Coal Tattoo

In this March 13, 2012 photo, a coal barge makes its way to the Bruce Mansfield Power Station in Shippingport , Pa.  (AP Photo)

As I’ve read, listened to and watched the reactions the last two days from West Virginia political leaders reacting to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed rule to limit power plant greenhouse emissions, it’s actually been a little hard to sort out exactly what they’re saying.

Some officials, like Rep. Nick J. Rahall, switch back and forth between talking about the greenhouse gas proposal and blustering about strip-mining permits that it’s hard to keep up with which one they are referring to at any one time.  Others seem to intent on blasting EPA and the Obama administration that they get confused themselves about what they support and don’t support.

For example, as the Daily Mail’s Ry Rivard pointed out on Twitter,  Sen. Joe Manchin had this to say about the natural gas industry in his statement on the EPA greenhouse gas proposal:

This approach relies totally on cheap natural gas and we’ve seen that bubble burst before. It might sound good now, but what happens if those prices go up? Your average hardworking families and manufacturers will be left holding the bag of uncertainty – either in the prices they pay or in the reliability of our electrical system.

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While the rest of West Virginia’s political leaders are busy bashing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, here’s what Sen. Jay Rockefeller had to say about the EPA’s proposed greenhouse gas emissions limits:

We have known since the 2007 Supreme Court ruling that greenhouse gas emissions would be cut to meet environmental standards, and we know that coal faces intense competition from other energy sources, as investments are increasingly moving to cheaper natural gas.  In the near-term, EPA has exempted all coal-fired plants that are operating today or under construction.  But for the future, the key question is whether the new emissions standard is set so high that even the best known clean coal technologies can’t meet it, which would be bad for coal and bad for the environment.

CCS and other new technologies hold real and important potential for cleaner coal in the U.S. and across the globe, but the utility industry needs to have certainty for financing and deploying these technologies on a commercial scale or we won’t achieve new targets.  We need to grab hold of our own future by working together to drive clean coal technology forward.

The New York Times is urging the Obama administration to appeal last week’s ruling that overturned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency veto of the Spruce Mine permit:

The Obama administration’s decision last year to revoke a permit for a huge mine in West Virginia inspired hope that mountaintop mining, which has caused immense environmental damage across Appalachia, would soon be coming to an end. Now a Federal District Court judge in the District of Columbia has ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency exceeded its legal authority in blocking the mine. The administration must appeal. The Clean Water Act is on its side, as are the people of West Virginia.

… Judge Amy Berman Jackson said the agency had resorted to “magical thinking” in claiming that the Clean Water Act gives it the power to retroactively rescind a permit. But Section 404 of the law gives the agency broad authority to protect water quality, including the “withdrawal” of permits “whenever” it determines that they will have an “unacceptable adverse effect” on the environment.

The E.P.A. rightly interpreted these words to mean that it had clear authority to claw back a badly misguided decision that would do even more damage to West Virginia’s streams and landscape. We trust that a higher court will read it that way as well.

Another weekend, another coal miner killed

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There’s bad news early this week out of the coalfields of Alabama, as the Birmingham news reports:

Harold Ennis, 37, from the Nauvoo area of Walker County, died in the approximately 9:30 p.m. Friday incident, Walker County Coroner J.C. Poe said this morning.

Poe said the reports he received were that Ennis was electrocuted.

The Mine Safety and Health Administration is investigating the death.

Ennis was a shuttle car operator in the Drummond Mining Company’s Shoal Creek Mine, according to the Mine Safety and Health Administration. Preliminary information indicates that he contacted an energized trailing cable, causing electrocution.

MSHA’s preliminary report says:

The electrician was performing electrical work, on the cable reel of a shuttle car, when he received fatal injuries. The electrician came in contact with the exposed 995-volt energized cable leads in the cable reel compartment. The disconnecting device was not locked and tagged out while this work was being performed.

This makes the 5th weekend in a row that a coal miner has died on the job in this country.

This morning’s House committee hearing on the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster didn’t exactly come at an easy time for MSHA chief Joe Main. Just four days ago, MSHA was forced to release highly critical findings of a NIOSH review that found Labor Department officials and inspectors could have prevented the April 5, 2010, explosion — if only they had performed the duties Congress already laid out for them in the 1969 and 1977 federal mine safety laws.

The NIOSH finding was troubling not only for MSHA, but also for House Democrats, the United Mine Workers, and anybody who finds it astonishing that we’re approaching the 2nd anniversary of the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in nearly 40 years without any comprehensive reform bill making it through Congress to President Obama’s desk.

But the hearing was largely without any serious fireworks, despite the fact that the Republican majority brought in someone from the Inspector General’s office to testify about the IG’s report on MSHA’s mishandling of its interactions with Massey Energy during the underground investigation of the mine disaster. And interestingly, most if not all of the Republican members who took part in the hearing were surprising clear about Massey Energy’s safety practices at Upper Big Branch. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, for example, said:

There’s no question the mine operator put production above safety every day, resulting in a huge tragedy.

GOP committee members did hit far harder with questions for Main about MSHA’s many failings prior to the explosion that killed 29 Upper Big Branch miners, going back to problems we’ve know for a long while and giving the MSHA chief an opportunity to respond more to the NIOSH panel report than he did in a prepared statement issued Friday evening. The bottom line from Joe Main? He doesn’t buy the NIOSH panel’s conclusion that MSHA could likely have prevented the disaster if it had followed Mine Act inspection requirements and complied with its own rules and policies for enforcement:

If you look at all of the investigative findings so far, and I believe even the NIOSH report pointed this out,  Massey caused this disaster. Having said that, I can’t say for certain that it could or couldn’t have been preventable. I haven’t seen the facts that tell me that we could have taken the actions necessary to stop that.

