Friday roundup, Feb. 22, 2013

February 22, 2013 by Ken Ward Jr.

An employee of Hellas Gold, looks at a burnt mining facility  near the village of Skouries, located on the northern peninsula of Halkidiki Greece, on Sunday, Feb. 17 2013.  About 40 masked attackers raided the facilities of a prospective gold mine in northern Greece overnight Sunday, setting machinery and offices alight, authorities said. There has long been opposition to the prospect of a gold mine and processing plant being built at Skouries in the Halkidiki peninsula, with some residents objecting to what they say will be the destruction of the environment and of pristine forest in the area, leading to the loss of tourism and other local activities such as farming, the rearing of livestock and fishing. (AP Photo/Nikolas Giakoumidis)

Numerous readers have pointed out this study, presented at a recent academic conference, that backs up a lot of what Coal Tattoo has been covering over the last year or more, and is covered in more detail in Science magazine:

During the presidential campaign last fall, a single message was repeated endlessly in Appalachian coal country: President Barack Obama and his Environmental Protection Agency, critics said, had declared a “war on coal” that was shuttering U.S. coal-fired power plants and putting coal miners out of work. Not so, according to a detailed analysis of coal plant finances and economics presented here yesterday at the annual meeting of AAAS (which publishes ScienceNOW). Instead, coal is losing its battle with other power sources mostly on its merits.

Although the United States has long generated the bulk of its electricity from coal, over the past 6 years that share has fallen from 50% to 38%. Plans for more than 150 new coal-fired power plants have been canceled since the mid-2000s, existing plants have been closed, and in 2012, just one new coal-fired power plant went online in the United States. To investigate the reasons for this decline, David Schlissel, an energy economist and founder of the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis in Belmont, Massachusetts, dove deeply into the broader economics of the industry and the detailed finances of individual power plants.

Schlissel, who serves as a paid expert witness at state public utility board hearings for both utilities and advocacy groups that oppose coal plants, found several reasons for coal’s decline. Over the past decade, construction costs have risen sharply, he said. For example, when the Prairie State Energy Campus in southern Illinois, which opened last year, was first proposed, its then-owner, Peabody Energy, said it would cost $1.8 billion to build. Instead it cost more than $4.9 billion, Schlissel said.

Also this week, there’s a really good look at the future of coal and of places like McDowell County, W.Va., in The Daily Athenaeum, WVU’s student newspaper, written by Christopher Nyden (son of Gazette veteran Dr. Paul Nyden). Chris has a lot of important stuff to say, like this:

Mining has lifted many West Virginian families out of poverty, giving them good pay for a very tough job. It has allowed miners to risk their lives so their children may go to college or live a life their parents were unable to. The stories and successes of mining are seen all around West Virginia each day, and it has had an immeasurable impact on the economic growth of West Virginia.

However, the nature of extractive resources such as coal is that they will eventually run out. There is a finite amount of coal in the ground, and whether using conservative or liberal estimates for the life of the state’s coal reserves, West Virginia has serious questions to answer in the near future.

This is the ugly side of coal. It is easy for one to laud its successes, speaking on the tremendous income it has brought to the state. It is much harder to look down the road and see what overdependence on a natural resource will do. The time will come when West Virginia has no choice but to move beyond coal after its long, storied history in the state.

The piece falls a bit too hard for the coal industry’s standard line about renewable energy, not giving alternatives and the move in that direction — now and in the future — nearly enough credit. But he also makes these important points:

Once it is exhausted, people are left with tough decisions. Many have left. Some have turned to whatever makes their lives just a little better, holding on to what they own and love; others have turned to drugs. But many people have remained hopeful in McDowell County, despite having the odds stacked against them.

The debate is now about more than who is for or against coal. The people who frame the debate in this manner do a great disservice to communities who have relied on mining to bring them to their greatest heights.

These people stand in the way of economic progress in the state, and their shortsightedness has left McDowell County in its current position.

All of West Virginia must learn the lessons of McDowell County. This discussion will not be easy, but we can make the easy decision to be proactive now, or we can be reactive later. It is not too late yet. I, like the good people of McDowell County, remain hopeful for our future.

Also this week, Pam Kasey over at The State Journal had this story:

Last November, Electric Light and Power magazine found the Longview power plant outside Morgantown to be the most efficient coal-fired plant in the U.S. fleet in 2011.

“GenPower’s Longview plant was No. 1 on the top 20 list of coal generators ranked by heat rate,” reads the caption under a photo illustrating the magazine’s story on 2011 power plant operating performance … 

… But AEP’s John W. Turk Jr. station that started up in Arkansas in December may pose some competition.

It’s the first plant in the nation to use ultrasupercritical technology: equipment that can take the highest temperatures and pressures in the industry, giving the greatest efficiencies.

“They can get up to probably 1,100 degrees instead of our 1,050 degrees, and maybe closer to 4,000 psi (pounds per square inch) pressure where we’re at 3,800 psi,” Huguenard said.

Dan Lowrey at SNL Financial reported:

Several creditors of Appalachia coal producer Frasure Creek Mining LLC have filed an involuntary petition to force the company to restructure in federal bankruptcy court.

The petition was filed Feb. 14 in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky by Cleveland-based Austin Powder Co.; Charleston, W.Va.-based Cecil I. Walker Machinery Co. Inc.; and Louisville, Ky.-based Whayne Supply Co.

Austin Powder is claiming it is owed $11.9 million for the sales of goods. Whayne Supply has filed a claim of $5.3 million for sales of services and parts, and Cecil I. Walker reported a claim of $2.9 million for the sales of services and parts, according to the petition.

The involuntary Chapter 11 petition also names as debtors Trinity Coal Co. and Essar Minerals.

Agence France-Presse had this story:

Thirteen-year-old Sanjay Chhetri has a recurring fear: that one day, the dark, dank mine where he works will cave in and bury him alive.

Like thousands of children in India’s remote northeast, Chhetri begins work in the middle of the night, ready to dig pits, squat through narrow tunnels and cut coal shards.

At four feet six inches, the skinny teenager is the perfect fit for a job in the lucrative mining industry in Meghalaya state whose crudely-built rat-hole mines are too small for most adults to enter.

In a report on the persistent problem of child poverty in West Virginia, the good folks over at the West Virginia Center for Budget and Policy had some interesting lines from President John F. Kennedy:

While campaigning in West Virginia in 1960, John F. Kennedy brought national attention to the chronic unemployment and poverty he found in the Mountain State as a result of the state’s overdependence on the coal industry and its lack of infrastructure and educational attainment.

“McDowell County mines more coal than it ever has in its history, probably more coal than any county in the United States,” Kennedy said in a 1960 speech in Canton, Ohio. “Yet there are more people getting surplus food packages in McDowell County than any county in the United  States. The reason is that machines are doing the jobs of men, and we have not been able to find jobs for those men.”

And finally, from The New Yorker, here’s a video worth checking out with some interesting history about black lung disease:

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