Coal Tattoo

Friday roundup, Dec. 21, 2012

This Sept. 11, 2012 photo shows a Whitehaven Coal mine outside Narrabri, Australia near Gunnedah, 450 kilometers (280 miles) northwest of Sydney.  (AP Photo/Rob Griffith)

There was some big news out of Kentucky this week, with American Electric Power’s announcement that it is going to close the Big Sandy Power plant in Louisa. The announcement — coverage here from WFPL and the New York Times — comes after May’s decision by AEP to drop plans to retrofit the facility with new pollution controls.

As the Times noted:

This has been a bad year for the coal industry … A total of 55 plants, including Big Sandy, have closed or have announced plans to shut down, according to a count by the Sierra Club. That will leave 395 coal-burning plants in the United States, compared with 522 in 2010, according to the Sierra Club.

Nationwide, coal production dropped this year by an estimated 7 percent even as exports grew to Asia and Europe, according to the Energy Department.

Politically, this has been a disappointing year for the coal industry as well. Industry executives contributed heavily to Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, while also sending large donations to important Congressional races, like Senate contests in Ohio, Virginia and Montana, in which their preferred candidates lost.

Bruce Nilles, Senior Director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, bragged in a press release:

At this pace, we are on track to end the scourge of coal burning in the United States within the next two decades.

Nilles and others at the Sierra Club celebrate for this reason:

Every coal plant retired means less mining destruction, less air and water pollution, and a better chance to prevent runaway climate disruption.

That particular Sierra Club press release didn’t include any of the group’s occasional comments (especially by Beyond Coal campaign director Mary Anne Hitt) calling for political leaders in coalfield communities to focus efforts on diversifying local economies.  Speaking of diversifying the coalfields, I think I previously failed to mention on this blog a great piece published on The Daily Yonder about that very issue. Eastern Kentucky resident Kelli B. Haywood tells her family’s version of that story:

Whether a person stands on the side of the coal industry or feels the industry is the detriment to our well-being isn’t going to matter when we are faced with having to transition our economy from coal. After the likely mass exodus, like those we have seen in our past when coal production declined, those left behind — and those who choose to stay — will have to find a way to work together to provide for their families or live in dire poverty.

I dare say that a way will be found. I honestly don’t know if John and I will be in the group that tries to work it out or in the group that goes — or if, in the meantime, we will pack up the house and head on out to a community that isn’t facing such a critical position, such hostility toward those of the opposite opinion, and such day-to-day turmoil.

Dad says, “If the coal industry goes away, the only thing left in eastern Kentucky would be those singing kum-ba-yah around the campfire to deaf ears.” Who knows what would come of that? I’ve been around some pretty productive campfires – and not. What if, though, this little pocket of d.i.y entrepreneurs is the beginning of something new?

A police officer restrains two protesters dressed in suits and posing as executives from the British coal mining company GCM Resources as they take part in a piece of street theatre during a demonstration outside the company’s annual general meeting in London, Thursday, Dec. 20, 2012.  Campaigners demonstrated outside the AGM Thursday to oppose the company’s proposed open-pit coal mine project in Phulbari, north west Bangladesh, which they say will cause environmental damage and infringe human rights by displacing thousands of local people.  (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

Meanwhile, some Coal Tattoo readers may have noticed the controversy generated by a leaked draft of an upcoming Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report that was billed by some as showing a reversal in the longstanding science about human-induced global warming. Well … not so fast, because as The New York Times reported:

This claim turns out to be an overstatement, to say the least.

The Times explained:

… Assuming that the current language survives revision, the top-line findings are not going to be especially surprising to anyone. The last I.P.C.C. report, in 2007, made headlines by going beyond the previous three reports, concluding on the basis of accumulating evidence that “most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations.”

The draft report pushes only a little beyond this language, saying it is “virtually certain” that greenhouse gases released by human activities are causing an energy imbalance that is warming the earth, and finding “very high confidence” that natural drivers of climate change are causing only a small fraction of that imbalance.

And to get out into the weeds a little bit on the part of the draft report at issue:

For anyone who has been following climate science closely the last few years, this is pretty much exactly what you would expect the next I.P.C.C. report to say. So what is it that got Mr. Rawls excited enough to leak the draft? (He got his hands on it by signing up to be an official reviewer, as virtually anyone can do, and then breaking his pledge to keep the draft confidential.)

The backdrop is that, in their quest to prove that anything other than human-generated greenhouse emissions are the cause of global warming, climate contrarians have seized on a theory promulgated by a Danish scientist named Henrik Svensmark. He believes that cosmic rays modulated by the sun exercise a substantial influence on the earth’s climate.

Some scientific results issued by Dr. Svensmark and others may turn out to be initial steps toward establishing the theory. The idea is a long, long way from being proven, however. Gavin Schmidt, a scientist at NASA, has outlined the missing steps here and further dissected the issue here. For more of a grounding in the basics, you can go here.

In this discussion, scientists often use the abbreviation G.C.R. for galactic cosmic ray. The sentence that fired Mr. Rawls’ imagination is the one in bold within the following paragraph:

Many empirical relationships have been reported between G.C.R. or cosmogenic isotope archives and some aspects of the climate system… The forcing from changes in total solar irradiance alone does not seem to account for these observations, implying the existence of an amplifying mechanism such as the hypothesized G.C.R.-cloud link. We focus here on observed relationships between G.C.R. and aerosol and cloud properties.

