Coal Tattoo

Tuesday roundup, July 3, 2012

I’m still catching up on the news following some time off, and obviously here in West Virginia the big story remains the aftermath of last Friday’s terrible “dereche” storm that hit our state and some neighboring areas.  Thousands of residents remain without power.

The storm’s aftermath remind us both of how important electricity (a big part of it still provided by coal) is to our lives, but also have how oddly fragile our modern society can sometimes be in the face of nature. While we should always remember the hard and dangerous work coal miners do for our society, right now is also a good time to be thinking about all of the power line workers who are out in the heat doing very dangerous work to get power back on for the rest of us.

We’ve talked before on this blog (see here and here) about the ways that the impacts of coal and electrical power change over time as society’s evolve, with coal-fired electricity being a live-saver for developing nations, but then turning into something for more developed nations, while still a blessing, is also a curse.

At the same time, it’s important for everyone to take time out at some point to remember what the AP’s great Seth Borenstein reported earlier today:

If you want a glimpse of some of the worst of global warming, scientists suggest taking a look at U.S. weather in recent weeks.

Horrendous wildfires. Oppressive heat waves. Devastating droughts. Flooding from giant deluges. And a powerful freak wind storm called a derecho.

These are the kinds of extremes climate scientists have predicted will come with climate change, although it’s far too early to say that is the cause. Nor will they say global warming is the reason 3,215 daily high temperature records were set in the month of June.

Scientifically linking individual weather events to climate change takes intensive study, complicated mathematics, computer models and lots of time. Sometimes it isn’t caused by global warming. Weather is always variable; freak things happen.

And this weather has been local. Europe, Asia and Africa aren’t having similar disasters now, although they’ve had their own extreme events in recent years.

But since at least 1988, climate scientists have warned that climate change would bring, in general, increased heat waves, more droughts, more sudden downpours, more widespread wildfires and worsening storms. In the United States, those extremes are happening here and now.

So far this year, more than 2.1 million acres have burned in wildfires, more than 113 million people in the U.S. were in areas under extreme heat advisories last Friday, two-thirds of the country is experiencing drought, and earlier in June, deluges flooded Minnesota and Florida.

“This is what global warming looks like at the regional or personal level,” said Jonathan Overpeck, professor of geosciences and atmospheric sciences at the University of Arizona. “The extra heat increases the odds of worse heat waves, droughts, storms and wildfire. This is certainly what I and many other climate scientists have been warning about.”

When coalfield political leaders like Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and Sen. Joe Manchin tour the state to talk to residents dealing with the storm’s aftermath, it’s worth remembering that their policies — opposing efforts to reduce the greenhouse pollution from the nation’s coal industry — are part of what is changing our climate in very potentially dangerous ways, making storms like the one last Friday more likely to occur.

More news and commentary that caught my eye as I was catching up:

— A new piece out from the FiveThirtyEight blog about West Virginia, coal and elections concludes:

The FiveThirtyEight model currently gives Mr. Obama just a 5 percent chance of winning in West Virginia. Mr. Romney is projected to expand on Senator John McCain’s 2008 margin of victory.

Compounding the issue-specific rightward pull on state Democrats, there is also an absence of a leftward pull. While a state like Georgia has large urban and minority communities, which tend to elect fairly liberal Democrats, West Virginia is 94 percent white and rural. There just aren’t that many liberal or progressive voters in West Virginia. In 2008, 48 percent of voters were Democrats, but just 18 percent of voters described themselves as liberal, according to exit polls.

The diminishing impact of coal as a political force in the state may be a hopeful sign for Democrats. But as long as there are major issues — like energy — where the positions of the national Democratic Party (and thus Democratic presidential candidates) are anathema in West Virginia, it is likely Republicans will continue to win the state in presidential elections.

The more immediate question is: will state-level races, where Democrats still dominate, begin to shift and match the state’s Republican preference in presidential elections?

“You can’t have a two-legged stool,” Mr. Rupp said, “at some point West Virginia is going to change.”

— The Associated Press reported last week on the government’s argument in the appeal of UBB security chief Hughie Elbert Stover’s conviction and tells us today oral arguments in that case have been set for September.

— The AP also reported on CONSOL’s announcement of more coal industry layoffs.

— Erica Peterson over at Kentucky Public Radio reported on a new study outlining some barriers to wind energy development in Appalachia:

There are obstacles like rough terrain, which makes it difficult for large trucks with wind turbines to get through. And then there’s small-scale land ownership means wind companies have to negotiate with several property owners to lease the land. But policies also play a large role.Brent Bailey of The Mountain Institute is the study’s lead author. He says one of the barriers to wind production in the region is a “one-size fits all” approach to energy incentives.

Have a good holiday, everybody …