At times, the Democrats went overboard again with their efforts to protect Joe Main, the former United Mine Workers official. They’ve done that in the past. Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., even felt the need to pitch UMWA President Cecil Roberts a huge softball about whether union mines are safer than non-union operations. Rahall, though, followed up with this point for all lawmakers to ponder as they decide if they’ll move any safety legislation this year:

I do not excuse MSHA’s failures. But the Congress should not withhold effective, lifesaving legal authorities from the agency as some kind of penalty — because ultimately, the only people penalized by that cockeyed approach will be our miners.

Multiple media outlets are reporting this morning that the Obama administration is ready to issue its proposed regulations to limit greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. Juliet Eilperin at The Washington Post broke the story last night:

The Environmental Protection Agency will issue the first limits on greenhouse gas emissions from new power plants as early as Tuesday, according to several people briefed on the proposal. The move could end the construction of conventional coal-fired facilities in the United States.

The proposed rule — years in the making and approved by the White House after months of review — will require any new power plant to emit no more than 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt of electricity produced. The average U.S. natural gas plant, which emits 800 to 850 pounds of CO2 per megawatt, meets that standard; coal plants emit an average of 1,768 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt.

The story continues:

Industry officials and environmentalists said in interviews that the rule, which comes on the heels of tough new requirements that the Obama administration imposed on mercury emissions and cross-state pollution from utilities within the past year, dooms any proposal to build a coal-fired plant that does not have costly carbon controls.

“This standard effectively bans new coal plants,” said Joseph Stanko, who heads government relations at the law firm Hunton and Williams and represents several utility companies. “So I don’t see how that is an ‘all of the above’ energy policy.”

The rule provides an exception for coal plants that are already permitted and beginning construction within a year. There are about 20 coal plants now pursuing permits; two of them are federally subsidized and would meet the new standard with advanced pollution controls.

An administration official who asked not to be identified because the rule hasn’t been announced wrote in an e-mail Monday night: “This standard provides a clear and certain path forward for industry and the important domestic energy sources they rely on” for electricity generation.

President Obama does not mention coal as a key component of the nation’s energy supply in speeches about his commitment to exploiting oil and gas reserves and renewable sources.

So … stand by the a flurry of attack statements from the coal industry and from coalfield politicians, who will undoubtedly trash this regulatory proposal — most of them before they’ve really even seen it.

In West Virginia, coal industry defenders were on a high coming into this week, basking in the glow of their victory in federal court over the EPA’s veto of the Spruce Mine permit (see the comments from Hoppy Kercheval and from the Daily Mail’s editorial page, while remembering that Don Surber says he doesn’t need facts, because he’s not a journalist).  Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin wasn’t content to praise that federal court ruling, but also felt he needed to remind us that he’s pursuing a separate court case to block any and all efforts by the EPA to address environmental and public health damage from mountaintop removal.

Over in Washington, though, EPA has been quietly working to do what Congress (with much help from coalfield lawmakers) refused to do: Take action to at least begin to try to deal with an even bigger economic externality of coal and our appetite for it: Global warming.

We’ll have to wait to see the exact details of the EPA proposal, but Dina Cappiello from the AP reports:

The regulation is likely to draw fire from Republicans, who have claimed it will increase electricity prices and clamp down on domestic energy resources.

But it also will fall short of environmentalists’ hopes because it goes easier than it could have on coal-fired power generation. Coal-burning plants are already struggling to compete with cheap natural gas.

The proposed rule will not apply to existing power plants or new ones built in the next year. It will also give future coal-fired power plants years to meet the standard, which will eventually require carbon pollution to be captured and stored underground.

Keep in mind how much coal industry officials and their friends among regional politicians have talked up carbon capture and sequestration, or CCS.  If all EPA is doing is issuing a rule to eventually require that technology, why would the industry oppose it?

Stay tuned …

UPDATED — Here’s a link to the EPA proposal and this is the agency’s statement about it:

EPA is proposing to take common-sense steps under the Clean Air Act to limit carbon pollution from new power plants. EPA’s proposed standard reflects the ongoing trend in the power sector to build cleaner plants that take advantage of American-made technologies. The agency’s proposal, which does not apply to plants currently operating or new permitted plants that begin construction over the next 12 months, is flexible and would help minimize carbon pollution through the deployment of the same types of modern technologies and steps that power companies are already taking to build the next generation of power plants. EPA’s proposal would ensure that this progress toward a cleaner, safer and more modern power sector continues.

Power plants are the largest individual sources of carbon pollution in the United States and currently there are no uniform national limits on the amount of carbon pollution that future power plants will be able to emit. Consistent with the US Supreme Court’s decision, in 2009, EPA determined that greenhouse gas pollution threatens Americans’ health and welfare by leading to long lasting changes in our climate that can have a range of negative effects on human health and the environment.

Friday roundup, March 23, 2012

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Indian laborers load coal onto trucks at a coal depot on the outskirts of Jammu, India, Friday, March 23, 2012. India’s scandal-plagued government lost hundreds of billions of dollars by selling coalfields to companies without competitive bidding, according to a leaked audit report that the auditor itself called misleading. Angry lawmakers blocked proceedings in Parliament on Thursday, March 22, 2012, after the findings by India’s Comptroller and Auditor General were printed by The Times of India newspaper. (AP Photo/Channi Anand)

There’s a fascinating story this week out of India, summarized this way by The Associated Press:

NEW DELHI – India’s scandal-plagued government lost hundreds of billions of dollars by selling coalfields to companies without competitive bidding, according to a leaked audit report that the auditor itself called misleading.

