Friday roundup, May 17, 2013

May 17, 2013 by Ken Ward Jr.

In this Saturday, May 11, 2013 photo, rescuers prepare to enter the Dashan Coal Mine for rescue operation in Pingba county in southwest China’s Guizhou province. Authorities say 40 miners have died in two separate coal mine explosions in southwestern China. (AP Photo)

From the coalfields of Wyoming this week, I picked up on an interesting commentary by Kerry Drake at WyoFile about the federal Abandoned Mine Lands program. Here’s how it starts:

It took bipartisan cooperation from Wyoming’s congressional delegation nearly 35 years ago to help increase this state’s share of royalties from federally-owned minerals located here, and to obtain funds to help pay to clean up abandoned mine lands.

Contrast that with today’s all-Republican delegation, which voted in favor of the Budget Control Act of 2011, setting in motion the drastic, ill-advised “sequester” that prompted a $53 million cut in federal mineral royalties going to the state.

The piece continues:

As the nation’s top coal producer, Wyoming is used to receiving the lion’s share of federal mineral royalties. But the state saw its Abandoned Mine Land program funds sliced by $700 million last year, and attempts to restore the money seem to be going nowhere. Even if there is eventually some progress on the issue, Eastern coal states that are far more in need of money to cleanup their own mining sites aren’t sympathetic at all to Wyoming’s claim to it.

It’s a far cry from the situation in the mid-1970s, when Wyoming was represented by a split delegation that had to work together to pass mineral legislation that greatly benefited the state.

Then it gets to the point, discussing the terribly important issue — one the Obama administration has tried time and again to raise — of why the federal government keeps for years spent AML money for projects that didn’t actually involving cleaning up abandoned coal mines, and in the process, quotes someone we haven’t heard from in a while, one-time OSM Director Kathy Karpan:

Meanwhile, other coal states argue that they deserve the money that’s automatically allocated to Wyoming. It’s difficult not to see their point.

“I love Wyoming, and I believe in doing something here, but it’s going to be a difficult political sell,” said Karpan, who added that would be true even if the state had an all-Democratic delegation. “States like Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and Oklahoma actually have outstanding abandoned mine land sites that are dangerous because you have walls that could collapse on someone, the pollution of their water, and the impacts on fish and animal life. How do you go back and tell them no, you have to give us our money because we still have some buildings at UW that need to be built?”

Karpan, who became director of the Office of Surface Mining during the Clinton administration, said the current gridlock in Washington means it’s likely that SMCRA won’t be changed. But if it is amended, she said, it could backfire on Wyoming, and the state could lose even more AML funds than it already has.

Meanwhile, SNL Financial (subscription required) had a really interesting story about strides that are being made, with the help of the Obama administration, on the issue of carbon capture and sequestration:

The setbacks and hurdles confronting carbon capture and storage, though significant, have obscured the vast gains that the industry has made that are deserving of broader recognition, an official with the U.S. Department of Energy said at a May 14 industry conference in Pittsburgh.

Conference panelist Anthony Cugini, director of the DOE’s National Energy Technology Laboratory, said that although “there’s been a lot of chaos, a lot of volatility, a lot of difficulties, a lot problems” concerning carbon capture and storage, or CCS, the industry has “made some really good strides” to advance the technology.

“You kind of lose sight of how much progress we have actually made,” Cugini said at the 12th annual Carbon Capture Utilization & Sequestration Conference. He described his remarks as an industry “pep talk.”

In this Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012 photo, a flock of Geese fly past the smokestacks at the Jeffrey Energy Center coal power plant as the suns sets near Emmett, Kan. Worldwide levels of the chief greenhouse gas that causes global warming have hit a milestone, reaching an amount never before encountered by humans, federal scientists said Friday, May 10, 2013. Carbon dioxide was measured at 400 parts per million at the oldest monitoring station in Hawaii which sets the global benchmark. The last time the worldwide carbon level was probably that high was about 2 million years ago, said Pieter Tans of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

And SNL Financial also had this story, which was an interview with American Electric Power’s vice president for environmental services, John McManus, who discussed, among other things, how it’s been to work with EPA and the states to get compliance deadlines extended for the new mercury and air toxics rule:

The process that the EPA put in place for that fourth year, which was to really allow the states to make those decisions, for companies to work with their states’ environmental agencies, so far it seems to be working out fairly well.

Smooth would be the description. We talked to the agencies about what we are looking at and then sent them a formal letter requesting the extension, with a schedule for the project. We are not sure how much time we would need for that extension. They had a couple questions to understand exactly what we had given them, and then we got a letter back from those agencies, saying, “Here’s the extension.” That was our understanding of how the process should work under this provision of the Clean Air Act.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, meanwhile, ran a story under the headline, Consol to direct its energy toward gas production, CEO says:

Consol Energy wants investors to start viewing it as more of a gas company than a gas and coal conglomerate, and is prepared to sell assets to finance more drilling in the gas fields of Appalachia, company Chief Executive Officer J. Brett Harvey said this morning.

Consol’s growing presence in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale and Ohio’s Utica Shale will be funded in part through the selling or restructuring of other elements of its portfolio, such as its barge or pipeline businesses.

A master-limited partnership of sale-leaseback of the assets are possible avenues expected to be pursued this year, he said. Consol is also negotiating with firms to export natural gas from Atlantic ports to overseas markets, though Mr. Harvey declined to say which continents the company is targeting.

The Cecil-based energy firm is a bit of an anomaly in the local energy market, with substantial coal and natural gas operations that force the company to be a bit “schizophrenic,” said Mr. Harvey.

