Coal Tattoo

Friday roundup, Feb. 10, 2012

In this photo taken on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2012, and provided by China’s Xinhua News Agency, workers load coal onto a train in Jiujiang, east China’s Jiangxi Province. The Nanchang Railway Administration and Shanghai International Port (Group) Company have given priority to coal transportation to ensure power generation during this continuous cold weather period, according to Xinhua News Agency. (AP Photo/Xinhua, Hu Guolin)

Let’s start this week’s review of coal news and commentary with a great and timely piece from Scientific American that was headlined, Retiring Old Coal Plants: Bust or Blessing for Local Communities? It tells us:

Last month, when FirstEnergy Corp. decided to close six coal-fired power plants in its home state of Ohio and two other states, the moves became instant political ammunition for Republicans, who blamed the Obama administration’s environmental regulations for the closures.

Because of the regulations on toxic power plant emissions announced last month by U.S. EPA, “500 hardworking Americans in three states will lose their jobs — not to mention the countless indirect jobs,” asserted Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio).

But the causes for the closures were not quite as simple or as immediate as that. Other forces helped push the FirstEnergy plants to the brink, according to energy experts. They include an underperforming U.S. economy, which is suppressing growth of electricity demand, and the lowest natural gas prices in a dozen years, which have made new gas-fired generation a compelling choice for utilities.

Plus, there are offsetting benefits. They begin with the potential for many more jobs in drilling, pipelines, steel, tools, chemicals and related industries — employment that will be created thanks to the surge in development of natural gas from the Utica and Marcellus shale deposits running underneath the state’s east side. The benefits also include a substantial reduction in health threats caused by the toxic emissions, EPA says.

It’s a great read, and a piece that West Virginia political leaders should take a minute to consider.

In a somewhat related piece, Bloomberg reported this week:

American Electric Power Co. (AEP), the largest U.S. coal consumer, reduced by 13 percent the amount of coal-fired generation it will shut because of new environmental regulations, saying it may get state support to spend $940 million to keep a Kentucky unit operating.

The company still plans to close power plants with about 5,138 megawatts of capacity, Chief Executive Officer Nick Akins said at an investor conference in New York today. The Columbus, Ohio-based company said in June that new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rules would force it to retire as much as 5,909 megawatts of capacity.

The difference stems from the company’s decision in December to seek a 31 percent rate increase to fund environmental equipment needed to keep its Big Sandy Unit 2 in Kentucky operating, Akins said later in an interview. State regulators have indicated American Electric may be able to recover from customers the almost $1 billion needed to keep the unit operating, he said.

And since I gave the Sierra Club what-for in a post earlier this week, I thought I’d point everybody to this blog post from Mary Anne Hitt of Sierra’s Beyond Coal Campaign, written in response to FirstEnergy’s announced plant closures in West Virginia:

All this news means cleaner air for thousands of Americans, and it’s a result of years of tireless advocacy by hard-working local residents and volunteers across these states. It also means less air pollution in my backyard, for my family – one of the retiring coal plants is just 20 miles away from my home here in West Virginia.

But there’s some unfinished business in these states. The transition from coal to clean energy needs to happen in a way that protects workers and communities, and FirstEnergy so far has shown no signs that it will do so.

We welcome this good news for our health, and for clean air and water, but we were disappointed to hear that – unlike other energy companies in the same position – FirstEnergy made no clear commitment that its affected workers would get new jobs in the clean energy economy.

We are calling on the company to do right by its workforce and the communities that rely on these plants for a sizable portion of municipal revenue. We are also calling on the company to invest in the enormous clean energy potential of these communities to create good, union jobs through energy efficiency, wind and solar. As the nation transitions away from coal, we must ensure that the workers and families who have dedicated their lives to producing coal-powered electricity are helping lead the way into a clean energy future.

She continued:

Last March in Washington, the state senate approved a landmark agreement between the Sierra Club, Governor Chris Gregoire and TransAlta to phase out the state’s massive 1400MW coal plant between 2020 and 2025. The local International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers also supported the agreement.