Angry lawmakers blocked proceedings in Parliament on Thursday after the findings by India’s comptroller and auditor general were printed by The Times of India newspaper.

Outraged opposition party leaders demanded an explanation from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of why about 155 coalfields were sold to select private and state-run companies without competitive bidding, resulting in an estimated loss of nearly $210 billion.

“The coal scam is very serious. It’s more serious than the 2G spectrum scam,’’ said Prakash Javadekar, a spokesman of the Bharatiya Janata Party.

You can read the Times of India’s coverage of the situation here.  The AP story was dispatched along with an incredible series of photos of coal scenes from around the country, including this one:

An Indian laborer helps another load a tub filled with coal on his head to transport onto a truck at a coal depot on the outskirts of Gauhati, India, Friday, March 23, 2012. India’s scandal-plagued government lost hundreds of billions of dollars by selling coalfields to companies without competitive bidding, according to a leaked audit report that the auditor itself called misleading. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)

Meanwhile, there’s been another coal-mining disaster in China:

Chinese rescue workers battled Friday to free 17 miners trapped for more than 48 hours in a northeast colliery following a gas blast that left five dead, a local government official said.

The explosion on Thursday, in a coal mine in Liaoning province, killed five workers and injured a sixth, the official, surnamed Liang, told Agence France Presse.

“Family members of the victims are on their way to the mine, but the name list of victims can’t be disclosed for now,” he said.

The official Xinhua news agency reported Friday that rescue workers had managed to locate the 17 workers, who are believed to have gathered at a work platform underground.

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Here’s the latest, just reported by the AP’s Vicki Smith:

A federal judge says the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency exceeded its authority in revoking permits for what could now become West Virginia’s largest mountaintop removal mine.

In a ruling Friday, U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson in Washington, D.C., ruled in favor of St. Louis-based Arch.

She declares a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers water pollution permit for the Spruce No. 1 mine in Logan County is “valid and in full force.”

Arch spokeswoman Kim Link says the company is pleased with the decision.

The EPA vetoed the corps’ permit for the mine in January 2011, saying it would cause irreparable damage to the environment.

The move enraged both the coal industry and West Virginia politicians, several of whom have since introduced bills to try rein in the EPA.

I’ve posted a copy of the ruling here, and you can read previous posted with background on the Spruce Mine controversy here, here, here and here.

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Huge news today, with the conclusions of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health panel’s report that provides critical context within which everyone should view the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration’s actions — and the agency’s public statements — about the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster.

The bottom line is really pretty clear:

… If MSHA had engaged in timely enforcement of the Mine Act and applicable standards and regulations, it would have lessened the chances of — and possibly could have prevented — the UBB explosion.

It’s a remarkable conclusion, coming as we approach the 2nd anniversary of that terrible explosion that killed 29 workers at a Massey Energy mine in Raleigh County, W.Va., back on April 5, 2010. The panel’s report puts quite a different face on things than MSHA, the Obama administration, and congressional Democrats (not to mention repeated editorials from the New York Times) have tried to push in their effort to downplay MSHA’s failings and protect their friend, agency chief and former United Mine Workers safety director Joe Main.

The 26-page report was provided to MSHA yesterday, but has yet to be made public by the agency. It’s based largely on two primary conclusions about what role federal regulators could and should have played in preventing the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in nearly 40 years. The report points to key MSHA failures regarding the initial methane ignition and the huge coal-dust explosion that followed:

— … If MSHA enforcement personnel had completed required enforcement actions during at least one of the four UBB inspections [immediately prior to the blast], it is unlikely that a roof fall would have occurred and that airflow would have been reduced as a consequence. With proper quantity of air, there would not have been an accumulation of methane, thereby eliminating the fuel sources for the gas explosion; and

— … If MSHA enforcement personnel had taken appropriate actions during the inspections in the month prior to the explosion, either dangerous accumulations of explosive coal dust would have been rendered inert, or the mine would have been idled.

Add those two things together, the NIOSH panel report says, and this is what you get:

In short, even if there had been a gas explosion, it would have lacked sufficient fuel to trigger a massive dust explosion. Therefore, the IP’s overall analysis suggests that if MSHA had engaged in timely enforcement of the Mine Act and applicable standards and regulations, it would have lessened the chances of — and possibly could have prevented — the UBB explosion.

Some readers may recall that, back when the Obama administration actually talked much about coal-mine safety, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis asked NIOSH chief John Howard to appoint a team of experts to conduct an “independent assessment” of the MSHA “internal review” of agency actions at UBB, to assure transparency and accountability” in MSHA’s review of itself. Now, NIOSH officials were trying hard today to distance their agency from this report, refusing to release copies and insisting it was an “independent” report. But the leader of the independent assessment was Jeffrey Kohler, who is director of mine safety research for NIOSH. Two of the other four team members — Lewis Wade and Michael Sapko — are retired from NIOSH. The fourth member, Stanford law professor Alison Morantz, also has ties to NIOSH. It’s important to understand the NIOSH connection, because given the close relationship between MSHA and NIOSH on mine safety and health issues, this adds even more weight to the report’s bottom-line conclusions.

Stay tuned …

I’ve posted a copy of the NIOSH panel’s report here.

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All of the above: Obama doesn’t mention coal

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President Barack Obama at TransCanada Stillwater Pipe Yard in Cushing, Okla., Thursday, March, 22, 2012. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

President Obama gave three major speeches this week about energy policy, all part of an energy tour that finished up today with this:

Standing in front of a row of pipes, President Barack Obama pledged on Thursday to accelerate approval for part of the Keystone XL pipeline, seeking to deflect criticism that his rejection of the full project helped create a climate for high gasoline prices.

