My good friend Ben Bailey, the Charleston lawyer who represents the state in its taxpayer-funded lawsuit to block the U.S. EPA’s crackdown on mountaintop removal.

Ben hauled out an oldie but a goodie — quoting the lines from Isaiah 40:4:

Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.

Ben cited this as proof of a “Biblical admonition to move earth.” But of course, as I’m sure Ben knows, some versions of the Bible talk about every valley being “exalted” — which I’m not sure really means burying it under millions of tons of waste rock and dirt from a mountaintop removal mine.

— Or, Mike Carey, president of the Ohio Coal Association. First, Mike at least twice referred to EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson as having been head of the state EPA in Delaware. I don’t think I misheard him, and perhaps I’m mistaken, but I think he meant to say she was head of the state EPA in New Jersey.

But the best one — and perhaps this gives Mike the edge over Ben — is that he hauled out the old, out-of-context attack that Sarah Palin tried to use against then-candidate Obama just days before the 2008 election, turning Obama’s simple explanation of how cap-and-trade works into proof of a plan by Obama to bankrupt the coal industry. (See our 2008 coverage of this issue, including a transcript of the comments, here). Not for nothing, but Mike didn’t bother to quote this part of what Obama said at the time:

The only thing that I’ve said with respect to coal, I haven’t been some coal booster. I have said that, for us to take coal off the table as an ideological matter, as opposed to saying that if technology allows us to use coal in a clean way we should pursue it, that I think is the right approach.

Anyway, probably the most interesting bit of real news to come out today was the discussion by John Craynon of Virginia Tech of the Appalachian Research Initiative for Environmental Science, or ARIES.  Here’s the official description of that project, posted on the university’s website:

The purpose of ARIES is to engage in detailed studies of the environmental impacts of the mining, gas, and energy sectors in Appalachia, focusing on both upstream (mining, drilling, and processing) and downstream (water, land, and air) issues. To meet that purpose, ARIES will conduct scientific inquiry and research, foster publication and contribute to the relevant literature, and engage in outreach efforts to share and disseminate results. Initially, work carried out by ARIES will focus on the coal mining industry.

But what caught my attention were comments by Craynon that one of the first projects is a set of reports that aim to see if there “different interpretations” of the data than those presented in the papers published by West Virginia University’s Michael Hendryx. Hmmm … you guessed it, here’s what else I found on the ARIES website:

Several companies have become industrial affiliate members of ARIES. These are: Alpha Natural Resources, Arch Coal, Cliffs Natural Resources, CSX, MEPCO, Natural Resource Partners, Norfolk Southern, Patriot Coal Corporation, and TECO. Other industrial partners will likely be added in the future. These partners have provided $15 million over the next 5 years to fund the work of ARIES.

A railroad bridge over the Ohio River begins to disappear from fog that developed around midday Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2012 as seen from the river’s bank in Metropolis, Ill. A coal barge is also shown in the photo, pushed closer than usual to the bank due to Ohio rising rapidly. (AP Photo/The Paducah Sun, John Wright)

It’s always interesting to spend some time with my friends from the coal industry when the West Virginia Coal Association holds its annual mining symposium here in Charleston.

Some industry folks are often more candid about various issues at this event, perhaps not realizing — despite the best efforts of association lobbyists to warn them — that there might be a few reporters in the room.  And it’s fascinating to hear folks from the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection play to the industry audience, often offering little more than what sounds like a parroting of mine operator complaints about interfering federal agencies or meddlesome citizen groups.

Honestly, though, it is helpful to get to hear more from folks who aren’t always the industry’s main public faces. Though I frequently wonder why the coal association, if it really wants this to be an educational event, doesn’t bring in some speakers who might tell the operators something they don’t want to hear … for example, why include four coal spokesmen from surrounding states on this morning’s event, “Obama’s No Job Zone – A Panel Discussion”? Why not put somebody like Bo Webb on that panel, and let the mine operators hear more directly from a citizen affected by their industry’s activities? Or why not invite WVU’s Michael Hendryx to come and educate the industry about what his studies have found about mining’s potential impacts on public health?

I mean, I heard Alpha Natural Resources vice president Mark Schuerger talk about how his company believes it needs to engage with ALL of its stakeholders, not just those it picks.  As Schuerger says, engaging everyone is harder, and it can turn into a bigger and sometimes more personal thing.