That agreement created a $55 million fund that will be invested in the Centralia community to help move away from relying on the plant.  Not only will tens of millions of dollars be invested in Centralia community development, but a significant portion of the transition fund will additionally be dedicated to innovation and new technologies that will help reduce Washington’s carbon pollution and create jobs.

Then, last April the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) board of directors approved a landmark agreement with three citizen groups – including the Sierra Club –, four states and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to phase out 18 units at coal-fired power plants and install modern pollution controls on three dozen additional units in Alabama, Kentucky, North Carolina and Tennessee.

That agreement also required provisions for affected workers: TVA must invest $350 million in Alabama, Kentucky, North Carolina and Tennessee on additional air pollution-reduction projects over the next five years, including funds to help consumers and business cut their energy bills, support local businesses that are creating jobs in local clean energy projects and cut carbon pollution.

We are committed to clean energy, and we are committed to good jobs. And we will continue pushing FirstEnergy to do the same.

One of the best pieces of journalism I saw this week came from Jim Morris of the Center for Public Integrity (who is, without doubt, one of the best reporters covering health, safety and environmental issues in this country). He wrote:

Publication of a landmark government study probing whether diesel engine exhaust causes lung cancer in miners — already 20 years in the making — has been delayed by industry and congressional insistence on seeing study data and documents before the public does.

A federal judge has affirmed the right of an industry group and a House committee to review the materials and has held the Department of Health and Human Services in contempt for not producing all of them.

The much-anticipated study of 12,000 miners exposed to diesel fumes carries broad implications. If the research suggests a strong link between the fumes and cancer, regulation and litigation could ramp up — with consequences not only for underground mining, but also for industries such as trucking, rail and shipping.

Exposure isn’t limited to workers; people who live near ports, rail yards and highways also are subjected to diesel exhaust laced with carcinogens such as benzene, arsenic and formaldehyde.

But for the time being, at least, the results of an $11.5 million investigation by the National Cancer Institute and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health are under lock and key.

Richard Clapp, emeritus professor of environmental health at Boston University, is among several public health experts who called the situation unusual.

“I’ve never heard of an industry group demanding manuscripts from a government agency before a study has been accepted for publication,” Clapp said. “My guess is it would give the industry a chance to prepare their rejoinder early. They want to delay anything that’s going to implicate them in liability for lung cancer.”

There was also more news this week about the Pike River Mine Disaster in New Zealand:

The Labour Department’s probe into Pike River coalmine’s fatal blast has uncovered some major failings with gas and ventilation controls, the inquiry into the tragedy heard yesterday.

An expert mining panel investigating what caused the November 2010 explosion for the department found the underground West Coast mine had poor gas management and ventilation.

Australian mine safety consultant David Reece, one of the panel of five experts, continued yesterday to give evidence at the royal commission into the deaths of 29 men at the mine.

Outside the inquiry, Bernie Monk, spokesman for some Pike families, said it was heartbreaking to hear the mine’s problems and he had shed tears listening to Reece.

“Our men were relying a hell of a lot on these mine managers and designers and everything else to protect them and they were let down extremely badly,” Monk said.

“It brought tears to my eyes sometimes just to hear some of the things that they had to put up with and they’ve been sadly let down.”

Out in Montana,  the AP reports that a judge has rejected a lawsuit challenging the state Land Board’s lease of 587 million tons of publicly owned coal in southeastern Montana, removing a hurdle to a proposed mine with that could drastically expand the state’s coal production. And it was great to see that Wendell Berry was named deliver the 2012 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities. The annual lecture, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), is the most prestigious honor the federal government bestows for distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities.

Finally, the Economist’s website had an interesting essay and video about mountaintop removal, forests and reforestation in Appalachia.

Coal may well continue to provide more energy than any other single source for some decades to come, but it will probably never again generate the majority of America’s energy, as it did for much of the 19th and all of the 20th centuries. Still, coal will not vanish overnight. Neither will mountaintop-removal mining, which now accounts for much of the coal Appalachia produces. But, as this video shows, some ingenious Kentuckians are figuring out how to restore removed mountaintops.

Check out the video, and have a good weekend, folks.