For our purposes, the thing I wanted to point out is that none of the three sets of remarks (see here, here and here) mentions coal.  Here’s what the president did say:

We don’t want to be vulnerable to something that’s happening on the other side of the world somehow affecting our economy, or hurting a lot of folks who have to drive to get to work.  That’s not the future I want for America.  That’s not the future I want for our kids.  I want us to control our own energy destiny.  I want us to determine our own course.

So, yes, we’re going to keep on drilling.  Yes, we’re going to keep on emphasizing production.  Yes, we’re going to make sure that we can get oil to where it’s needed.  But what we’re also going to be doing as part of an all-of-the-above strategy is looking at how we can continually improve the utilization of renewable energy sources, new clean energy sources, and how do we become more efficient in our use of energy.

That means producing more biofuels, which can be great for our farmers and great for rural economies.  It means more fuel-efficient cars.  It means more solar power.  It means more wind power — which, by the way, nearly tripled here in Oklahoma over the past three years in part because of some of our policies.

We want every source of American-made energy.  I don’t want the energy jobs of tomorrow going to other countries.  I want them here in the United States of America.   And that’s what an all-of-the-above strategy is all about.  That’s how we break our dependence on foreign oil.

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Gov. Tomblin signs mine safety bill — again

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Gov. Tomblin signs H.B. 4351, joined by the Speaker of the House of Delegates Rick Thompson, Dalton Thompson, Del. Mike Caputo, and State Police Chaplain Jim Mitchell. Photo Courtesy of the Governor’s Office

West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin already signed the state’s new mine safety bill last week, but the governor’s office had an official “signing ceremony” this afternoon anyway, in the shadow of the coal miner statute at the Capitol. A press release said the governor “publicly addressed this monumental piece of legislation”:

I’m proud of our state’s mine industry, I’m proud of our coal miners, and I’m proud we have passed this legislation. Coal mining in West Virginia will be safer as a result our foresight and hard work. Again, I’d like to commend both the members and leadership of the House of Delegates and the Senate for working to ensure the safety of our coal miners.

The press release continued:

House Bill 4351 includes many safety improvements aimed toward preventing coal mine disaster injuries and fatalities:

  • strengthens rock dusting requirements and provides new methane standards;
  • codifies an anonymous mine safety tip line;
  • requires pre-employment and random drug testing;
  • and, increases fines and penalties for those who give advance notice of an inspector’s presence at a mine or who willfully violate any safety standard that causes a fatality, among other safety improvements aimed toward preventing coal mine disaster injuries and fatalities.

In the interest of full disclosure, I didn’t attend the signing ceremony. I had another assignment at the same time as the governor’s event. Now, I’m really wishing I had gone down to the Capitol to ask a couple of questions about this “monumental piece of legislation.”

My first question would have been: Governor Tomblin, why in this legislation did you not push for lawmakers to require the same sorts of advanced safety technology — real-time ventilation monitoring and coal-dust explosibility meters — that Alpha Natural Resources agreed to install as part of its agreement with U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin regarding the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster?

I would have also asked why the governor ignored the advice of the state’s independent investigator, Davitt McAteer, and did not include in this legislation language to get West Virginia out ahead of the nation in terms of coal miner health issues, by tightening the legal limit for coal dust that causes deadly black lung disease.

We’ve been through the weaknesses in this bill before (see previous posts here, here, here, here here and here, among others).  But let’s be perfectly clear again about the four items that were cited in the governor’s press release:

— The “new” rock-dust standards were already enacted by executive order nearly two years ago in West Virginia, and put into a federal regulations through an emergency rule by the Obama administration’s U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration. The methane-testing portions of the bill are unnecessarily complicated, appear to allow equipment moves in very dusting conditions, and are certainly not as helpful as the real-time ventilation monitoring included in the Alpha settlement.

— The anonymous mine-safety “tipline” was also already in existence.

— Abuse of alcohol and drugs may certainly be a problem in West Virginia’s coal mines, but Gov. Tomblin was off base when he tried to connect it to specific fatal accidents, and no investigation thus far as found any link to the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster.

— The bill increases penalties, but far less than what was originally proposed. Safety fines in West Virginia are still far lower than the federal penalties, and any beefed-up criminal statutes on the state level are meaningless unless somebody actually decides to prosecute someone under those laws.

This is what West Virginia political leaders consider “monumental” mine safety legislation.

This just in from SNL Financial’s website:

Coal mines operated by Alpha Natural Resources Inc. were assessed more proposed fines for federal safety and health violations in 2011 than all major public coal companies combined, evidence that the company continues to struggle to bring former Massey Energy Co. operations into compliance.

An SNL Energy analysis of annual safety and health data included in companies’ Form 10-K SEC filings shows Alpha received nearly $33 million in proposed fines from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, more than any other coal producer by a wide margin. In fairness, Alpha now operates the most coal mines of any U.S. public coal producer, and many of those operations are underground mines in Central Appalachia, where more complex mining, with larger workforces, tends to occur and often results in more safety violations than at large-scale surface mines in the western United States.

Alpha states in its Form 10-K that it has 145 mines and 35 coal preparation facilities, and added that “citations and compliance metrics … vary, due to the size and type of the operation.” The company also said in the filing, “We endeavor to conduct our mining and other operations in compliance with all applicable federal, state and local laws and regulations. However, violations occur from time to time”

SNL posted this chart:

The story continued:

Alpha spokesman Ted Pile emphasized that “by sheer numbers, more underground mines in particular mean more inspections and more paper in aggregate.” He also noted that Alpha’s assessment figures for 2011 are “inflated” by the circumstances at its Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia. Approximately $12.4 million of the fines assessed to Alpha in 2011 were at Upper Big Branch, where a deadly explosion in 2010 killed 29 miners and was subject of several investigations that blamed Massey for poor safety practices.


