Coal Tattoo

Photo by Vivian Stockman, flyover courtesy of Southwings

Next week, dozens of scientists (and not a few industry consultants) will descend on Charleston, for a five-day event organizers are promoting as a “symposium” on “Environmental Considerations in Energy Production.” They’ll be some discussing of natural gas drilling, but the bulk of the event is focused on the coal industry, and on mountaintop removal in particular.

The event is being coordinated by a Virginia Tech-based project that calls itself ARIES, which stands for the Appalachian Research Initiative for Environmental Science.  On its website, ARIES explains itself this way:

ARIES was formed to address the environmental impacts of the discovery, development, production, and use of energy resources in Appalachia, and is under the direction of the Virginia Center for Coal and Energy Research at Virginia Tech.

 The purpose of ARIES is to engage in detailed studies of the environmental impacts of the mining, gas, and energy sectors in Appalachia, focusing on both upstream (mining, drilling, and processing) and downstream (water, land, and air) issues. To meet that purpose, ARIES will conduct scientific inquiry and research, foster publication and contribute to the relevant literature, and engage in outreach efforts to share and disseminate results. Initially, work carried out by ARIES will focus on the coal mining industry.

But as we explained in a lengthy story in Sunday’s Gazette-Mail, this project is generating some controversy — in part because it’s not always being made clear that the science being produced and promoted is funded by $15 million in contributions from the region’s largest coal companies. Now, as the story explains, there are some perfectly sound arguments behind this project:

While working for the federal government, Craynon said, he always felt like agencies never had adequate science to properly deal with questions that citizens groups were increasingly asking about large-scale surface-coal mining. Now, he’s trying to fill that gap.

“The resolution of complex issues such as mountaintop mining may require radical boldness to break through years of distrust and allow for the adoption of a more public ecology,” Craynon wrote in an article published last year in the journal Resources Policy. “Through the cooperation of all parties, mountaintop coal mining may be modified so that better social, environmental and economic goals can be achieved and the interests of all affected parties can be adequately considered.”

At Virginia Tech, Karmis was already growing concerned about the lack of government funding for research on mining issues. Four years earlier, Karmis had served on a National Research Council panel that produced a report detailing the need for tens of millions of dollars annually in new money for coal-related research.

But there are other reasons that ARIES was formed (and funded), as we explained:

Meanwhile, Karmis was hearing growing complaints from coal industry executives who serve on his Virginia Tech research center’s advisory board.

Companies, such as Alpha Natural Resources, were upset about efforts by the Obama administration’s EPA to try to curb mountaintop removal’s impacts on water quality. Mine operators said their own studies contradicted peer-reviewed research the EPA cited as evidence of mining damage. However, agency officials were hesitant to rely on industry work produced by company consultants for use in litigation.

And perhaps most telling was this presentation, delivered by ARIES chief Michael Karmis at a conference for mining professors, as we explained in our story:

Karmis described the program a bit differently during an appearance at a Society of Mining Professors meeting.

According to a slide presentation from that event, Karmis introduced ARIES by first citing a variety of statistics about coal’s contribution to the world’s energy supply. For example, one slide, titled “What coal did today,” said that coal provided more than 40 percent of the power for 300 billion emails, “enhanced energy security for dozens of nations across the globe,” and “enabled the production of 2.4 million metric tons of steel.

“Yet, the coal industry, at least in the USA, is under a major attack” by the government, the media and nongovernmental organizations, Karmis continued. He cited “unreasonable regulations based on “questionable science,” “false assertions” and “self-serving interests”

Using some slides borrowed from industry groups, Karmis criticized a “train wreck” of new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency air-pollution regulations and called EPA water-quality guidance for strip mining an “arbitrary” standard that would not be “enforced in an equitable manner.

“The coal industry needs help,” Karmis said in the September 2011 presentation.

It will be interesting to see what sort of conclusions some out of the dozens of presentations slated for release at the ARIES event next week — especially since the peer-review process in this project was voluntary, and many study authors funded by ARIES declined to have their worked examined by other scientists. But it is interesting to note that ARIES-funded papers published so far in established journals haven’t exactly offered slam-dunk conclusions in the industry’s favor. Take for example Modeling Critical Forest Habitat in the Southern Coal Fields of West Virginia, which concluded:

Throughout the Central Appalachians of the United States resource extraction primarily from coal mining has contributed to the majority of the forest conversion to barren and reclaimed pasture and grass. The loss of forests in this ecoregion is significantly impacting biodiversity at a regional scale. Since not all forest stands provide equal levels of ecological functions, it is critical to identify and map existing forested resources by the benefits that accrue from their unique spatial patterns, watershed drainage, and landscape positions.

… Continued surface mining in the region will likely continue to alter forests, habitats, and the ecosystem and landscape as a whole, and this practice has been shown to produce both aquatic and terrestrial habitat degradation. Perhaps considering not just the extent of forest to be disturbed, but the ecological function of the forest, is necessary when continued mining and forest disturbance are proposed. Perhaps certain forests, such as core, headwater, cove forests, should be protected over other forested areas that are not as ecologically valuable. As resource extraction continues, perhaps regulators should take into account such abiotic factors of the landscape and adjust practices to minimize disturbance of critical areas. Perhaps spatial clusters of critical forest habitat should be considered during the permitting process.

One of the more interesting things I noticed in spending a lot of time looking into ARIES was that its main organizer, former OSMRE staffer John Craynon argues in his own academic work that both a lack of good science and a lack of adequate and fair public involvement have hindered good decision-making by government on mountaintop removal:

Current decision-making systems and regulatory frameworks have been largely ineffective at incorporating the values and concerns of stakeholders. This is due, in part, to contradicting policies, a legacy of distrust, and problems related to scale. Further, the lack of good civic science related to mountaintop mining and meaningful routes for public involvement have also hampered effective decision-making.

Yet, if you look at the schedule for next week’s event, there are plenty of what I think anyone could agree are coal industry “supporters” on the agenda for general, non-scientific plenary sessions: WVDEP Secretary Randy Huffman, Alpha Natural Resources Vice President Gene Kitts, Edison Electric Institute Vice President Bruce Baine. But nowhere on the agenda are there any representatives of citizen groups, environmental organizations — or even organized labor.