Lots of the state’s leadership are banking on the notion that Alpha is honestly trying to change from the “bad old days” of Massey Energy, that what Rep. Nick Rahall calls “the new ownership in Southern West Virginia” is going to move the industry beyond repeated environmental controversies and workplace disasters. One thing that’s troubling though, is that some of the positions being advocated by Alpha aren’t really that different from those advocated by Massey under Don Blankenship. They’re cleaned up and made to sound nicer and less confrontational. But then again, Schuerger made a point of labeling the EPA’s efforts to reduce mining impacts as  a “permitorium” and he called EPA air regulations aimed at saving thousands of lives “ill-conceived.

Among the more interesting things I heard this week were the back-to-back pitches by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and Senate President Jeff Kessler about the great benefits the state of West Virginia could get from increase natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale, given that it came after Alpha’s Schuerger made a major point about the threat natural gas presents to coal (something emphasized by this week’s announcement that Patriot Coal is cutting back more on its thermal coal production here in West Virginia, to the tune of 250 jobs lost in Boone County).

It’s not surprising that our elected officials seem tone-deaf to what’s going on in energy markets.  It’s not like Gov. Tomblin or Sen. Kessler can go around questioning if natural gas is a good alternative, all the while they are practically giving away the store to try to lure a gas “cracker” plant to the state.  You have to wonder, though, if our political leadership is entirely incapable of looking to the future, what with the governor and the senate president both refusing to even consider legislation that would enact a small tax increase on coal and natural gas to pump billions of dollars into a fund for future economic development, education and infrastructure projects.

With all that said, one common refrain I’ve heard over and over at these and other industry events is that the coal business is just misunderstood by the public (and the press and, I assume, political leadership). Alpha’s Schuerger made that point this week:

Our business is more than challenging. It’s unforgiving. Our business is largely misunderstood. It’s up to us to tell the other side of the story.”

Part of the problem, though, is that — like most of us — coal industry folks who work hard and care about what they do don’t like to admit their failings. If there’s one thing that Alpha Natural Resources desperately wants to do, for example, it’s to not have the words “Upper Big Branch” mentioned very often, if ever again. No, the UBB Mine Disaster wasn’t Alpha’s fault. But the thought of those 29 miners who got blown up on April 5, 2010, is more of a reminder than the industry wants of what the coal industry has and can do to the communities where it operates. If Alpha officials really want to confront stakeholders and engage the public in honest discussions about the industry, Mark Schuerger would have mentioned yesterday that, while he was talking, one of his company’s contractors was being sent to jail for lying to federal agents — Schuerger could have said that what Raymond Dawson did was wrong, and Alpha won’t tolerate it. Instead, we witnessed a coal industry lawyer telling clients and potential clients they might want to consider taking the Fifth, rather than possibly get caught up in a federal charge for lying to the government.

Coal Association Chairman Gary White, who has taught me a thing or two about coal over the years, also talked this week about this issue of coal being misunderstood. As I reported in today’s Gazette:

“We have to continue to defend our industry,” White said. “We have moved the needle of public opinion. The public knows the size of this industry and the contributions to our economy. What they don’t know is that this is an industry that is caring and innovative.”

Gary’s point is partly backed up by the recent polling done for the Appalachian Mountain Advocates, which gave very strong favorable numbers to coal companies. Of course, that poll also showed strong opposition to mountaintop removal, and support for tougher regulations on strip mining.

This was the other thing that Gary White said that really got me thinking:

White said that, while the industry will continue to actively oppose tougher restrictions on mountaintop removal and some federal safety initiatives, many mine operators have found plenty of ways to comply with such rules.

“We will continue to find new, innovative and, in some cases, revolutionary ways to seek permits,” White said, “despite all of the challenges we face from the regulatory agencies.”

If the public doesn’t know that the coal industry has and is finding ways to obtain permits that can comply with the new water pollution guidance from EPA, well, how in the world would the public know that? That’s certainly not part of the industry’s massive public relations campaign. It is hardly ever reported by the region’s media.

And gosh, who have we heard recently say something very similar to what Gary White said? Well, it was the U.S. EPA, in its letter about CONSOL of Kentucky’s Buffalo Mountain Mine:

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.

Instead of telling that story, what we get from the mining industry and its politician friends is more of the same — panel discussions called “Obama’s No Jobs Zone.” If the coal industry is misunderstood, maybe its own public relations agents and lobbyists are to blame. Of course, a PR campaign that explains how the industry is complying with tougher regulations might undermine their effort to kill off those tougher regulations …