Pile said that accident rates at Massey operations have improved considerably since the acquisition and the fourth quarter showed marked improvement in the issuance of elevated enforcement actions. “We track our violations per inspector shift as do many companies, and we believe our performance is comparable to our competitors,” he said. “That doesn’t mean we aren’t striving to lower the rate, and in the months after we completed the acquisition we saw meaningful progress in many of the safety indices we track.”

However, even excluding the Upper Big Branch assessments, Alpha racked up nearly as many proposed fines in 2011 as Alpha and Massey did combined in 2010. Excluding Upper Big Branch, Alpha was assessed $20.3 million in fines in 2011, compared to $20.7 million for Alpha and Massey combined in 2010.

New report: Coal power is not cheap power

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Over on Twitter, the State Journal’s Taylor Kuykendall pointed out this morning an interesting new report from an Alaska non-profit group called Ground Truth Trekking. The report concludes:

How can ratepayers and utilities best keep electricity prices affordable?

Coal is often touted as a source of low-cost electricity, but some believe that coal’s negative environmental impacts outweigh any such benefits.

Our analysis examines three different aspects of the cost of coal: coal’s impact on retail electricity prices, the estimated future cost of generating electricity with coal, and costs of coal generation not included in the retail price. By tracing changes in electricity prices in states that changed their energy portfolios we show that using more coal does not actually make power less expensive. States that reduced their use of coal-fired generators have not seen electricity prices rise, and states that increased coal use have not seen prices drop.

Also, the estimated “levelized cost” of constructing and operating a new coal plant today is more expensive than generating the same amount of power from a new hydro or natural gas plant, and is comparable to the cost of wind power. Finally, the cost estimates for coal-generated power fail to factor in the “externalized costs” of pollution cleanup, medical bills, and environmental damages borne by the taxpayers and the public. When these costs are included, coal-fired power is more expensive than all the other generation types we examined.

There was an incredible moment during the flurry of congressional hearings that followed the Sago Mine Disaster in 2006. Mine safety advocates were pushing for legislation to require a variety of new mine rescue devices — everything from additional emergency oxygen, to wireless communications devices and explosion-proof underground shelters — but industry officials were insisting such things didn’t really exist or wouldn’t work. But then Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat and coal miners’ son, held up one of those wireless communications devices … Industry officials had to stop whispering that the things didn’t exist. Now, they’re required by law.

I was thinking about Sen. Harkin’s move when I saw some of the recent statements that West Virginia’s very own Sen. Jay Rockefeller has been making about coal mine safety.

For example, a couple of weeks ago, when the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration issued its internal review report on the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster, Sen. Rockefeller issued this statement:

There is no question that the problems that have been detailed in this report are appalling. West Virginia families should be able to trust that MSHA is doing everything in its power to keep their loved ones safe. In this case, MSHA clearly did not follow its own safety procedures or enforce the law. This report and others that have come before it paint a clear picture of a mine operator that flouted the law and an agency that failed to hold that mine operator responsible. This is plainly unacceptable. MSHA must address all of the issues raised in this report and make sure such failures never happen again.

While MSHA has begun to take corrective actions, administrative action alone will not make our mines as safe as they should be. We need to pass my comprehensive mine safety legislation in order to give MSHA additional enforcement authority, to provide whistleblower protections, to require routine independent accident investigations, and to increase criminal penalties. A small group of my colleagues are blocking comprehensive mine safety reform for reasons that only they can explain. It’s way past time for Congress to pass it and give our coal miners the protection they deserve and justice demands.

And then on Friday, Sen. Rockefeller (or more likely someone on his staff) Tweeted this:

87 yrs after the explosion @ Bethlehem Mine No. 41 @ Barrackville that killed 33 miners, mine safety is still an issue. This is unacceptable

So I got wondering what exactly Sen. Rockefeller and other members of the West Virginia congressional delegation were actually doing to get this mine safety bill made into law. Well, Taylor Kuykendall over at The State Journal already reported recently that there do not appear to be any hearings on the mine safety bill in the near future.

Well, the legislation was sent to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, where Chairman Harkin apparently hasn’t though it was worth a hearing. Neither Sen. Rockefeller nor Sen. Joe Manchin, another W.Va. Democrat, serves on the committee. But on of their co-sponsors, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., is chairman of a key subcommittee on workplace protections. Apparently she hasn’t thought the bill was worth a hearing, either.

But remember that our good friend Sen. Rockefeller is the chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. That panel’s jurisdiction includes, among other things, science, engineering, and technology research and development and policy. Its website says:

Such committee shall also study and review, on a comprehensive basis, all matters relating to science and technology, oceans policy, transportation, communications, and consumer affairs, and report thereon from time to time.

Now, I’ve mentioned this before, when I asked, Why won’t Sen. Rockefeller hold a hearing on the science of mountaintop removal’s health impacts? Committee chairmen in Congress are supposed to be powerful. They set the agenda for what their committees do – for what legislation they take up, and what matters they explore in public hearings. What’s the point of having a longtime senator in such a position if they don’t use that position to push issues that matter to their constituents and to the country?