Investors interested in coal companies tend to focus on quarterly earnings, whereas gas investors are more focused on the long-term, he said.

And from the website “Skeptical Science,” we have a report on the latest examination of more than 12,000 peer-reviewed climate science papers, which found a 97% consensus in the peer-reviewed literature that humans are causing global warming. The review itself reported:

Our analysis indicates that the number of papers rejecting the consensus on AGW is a vanishingly small proportion of the published research.

In other news, the Tennessean reported:

A coalition of environmental groups filed a lawsuit on Thursday claiming that federal agencies, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, unlawfully approved surface mining on Tennessee mountains.

The Defenders of Wildlife, the Sierra Club and others sued the federal agencies in U.S. District Court in Nashville for not considering how pollution from the mining would impact endangered fish — in particular, the blackside dace and the Cumberland darter.

“Extinction of endangered species is too high a price to pay for surface mining,” said the Sierra Club’s Mary Anne Hitt. “Mining pollution from these sites clearly poses a risk to the dace and darter; these permits should have never been allowed to go forward.”

Bloomberg Business Week had this update on the Patriot Coal bankruptcy case:

Patriot Coal Corp. can pay $6.9 million in bonuses to key employees, a judge said, rejecting a union’s claims that the payments wrongly benefit corporate insiders.

U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Kathy A. Surratt-States in St. Louis today granted the company’s request to pay 274 people under two bonus plans. Patriot said the money would give managers an incentive to improve the company’s performance and stay through its Chapter 11 reorganization.

The United Mine Workers of America, which represents 42 percent of Patriot’s workforce, objected, calling the payments “massive bonuses to corporate insiders” at a time when the company is seeking concessions from regular employees and claiming it faces a liquidity crisis. The company’s top 35 officers, who make up 13 percent of the bonus-plan participants by number, will get 42 percent of one payment plan by amount and 61 percent of the other, the union said.

“The facts remain that certain key personnel perform duties that are more integral to the viability of the organization and such individuals are generally compensated at higher levels,” Surratt-States said in her opinion.

Over at The State Journal, Taylor Kuykendall reported:

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va, has been working on behalf of coal miners since 1964 when he came to work in West Virginia as a VISTA worker.

Now, three years after one of the worst mining disasters in modern history, Rockefeller and those who have signed on fight for his safety bill, which has yet to pass. While there has been some progress, either directly through regulatory agencies or small amendments to other bills, the Robert C. Byrd Mine and Workplace Safety and Health Act remains stalled in Congress.

And I didn’t see much media coverage of this, but it’s something from a press release issued by Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va.:

Rep. David B. McKinley, P.E. (R-WV), along with Rep. Bill Enyart, Jr. (D-IL), introduced bipartisan legislation that would provide research grants for coal mine safety and lung treatment and prevention.

“This legislation provides funding of education and training programs to better identify, avoid, and prevent unsafe working conditions in and around mines,” said Rep. McKinley. “It would also specifically fund research into the prevention and treatment for black lung disease of our hard-working miners. It’s only common sense that if a company is fined by MSHA that money should go towards improving the safety and health of miners, rather than Washington.”

Currently, the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) gives out competitively bid grants for coal mine safety research called the “Brookwood-Sago Mine Safety Grants.” The amount is usually under $1.5 million. The bill would increase the funding for the grants to no less than $10 million annually derived from fines that are collected by MSHA and add a component that calls for the study of black lung disease prevention and treatment.

“I wanted to do work — I’m not a business person,” Rockefeller said of his move here. “Coal operators will tell you that. I’m a people person and I basically see myself as a social worker to try to make life better in different ways.”

After a Senate speech only a few months after Rockefeller took coal companies to task for being too aggressive in fighting government regulation, the soon-to-retire senator has carefully drawn a line between issues of the coal miner and the coal company.

“Coal miners aren’t a part of any of the problems we’re facing,” Rockefeller said.

The Associated Press, via The Washington Post, reported on this story picked up from The Virginia Pilot:

A Maltese-flagged coal ship anchored at Portsmouth Marine Terminal for nearly a month has lost a court battle to sail out of Virginia waters amid a federal environmental investigation.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Thursday that the ship and its crew of 20 must remain in Portsmouth while a legal battle is waged, the Virginian-Pilot reported.

According to court records, the Antonis G. Pappadakis, its crew and the ship’s operator are under federal criminal investigation for allegedly bypassing the ship’s pollution-control equipment and discharging an oily mixture directly into the sea.

The appeals court order blunts a lower court action that would have let the ship sail after its owners posted a $1.5 million bond.

It means that the sail order can’t be executed until an appeal is decided by the Justice Department, representing the Coast Guard and Customs and Border Protection.

If you’re in the Charleston area on Saturday afternoon, you might stop by Taylor Books at 2 p.m. to hear about Laurence Leamer’s new book, The Price of Justice: A True Story of Greed and Corruption.”

Finally, just for the record this wasn’t me and this fellow is not related to me (though there’s been confusion about him before):

At 9 am this morning, environmental activists Ken Ward, 57 of Jamaica Plain, MA, and Jay O’Hara, 31, of Bourne,MA, anchored their 32’ lobster boat, the Henry David T, in the channel opposite the Brayton Point coal power plant.

They intend to block the “Energy Enterprise,” a coal tanker en route to deliver fuel to the power plant. The boat is transporting “mountain top removal coal” from Hampton, Roads, Virginia –and is expected to arrive later today.

Activists are calling for the immediate closure of BraytonPoint Power Station in order to avert catastrophic climate change.

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