Coal Tattoo

Friday roundup, Feb. 1, 2013

In this Jan. 18, 2013 photo, BHP Billiton spokesperson Norman Benally steps down from one of the smaller buckets used at Navajo Mine east of Farmington, N.M.  The Navajo Nation is in negotiations to buy the Navajo Mine from BHP Billiton in 2016 when BHP’s lease expires. (AP Photo/The Durango Herald, Joseph Stephenson)

The news side of the journal Nature had a story this week headlined Obama rekindles climate hopes: President will use regulations to sidestep stalled Congress that reported:

Throughout his re-election campaign, US President Barack Obama rarely said the words ‘climate change’. But in his second inaugural address, on 21 January, Obama renewed a commitment to address global warming, citing both moral and economic imperatives. To fail, he said, “would betray our children and future generations”.

The 2010 demise of a climate bill that would have enacted a cap-and-trade system to limit greenhouse-gas emissions remains one of the key failures of Obama’s first term. With a divided Congress still standing in the way of legislation, the administration is likely to rely on its own power to impose new regulations, once Obama has replaced the retiring heads of three agencies key to the climate agenda.

And the journal had an editorial that said:

… The administration should issue strong regulations for power plants and send a message to the coal industry: clean up or fade away. The energy utilities will duly cry foul, but the same companies are already powering down old and inefficient coal-fired power plants in favour of natural-gas plants. Why? Because natural gas is cheap and burns more cleanly than coal, helping companies to meet increasingly stringent air-quality regulations.

Meanwhile, SNL Energy had a pretty comprehensive rundown of impending coal-fired power plant retirements, reporting:

A new year and another four years of the Obama administration have sparked a flurry of announcements from fossil fuel generators in the opening month of 2013, including numerous planned coal unit retirements and several potential unit conversions from coal to natural gas.

The most prominent of the announcements came from coal-fired heavyweight Southern Co., which announced Jan. 7 that its Georgia Power Co. subsidiary would seek to retire or refuel 15 coal- and oil-fired units, in part to avoid costly air emissions upgrades that would be needed to comply with the U.S. EPA’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, or MATS.

On the chopping block for Georgia Power are 11 coal-fired units at its Harllee Branch, Kraft and Yates plants. Under the current plan, the Branch and Yates coal units would be retired by April 16, 2015, the effective date of MATS. The utility expects to seek a one-year extension of the MATS compliance date for the Kraft units, retiring them by April 16, 2016.

More recently, Berkshire Hathaway Inc.-owned MidAmerican Energy Co. committed to stop burning coal at three Iowa power plants under a settlement agreement with the Sierra Club. The plan, announced Jan. 22, calls for MidAmerican to cease burning coal by April 2016 at units 1 and 2 at the George Neal station; units 1 and 2 at the Walter Scott plant; and units 7, 8 and 9 at the Riverside plant.

Retired miner Larry Knisell, 63, of Morgantown, W. Va. is arrested during a protest by the United Mine Workers of America, at Peabody Energy headquarters in St. Louis on Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2013.   (AP Photo/St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Stephanie S. Cordle)

When I blogged the other day about the UMWA protest out in St. Louis, I somehow failed to first catch the story in which Kris Maher of the Wall Street Journal broke the story about details of Patriot’s plans:

Patriot Coal Corp., currently under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, is seeking to limit its obligation to provide retiree health benefits to 22,000 active miners, retirees and their spouses and set up an outside trust to fund future benefits, according to documents filed in federal court Monday.

The future retiree health benefits of the active and retired miners and the beneficiaries, which represent an estimated liability of $2.1 billion for Patriot, have been in question since St. Louis-based Patriot filed for bankruptcy protection last July amid one of the worst coal-market downturns in decades.

Patriot has proposed creating a trust known as a voluntary employee beneficiary association, or VEBA, with an initial payment of $15 million, a maximum payment of $40 million annually and a $200 million total limit, according to the documents in an amended lawsuit against Patriot’s predecessor companies by the United Mine Workers of America. The documents include Patriot’s proposal.

Retiree health costs are expected to reach $73.8 million in 2013, nearly double the maximum proposed funding this year, according to the documents.

In other news this week, West Virginia Public Broadcasting reported:

Consol Energy has nearly completed building a water treatment facility in northern West Virginia, to address chloride levels discharged from four of its underground mines. The company says everything is moving well and in some cases, ahead of schedule.

 The water treatment plant is in the final phases of construction, before it’s scheduled to start operating in May.

Consol is spending nearly $200 million, according to information from a consent decree with the state Department of Environmental Protection, to build this facility near Mannington, which is located in Marion County.

This plant will keep 20 people working full-time and will be using a method known as reverse osmosis technology to treat chlorides discharged from its mining activities.

“I would expect by April, we would be running the plant, more than not,” said John Owsiany, water systems and operations director at Consol. He says he expects commissioning to be completed by the end of May.

And, from my friend Tim Wheeler at The Baltimore Sun:

A trio of environmental groups warned Monday they would sue the operator of three coal-fired power plants in Maryland for allegedly discharging excessive amounts of nutrient pollution into Chesapeake Bay rivers and trying to mask their violations by transferring pollution “credits” among facilities.

Food & Water Watch, the Patuxent Riverkeeper and the Potomac Riverkeeper contend that NRG Energy has been violating state-imposed pollution discharge limits for the past three years at its Chalk Point, Morgantown and Dickerson power plants.

In 2010, for instance, state documents show that the Chalk Point plant in Prince George’s County discharged more than 2,200 times as much nitrogen into the Patuxent River as it was permitted to do, the groups said. All three plants exceeded their limits on nitrogen pollution, the groups contended, and the Dickerson plant in Montgomery County also discharged more phosphorus into local streams than it was allowed. The Morgantown plant in Charles County discharges into the Potomac River.

And finally, for all you climate change science deniers out there, check out this post from Grist that explains why abnormally cold weather doesn’t disprove the science. Among other things, it explains:

Researchers expected a colder winter — thanks to global warming.

This summer saw the most extensive Arctic ice melt in recorded history. As it concluded, we noted that scientists expected that ice loss to translate to colder weather events. And, sure enough, from the Climate Central article linked above:

Sudden stratospheric warming events take place in about half of all Northern Hemisphere winters, and they have been occurring with increasing frequency during the past decade, possibly related to the loss of Arctic sea ice due to global warming. Arctic sea ice declined to its smallest extent on record in September 2012.

The “warming event” disturbs a pattern known as the “polar vortex.”

Sudden stratospheric warming events occur when large atmospheric waves, known as Rossby waves, extend beyond the troposphere where most weather occurs, and into the stratosphere. This vertical transport of energy can set a complex process into motion that leads to the breakdown of the high altitude cold low pressure area that typically spins above the North Pole during the winter, which is known as the polar vortex.

The polar vortex plays a major role in determining how much Arctic air spills southward toward the mid-latitudes. When there is a strong polar vortex, cold air tends to stay bottled up in the Arctic. However, when the vortex weakens or is disrupted, like a spinning top that suddenly starts wobbling, it can cause polar air masses to surge south, while the Arctic experiences milder-than-average temperatures.

Climate Central has a nifty animation of this happening.