So here’s what I’m getting at regarding coal mine safety. Remember that MSHA internal review report that Sen. Rockefeller was so eager to comment on? Well, not mentioned by Sen. Rockefeller, and pretty well buried in the report, was this interesting bit of information:

Beginning in November 2009, MSHA field-tested a NIOSH-developed Coal Dust Explosibility Meter (CDEM), during which inspectors determined mine dust explosibility using the CDEM while collecting rock dust samples. The prototype hand-held instrument did not provide a percent value for IC; rather, it indicated whether samples contained sufficient rock dust to prevent flame propagation. As part of the joint MSHA-NIOSH field testing of the CDEM, District 4 used the prototype instrument to test samples from the last three surveys conducted at UBB before the explosion. The CDEM showed 100% agreement with lab analysis results for the compliant survey conducted December 28, 2009, in the Panel No. 1 Crossover and for the non-compliant survey conducted January 26, 2010, on 3 Section. However, the CDEM showed that six of the eight samples collected during the March 15, 2010, survey in the Headgate #22 entries would not ensure against flame propagation. In contrast, the lab analysis results showed only one non-compliant sample. Lab analysis results of the five compliant samples that the CDEM indicated needed additional rock dust contained between 82.1% and 89.9% IC. Although research showed that the CDEM provided a true measure of potential mine dust explosibility, MSHA would have difficulty using it to cite violations of 30 CFR 75.403 because it measures different parameters from those used to define compliance with the standard. The CDEM determines sample explosibility based on a dried coal dust and rock dust mixture. In doing so, the CDEM accounts for potential drying of the mine dust, such as that which occurred at UBB; but, MSHA analysis includes moisture as part of the incombustible content of samples in accordance with 30 CFR 75.403-1. The CDEM also bases explosibility on particle size. However, the CDEM could provide operators a reliable tool to test for compliance with 30 CFR 75.403. More importantly, it would allow operators to immediately detect and correct potentially hazardous coal and rock dust mixtures that cannot be visually identified by examiners.

The report concluded:

The Assistant Secretary should consider rulemaking to require mine operators to regularly determine the adequacy of rock dusting using a method approved by the Secretary. This could be achieved by requiring mine operators to sample mine dust for analysis or conduct CDEM testing at sufficient locations and intervals to determine if any area of the mine needs re-dusting. The rule should consider requirements for certification, recordkeeping (including a map of sample locations), and corrective actions similar to examination standards.

We’ve written about these coal-dust meters for years, and detailed how some mine safety advocates have recommended them, only to have industry and government regulators generally ignore the idea — or at best not move especially fast to get the technology out into the mines where it could save lives.

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Friday roundup, March 16, 2012

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A plane flies in the distance above the Soviet-era Monument to Coal Miners in the central Kazakhstan city of Karaganda, Thursday, March 15, 2012. The economy of Karaganda, an industrial city of around 470,000 inhabitants, is heavily dependant on nearby coal mines operated by Luxembourg-based mining company ArcelorMittal. (AP Photo/Peter Leonard)

The good folks at the Rural Blog were among those who made mention of the latest news from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, which reported:

In December, only 39 percent of the electricity produced in the U.S. came from burning coal, according to preliminary data from the Energy Information Administration. It marked the first time in more than 34 years that coal’s share of monthly generation fell below 40 percent. Three years ago, it was just under 50 percent.

“A combination of mild weather (leading to a drop in total generation) and the increasing price competitiveness of natural gas relative to coal contributed to the drop in coal’s share of total generation,” EIA reports. Gas accounted for 26 percent of December generation, up from 22 percent in the previous December. Nuclear (to 22% from 20%) and hydro (to 7% from 6%) made up the rest of the shuffle. Other sources, including wind and solar, accounted for 6 percent.

See also Joe Romm’s take on this over at Climate Progress:

It’s a tad ironic that warming weather, driven in part by coal-fueled emissions, contributed to the drop in coal use.

This news is particularly interesting given the findings of a new report out this week in Kentucky from the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development and the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy.  Erica Peterson at WFPL News reported:

State lawmakers are considering a bill that would designate some coal severance tax money to scholarships for coalfields residents; the measure has already passed the House. But a report by a non-profit group warns that Kentucky needs to think about the long-term future of the state’s coal severance fund.

Coal producers pay a tax of four and a half percent value of coal that’s sold into the state’s coal severance fund. Half of that money goes to Kentucky’s general fund, and the other half goes to various programs in coal-producing counties.

Last year, the state’s coal severance tax generated more than $295 million. But the Energy Information Administration has predicted a steep decline in Appalachian coal over the next several decades, and that also will eventually mean declining coal severance revenue for Kentucky.

Jason Bailey is the research and policy director for the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development, and one of the report’s authors. He says the coalfields scholarship lawmakers are considering may be a great idea. But:

“No matter what programs we come up with, as coal declines, if it declines as the official projections say it will, there’s going to be less money to spend on whatever we think is the most important investment,” he said.

Meanwhile, our old friend Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers, had an op-ed published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, stepping up his union’s previous criticisms of the Obama administration’s efforts to reduce air pollution from coal-fired power plants:

The UMWA agrees with the “all of the above” approach for developing America’s energy resources. For instance, there is no good reason, with oil prices above $100 a barrel, why we are not utilizing our coal resources to produce gasoline and other fuels at prices well below what Americans now pay at the pump.

But America cannot afford “some of the above” policies that effectively prevent the deployment of advanced clean-coal technologies while encouraging a rush to natural gas. If “all of the above” is to be more than a political slogan, the Obama administration needs to reconsider EPA rules that stifle rather than encourage advanced coal technologies.

Singing from the same hymnal this week — in between the network’s Friends of Coal ads — was our friend Hoppy Kercheval over at West Virginia MetroNews who built a commentary around Cecil’s letter and the recent stuff from The Economist criticizing EPA and other U.S. regulatory efforts:

The Economist reports, “reduced mercury explained none of the purported future reduction in deaths, heart attacks and asthma, and less than 0.01% of the monetary benefits. Instead, almost all the benefits came from concomitant reductions in a pollutant that was not the target of the rule: namely, fine particles.”

