Coal Tattoo

Friday roundup, July 13, 2012

A miner sings during the coal miners march to the Minister of Industry building in Madrid, Wednesday, July 11, 2012. Coal miners angered by cuts in subsidies converged on Madrid Tuesday for protest rallies, after walking nearly three weeks under a blazing sun from the pits where they eke out a living. (AP Photo/Andres Kudacki)

Among the more interesting developments for the coalfields over the last few weeks is a provision tucked into the federal Transportation bill. As Greenwire reported:

An offset in the transportation bill that President Obama is signing today may have unintended consequences for mine cleanup efforts around the country.

The measure caps coal mine reclamation payments at $15 million for states and tribes that are certified to have finished cleaning up their priority sites — the first time a true cap has ever existed. But because the rider effectively amends the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, its long-term impacts may be felt in mining communities around the country.

“It affects the noncertified states, as well,” including Pennsylvania and West Virginia, said Interstate Mining Compact Commission Director Greg Conrad. “I don’t know how that couldn’t happen the way the law is structured.”

Because the new measure took mining advocates, many lawmakers and even Obama administration officials by surprise, they have spent the last several days trying to figure out what the offset means and how it affects the abandoned mine land funding system, which follows a complicated formula for money distribution.

Without a doubt, Wyoming will take the most direct blow. The nation’s top coal-producing jurisdiction is the only certified state with expected future annual payments above $15 million. The state could end up losing about $700 million over the next several years.

Of course, this has prompted outrage from states that, while professing to have cleaned up all of their abandoned coal mines, still want to get AML money:

Wyoming’s congressional delegation is vowing to reverse a federal cut that could cause the state to miss out on more than $700 million over the next decade.

The legislators, as well as top state leaders, are fighting a provision in the recently passed federal transportation bill that places a $15 million cap on the amount of Abandon Mine Land payments a state can receive annually.

Wyoming was scheduled to receive almost $150 million a year for the next two years and then about $65 million for each of the eight years after that in AML payments.

We reported on this issue — where Wyoming spends money intended for abandoned mine cleanups for all sorts of other things — before in the Gazette, and we’ve reported before here on Coal Tattoo (here, here and here) on the Obama administration’s efforts to reform this program. But given the potential impacts on non-certified eastern states like West Virginia, things are more complicated with this legislation … We’ll see what happens now …

There was another big story this week from Politico about carbon capture and sequestration, reporting:

The federal government has funneled billions of dollars over the past two administrations into cutting carbon pollution from coal-fired power plants, but so far the “clean coal” dream is far from reality.

Officials have been chasing a best-of-both-worlds scenario: using abundant, cheap but relatively dirty coal for generating power, and then eliminating the “dirty” part by capturing carbon dioxide and other toxic emissions.

The captured CO2 can either be stored deep underground in geological formations in a process known as carbon capture and storage or piped out to oil and gas fields.

While the technology is there, it’s struggling to make its way into prime time. The reasons: It’s expensive, and there are no limits on carbon emissions.

Without climate legislation or new regulations that mandate the technology, companies don’t really have an incentive to deploy the technology on a commercial scale. And some experts say billions of federal dollars are still needed to make it more mainstream.

In a related bit of news:

In a paper appearing in the journal PNAS, Stanford geophysics Professor Mark Zoback and environmental Earth science Professor Steven Gorelick argue that, in many areas, carbon sequestration is likely to create pressure build-up large enough to break the reservoirs’ seals, releasing the stored CO2.

“Almost all of our current climate mitigation models assume CCS is going to be one of the primary tools we use,” said Zoback. “What we’re saying is, not so fast.”

Along with the Patriot Coal bankruptcy, other interesting business news from the coal industry this week included:

Cloud Peak Energy recently acquired the Youngs Creek Mining Co., joint venture and other related coal and surface assets from CONSOL Energy and Chevron for $300 million. Of this purchase price, $195 million is allocated to the lease of approximately 450 million tons of in-place coal and $105 million to the purchase and lease of 38,800 acres of land. The coal and land are well suited to support potential increased exports through the Pacific Northwest. Youngs Creek is a permitted but undeveloped surface mine project in the Northern Powder River Basin (PRB) located 13 miles north of Sheridan, Wyo., and just south of Cloud Peak Energy’s Spring Creek mine.

A New York Times op-ed called Appalachia Turns on Itself is getting a lot of attention:

There is no easy resolution to the fraught relationship between the coal industry and the people of Appalachia, many of whom rely on it for jobs even as it poisons their region. But it is imperative that the industry’s leaders and their elected allies lay down their propaganda and engage in an honest, civil dialogue about the issue. The stakes are too high to do otherwise.

And the great blog FiveThirtyEight addressed coal industry issues and elections in West Virginia, concluding:

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?