Mr. Rawls found this to be a “game-changing” acknowledgement that, yes, earthly climate must be influenced by cosmic rays. Indeed, in his manifesto leaking the document, he called this sentence “an astounding bit of honesty, a killing admission that completely undercuts the main premise and the main conclusion of the full report, revealing the fundamental dishonesty of the whole.”


Looking at the full report, I have to wonder if Mr. Rawls just stopped reading when he got to that sentence. Because what follows is a lengthy discussion of the science to date regarding cosmic rays and climate, one that points out the intriguing results suggesting a possible connection, but also points out that many of those studies cannot be reproduced by other scientists, that many of the supposed correlations are weak, and so forth. (To read the whole discussion for yourself, download Chapter 7 here or, if that has crashed again, as happened earlier, try here and click “create download link.” Go to Section 7.4.5.)

There were also helpful discussions of all of this from The Huffington Post, Climate Progress and Climate Science Watch.

In other coal news and commentary:

— A new Congressional Research Service report raises serious questions about the legislation West Virginia political leaders are pushing to block real federal regulation of the handling and disposal of toxic coal ash.

— A new report from Downstream Strategies finds that the coal industry and coal-related activities cost Virginia $22 million more than was paid by these businesses in taxes, fees and other revenue to state coffers.

— From Kentucky, the Herald-Leader reports:

To federal prosecutors, Mackie Bailey is a witness who provided information about dangerous practices at an underground coal mine in Harlan County where a man was crushed to death in June 2011. The company and three supervisors pleaded guilty in federal court.

To state authorities, Bailey is a miner who broke the rules. The Kentucky Office of Mine Safety and Licensing filed a complaint against him for taking part in the dangerous activities he reported to state and federal regulators.

To Bailey and his attorney, that’s an injustice, not just because supervisors ordered Bailey to do unsafe work, but because his information helped convict the people responsible.

“They’re trying to punish the whistle-blower,” said Bailey’s attorney, Tony Oppegard, who previously worked as a federal mine-safety official and as a prosecutor in the state mine-safety agency.

This week brought news of coal-mining disasters in China and Iran, and in an In These Times piece connecting 1962 Robena Mine Disaster to the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster two years ago, Mike Elk reminds us that these deaths don’t have to happen:

Even for miners who were not at the Robena mine on that day in 1962, the accident still strikes a nerve. Many miners I spoke with say they feel just as vulnerable to preventable mine explosions today as miners were 50 years ago. The Upper Big Branch explosion in 2010, which killed 29 miners in West Virginia, was strikingly similar to the Robena explosion. Both were caused by methane and coal dust igniting, a scenario that can be prevented by properly ventilating the mines and washing out coal dust. That coal dust-fueled explosions keep occuring, despite ample knowledge on how to prevent them, leads Karwatsky to wonder whether mine safety has improved at all since the explosion that killed his friend Sammy Rain 50 years ago.

“It’s just about the same. There ain’t no change,” he says.

“It’s terribly unfortunate the lessons of Robena and of earlier and later disasters were not applied in Upper Big Branch,” says J. Davitt McAteer, who served as Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) director under President Clinton. “We knew in 1962 and in 2010 that in the presence of methane, coal dust can in fact ignite and start a big explosion. We disregarded all these things that happened at Robena, so we blow up 29 more guys. … We neglect the prevention because we get in a hurry to mine the product. All it requires to prevent [coal dust-fueled explosions] is ventilation and water.”

Seven years after the Robena disaster, a Farmington, W. Va. explosion that killed 78 miners finally spurred Congress to pass the 1969 Coal Mine Safety and Health Act. The act, updated in 1977, mandated safety measures such as coal-dust clean-up and instituted annual federal inspections. In the year leading up to the Upper Big Branch explosion in 2010, the mine was cited 458 times for various safety violations, including nearly 50 citations for willful violations of the law—nearly five times the national average for citations of a single mine. The MHSA proposed $1.89 million in fines from 2005 to 2010 for Upper Big Branch. Yet despite the citations, the mine stayed open.

“Following the 1969 Coal Mine Safety Act, the number and magnitude of coal dust explosions declined substantially,” says Celeste Monforton, a former Mine Safety and Health Administration official under Clinton. “In fact, the industry’s views about coal dust transformed so much so that it was well accepted throughout the industry that coal dust explosions are 100 percent preventable. When Upper Big Branch occurred—a massive coal dust explosion—it was particularly shocking because it had been at least 20 years—maybe longer—since a coal dust explosion killed US mine workers.” She continues, “The industry accepts and takes seriously—you don’t mess with the gun powder that is coal dust. Regrettably, Massey Energy [which owned Upper Big Branch] gambled for years with workers’ lives with coal dust and many other hazards. The gamblers have gotten away with murder, and the workers and their families left to suffer the consequences.”

I was also sorry to hear about the death of Earthjustice’s Joan Mulhern, who was a helpful source and a great baseball fan.

After today, Coal Tattoo is going to be shut down for a few days … everyone have a happy and safe holiday.