However, the fine particles are already regulated, and the Obama Administration’s office of Information and Regulatory Affairs liberally interprets the benefits from cutting those emissions further.

“The EPA routinely claims additional benefits from reducing those concentrations well below levels that current law considers safe,” said The Economist. “That is dubious: a lack of data makes it much harder to know the effects of such low concentrations.”

Questionable, or down right misleading assumptions are not unique to the Obama Administration. Presidents routinely manipulate data coming out of their administration to reinforce their particular argument.

In the case of the mercury rule, however, it appears President Obama’s EPA is wielding its considerable power to make it so difficult for utilities to burn coal that they’ll give up altogether, abandoning any future plans to build coal-fired power plants.

The Obama Administration consistently talks about an “all-of-the-above” approach to the country’s energy policy. But the mercury rule, as well as other actions by this administration, makes it clear that coal is a notable exception.

Fortunately, we have the Center for Progressive Reform to debunk this stuff for us:

The Economist has industry’s back, dedicating one of its articles to arguing that the federal agencies have been over-stating the benefits of their proposed rules. Exhibit A: the EPA’s “Utility MACT,” which will put limits on certain pollutants for coal-fired power plants, and save literally thousands of lives every year. In reality, the Utility MACT perfectly refutes The Economist’s premise: it is actually an example of an agency underestimating, not overestimating, benefits.

The magazine is upset that in the EPA’s calculation of $37 to $90 billion each year in health benefits for the rule (compared with $9.6 billion in costs), “less than 0.01% of the monetary benefits” came from reductions of mercury pollution. The monetized benefits came from reductions in particulate matter and other harmful pollutants, but not from the mercury that was the prime target of the rule. This is an argument we’ve heard ad nauseam from the coal power industry and its allies. It’s nonsense: the quantified mercury benefits are low because EPA didn’t calculate them. Putting an exact monetary value on not poisoning our children with neurotoxins that stunt their mental development is difficult and there’s no right number; the EPA just left it out, relying on the benefit calculations for the reduction of other pollutants. The case is a prime example, in fact, of how agency analyses usually underestimate regulatory benefits. Likewise, independent studies have shown the agency projections of costs of regulations to be too high.

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Here’s the description from MSHA of what happened in one recent coal-mining death out west:

On Thursday, September 1, 2011, at approximately 10:36 a.m., Cody A. Brown (victim), a contract well driller with approximately 17 months of drilling experience, was killed when a restraining wrench, commonly called a tong wrench, struck him in the upper body and limbs at Well Site #26. Brown and three other drilling personnel were attempting to remove drill pipe that had become bound up and was stuck in a drilled hole, approximately 1900 feet deep. The wire rope cable used to restrain the wrench broke, causing the wrench to strike Brown. Brown had just completed applying the wrench to the drill pipe to hold the applied torque when the wire cable failed. The wrench rotated around toward Brown at a high speed, throwing him into the drill rig.

This happened at the North Antelope Rochelle Mine, located 65 miles south of Gillette, Wyoming is operated by Peabody Powder River Mining LLC, a subsidiary of Peabody Powder River Operations LLC, St. Louis, Missouri. It’s one of the largest coal mines in the country, one of those huge surface mines in Wyoming. Important for background on this accident is this:

The mine employs approximately 1,310 miners. The mine normally has up to 300 contract employees. Weston Engineering, Inc. contracted with NARM to drill water wells at various locations on the mine property. The wells were for future ground cover watering and dust suppression on the mine property.

MSHA listed several “root causes” for this death:

— The snub line cable should not have been used in this application. There was no immediate need for persons to be on the drill deck, other than the driller. The driller is shielded by the derrick supports. The torque could have been maintained using the clutches; this would not allow anyone to be in the line of an energy release, in case of failure. The snub line used to hold torque on the drill pipes was inadequate in size and strength to hold the load that was being placed on it. The snub line in use this day was ½ inch diameter.

— Release of the clutches was initiated prior to personnel being clear of pinch points and clear from the revolution of any machinery parts.

— The task training was inadequate to inform personnel involved with drilling operations of the acceptable snub line size and the safe positioning during drill work or activity related to drilling.

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Judge ‘outraged’ by Crandall Canyon plea deal

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Here’s the story from my buddy Mike Gorrell, the great coal reporter at the Salt Lake Tribune:

U.S. District Judge David Sam said Wednesday he felt “outrage” that a Murray Energy Corp. subsidiary will pay only $500,000 to settle a criminal case stemming from the 2007 Crandall Canyon mine disaster that claimed the lives of nine Utahns.

But he accepted the argument from the U.S. attorney for Utah that two misdemeanor counts of violating mine safety laws were the most serious charges that could be brought against the company, given the way the law is written.

As we reported in Saturday’s Gazette-Mail, this plea agreement for coal operator Bob Murray’s (above) company is getting a lot of criticism:

The settlement drew harsh criticism from the United Mine Workers union, members of Congress and independent safety advocates.

It highlighted what mine safety reformers say is a major flaw in federal law: Criminal violations of safety and health standards are misdemeanors that carry less jail time. And, safety advocates said, the case emphasized the importance for prosecutors to look beyond mine safety laws to other criminal offenses such as conspiracy as they try to build a case to hold corporate officials responsible for mining deaths.