The good folks at the West Virginia Center for Budget and Policy had two new blog posts (see here and here) about the future of coal in the Appalachian region, telling us:

The reality is that even without greenhouse gas or mercury regulations, coal production in Central Appalachia is going to dramatically decline. Repealing environmental regulations won’t make the remaining coal seams in West Virginia any thicker or easier to mine, and it won’t stop power plants from converting to natural gas. To ignore this reality, and to act as if stopping the EPA will save the coal industry in West Virginia, is shortsighted and dangerous to the state’s future.

Here’s what the Hazard (Ky.) Herald says about all of this:

… In the end we’re going to have to attract or create an industry or industries that will replace the hundreds of jobs we have lost, and more we are likely to lose. We see a lot of blame going around for last week’s job loss in the coal fields, but blaming is going to do little good. The federal government is not going to change its policy (we’re highly doubtful that a President Romney would change much either), the coal jobs for Arch are not coming back, and we can’t expect to have any help from those outside the region because, frankly, they have no help to give and likely wouldn’t give it if they did.

No, we are sailing these rough and choppy waters on our own, and it’s going to be up to us to navigate them to dry land. The only question now is, are we up to it?

There was a bit of a bizarre story out of Kentucky by the AP’s Roger Alford today, reporting (as an AP Exclusive):

Government inspectors have been keeping a close eye on coal operators through aerial surveillance in central Appalachia, a region that’s been the center of debate over so-called mountaintop removal mining.

The Kentucky Division of Mine Reclamation and Enforcement has spent more than $477,000 over the past four years for helicopter flights over coal mining operations, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.

A review by the AP found that the agency has been spending on average nearly $2,000 on each citation issued to mining companies for violations spotted from the air through an initiative started by the federal government’s Office of Surface Mining.

The flyovers came as a surprise to mining industry leaders, including Kentucky Coal Association President Bill Bissett, who not only complained about their “covert” nature but also questioned their effectiveness.

“Is it not better,” he asked, “to have a regulator on the ground rather than 1,000 feet in the air?”

Perhaps the exclusive news is the amount of money spent. But was Bill Bissett really surprised by these aerial inspections? This sort of stuff has been going on for many years in the coalfields, with federal and state agencies both using helicopters to inspect large-scale surface mines. I’ve flown with government inspectors any number of times myself. Frankly, the only way to really sense the scope of these operations is from the air, and some kinds of violations — spoil on the downslope, for example — are best seen from that vantage point. The story seems to play into the anti-EPA paranoia of the coal industry and its political supporters, and fuels the sort of stuff that my buddy David Fahrenthold at The Washington Post debunked not so long ago regarding rumors of EPA using drones to spy in midwestern farmers.

Also from Kentucky, the Courier-Journal reports:

Federal regulators fined a Harlan County coal mine nearly $600,000 Thursday for flagrant safety violations in connection with a June 2011 accident that killed a miner.

The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration said operators of Manalapan Mining Co. Inc.’s P-1 Mine near Smith, Ky., failed to support the sides of the rock pillars in the mine where the accident occurred and in other locations. The mine also failed to identify and correct other “numerous hazardous conditions” involving the mine roof and pillars, MSHA said.

The mine also did not have an adequate roof-control plan to deal with changing geological conditions and to properly support the sides of the pillars, also known as ribs, regulators said.

David A. Partin, 49, was killed in the June 29, 2011, collapse of a rib. He was struck by a section of rock nearly 7 feet long, 3 feet wide and 11 inches thick.

“Dozens of miners are injured by rib and roof falls every year and, tragically, some are killed,” MSHA chief Joseph A. Main said. “The accident investigation found that, had the mine operator properly secured the mine’s ribs and revised its roof control plan to address changing geologic conditions, this tragedy might have been averted.”

Closer to home, The State Journal had this story:

The U.S. Attorney, U.S. Department of Justice and Alpha Natural Resources have been summoned in a case calling to amend or set aside a non-prosecution agreement reached between the parties in the wake of the Upper Big Branch mine explosion.

The explosion killed 29 men in Raleigh County, and subsequent investigations has suggested the deaths may have been preventable. The petitioners in the latest lawsuit say the U.S. attorney is doing “an exemplary job” prosecuting those responsible, but the “goal of the non-prosecution agreement” is not  being realized due to Alpha and Massey not being “forthright and truthful” in providing complete information.

The 16 petitioners are all people who were in the mine during the explosion. According to the complaint, they feel they are entitled to the same criminal restitution that Alpha and Massey paid out to nine miners in the same mantrips they were in during the explosion, “some of which suffered less significant injuries” than the petitioners.

“Alpha and Massey know that some or all of the victims listed herein are totally disabled and without financial support and/or have been forced to return to the mines to support their families, which has caused each of these victims additional and severe emotional distress,” the lawsuit states. “The failure of Alpha and Massey to attend to their specific needs has, at a minimum, created a danger for these victims and their co-workers.”

Finally, check out this interesting stuff from “SkyTruth” about the impacts of mountaintop removal mining.