An interesting news release from earlier this week happened to cross my desk this morning. It’s from an outfit called RepRisk, which describes itself as “a leading provider of dynamic data on environmental and social risks for an unlimited universe of companies and projects.” Here’s the announcement:

RepRisk has released its new report on the 10 Most Controversial Mining Companies of 2011, benchmarked against the United Nations Global Compact (UNGC) Principles and other international standards. This report highlights the consequences of environmental, social and governance risks on the companies’ reputations, access to capital and licenses to operate.

In 2011 Mining giants Alpha Natural Resources, Newmont Mining, and Glencore International made the top ranks for issues related to mountaintop removal mining and impacts on indigenous people and protected areas.

Regarding Alpha, RepRisk said:

Alpha Natural Resources, top ranked on the list, saw a dramatic increase in its RepRisk Index (RRI), a quantitative risk measure that captures criticism and qualifies a company’s exposure to controversial issues, after its purchase of Massey Energy. Massey had been targeted over its well-documented history of alleged safety issues, fraud, and environmental concerns relating to its mountaintop removal mining practices. The company paid a fine of USD 210 million to settle ongoing criminal and civil cases related to an accident at its Upper Big Branch mine in 2010, which resulted in 29 fatalities.

Interior Dept. to move forward with OSM merger

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Here’s the announcement just out from the U.S. Department of Interior:

The Department of the Interior today announced that the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSM) will pursue administrative and program consolidations with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) that are expected to generate savings and efficiencies, while continuing to operate as an independent bureau within Interior. The path forward, outlined in a report to the Secretary made public today, is the result of a months-long consolidation initiative to identify how Interior can most efficiently and cost-effectively deliver services to the American people.

The OSM Director will continue to report to the Secretary through the Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management, and OSM’s coal-related regulatory functions will remain separate from the BLM’s coal-leasing responsibilities.

Today’s announcement stems from recommendations made by a senior leadership team charged by Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar to evaluate the feasibility of consolidating some functions of OSM and the BLM for greater efficiency.

The senior leadership team – which included Deputy Secretary David J. Hayes, Acting Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management Marcilynn Burke, OSM Director Joseph Pizarchik and BLM Director Bob Abbey – gathered, and took into account, extensive input of employees, members of Congress, states, tribes, industry, representatives of communities affected by coal production and other interested parties in developing their report.

“After extensive consultation with employees and stakeholders and a comprehensive review by our senior leadership, it is clear that there are significant efficiencies to be gained by consolidating duplicative administrative functions in these bureaus,” said Salazar. “Implementing these actions will free up savings and management time that can be used to strengthen OSM’s capacity to oversee surface coal mining operations, while maintaining the agency’s independence. We remain committed to making government work better to further strengthen our regulatory, reclamation and stewardship responsibilities, and we will do this by building on the strengths of both OSM and BLM to get the most out of our limited resources.”

“It is neither necessary nor cost-effective for OSM, one of the smallest bureaus in the Department, to replicate administrative services that other, larger bureaus can more efficiently provide,” said OSM Director Pizarchik. “These recommendations spell good government, and they will ensure OSM’s independence under the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act.” The Act allows OSM to use, on a reimbursable basis, other federal agencies to administer the provisions of the legislation as well as to assume some functions of other bureaus, provided those activities relate to OSM’s mission.

“BLM stands ready to provide a variety of support services to OSM more cost-effectively, thereby freeing up some OSM management time to focus more on their core regulatory mission,” said BLM Director Abbey. “Many internal stakeholders recognized the potential advantages of consolidating these redundant administrative functions based on successful shared services arrangements between other bureaus within the Department.”

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MSHA releases statements from UBB mine managers

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Emergency vehicles leave the entrance to Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Coal Mine Monday, April 5, 2010 in Montcoal, W.Va. after an explosion at the underground coal mine. (AP Photo/Jeff Gentner)

As mentioned last week, the release of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration’s “internal review” report on the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster brought with it a document dump of various other MSHA records concerning that terrible April 5, 2010, explosion that killed 29 miners.

For example, MSHA now has online not only transcripts of investigation interviews, but also the “exhibits” to those interviews, meaning documents that witnesses were questioned about during their interviews.  They’ve also posted new entries in their command center section from the mine rescue and recovery and there’s a new link listed for an emergency response plan, but it appears not to work.

One thing that caught my eye was a new entry called Statements from Ricky Foster, Jack Roles, Everett Hager and Wayne Persinger. As some readers will recall, Foster was a mine foreman, Roles the longwall coordinator, and Hager and Persinger a mine superintendent and mine manager, respectively. All four of these gentlemen asserted their 5th Amendment rights and refused to answer questions from government investigators after the explosion.

MSHA’s website offers no explanation for when or how these handwritten statements were provided, but they appear to be dated the day of the explosion, and focus only on the attempted rescue activities that afternoon and evening. I’m not sure there are any news flashes here, but this is as far as I know the first time we’ve heard first-hand accounts from any of these four men.

Recall that a collection of various mine managers rushed back into the Upper Big Branch Mined just after the explosion, looking for possible survivors and, in fact, finding and rescuing miners Tim Blake and James Woods. While we now have at least part of the mine management’s version of that part of the UBB story, we still haven’t heard any of them answer questions publicly about working conditions in the mine and the operating practices that led to the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in nearly 40 years.

UPDATED: Here is MSHA’s statement about why these statements were not previously made public —

The four hand-written statements were provided during the Upper Big Branch rescue operation in response to requests from MSHA Coal District 4 personnel.  The statements did not result from interviews with MSHA personnel, but rather were recollections close-in-time to the events of April 5, 2010.  MSHA initially withheld these and other documents while its accident investigation proceeded (and noted that documents were being withheld), until it could be determined that their release would not affect enforcement activities.