Coal Tattoo

Friday roundup, July 12, 2013

In this Nov. 30, 2010 file photo, flames burn from a ventilation shaft above the Pike River mine which has fatally trapped 29 miners and contractors in Greymouth, New Zealand. A New Zealand judge Friday, July 5, 2013 ordered the coal mining company Pike River Coal to pay compensation to the families of 29 miners killed in the 2010 methane explosion. (AP Photo/NZPA, Iain McGregor, File)

While we had more announcements of power plant closings this week (see here and here), Joe Romm had an interesting post on his Climate Progress blog headlined Bridge Out: Coal Generation Rises While Natural Gas Falls As The Fairy Tale Comes To An End:

Once upon a time there was a charming prince and prescient princess who were building a bridge to a sustainable future to replace their current bridge, which was falling apart and posing a threat to the kingdom. Since they wanted to live happily ever after, they said to all those who wanted to help, “only those who cut carbon pollution sharply may join.”

Each day coal tried to join, but the charming prince and prescient princess both laughed and said “not a chance.” Each day, wind and solar and hydro and energy efficiency and nuclear power punched in at 8 a.m. and the Prince smiled and the Princess smiled. Okay, maybe the Princess didn’t smile at nuclear power but at least she didn’t frown — and this princess was a big frowner since she read the scientific literature on climate change and was, therefore, filled with pre-science of the future.

One day, natural gas showed up and said, “Hire me. I work cheap, and I will last for a 100 years, maybe more. Oh and I really work well with others.” Wind and solar and hydro and energy efficiency said, “But we don’t leak a super-polluting greenhouse gas, and we don’t poison the water under the bridge, and natural gas won’t be cheap forever. We have far less carbon pollution and if you just charge the people who want to use the bridge a toll, we’re really cheaper. And you can give the toll you collect to everyone in the kingdom.”

The prescient Princess was unconvinced, but the charming Prince needed the cash — sustaining his currently unsustainable lifestyle wasn’t cheap — so he said, “Cassandra, dearest, I’m overruling you as I always do because you worry too much.”

So they let natural gas start building the bridge — and it turned out he didn’t work well with others and leaked all over the place. And then strangely enough his prices went up a little and the price of his BFF coal went down a little, and the new bridge started looking a whole lot like the old bridge. In fact, according to the Energy Information Administration, coal generation now exceeded natural gas generation by 50% and that was projected to be the case for the foreseeable future

… At this, the little girl shrieked and said, “Daddy, that has to be the worst story you ever told me.” And the Daddy said, “What didn’t you like about it?” And the little girl said, “For one thing, is the bridge ‘out’ or is it the same as the old bridge?” “What else?” asked Daddy. “It doesn’t have a happy ending,” she said. “Ah,” said Daddy, “well, you asked for a true story. The moral is, without a carbon price, natural gas is only a bridge to a sustainable future in a fairy tale.”

Meanwhile, Pam Kasey over at The State Journal previewed next week’s big Public Service Commission hearing on the power plant transfer proposal from American Electric Power:

What will coming greenhouse gas emissions regulations cost utilities that run coal-fired power stations?

That question became more pressing last month when President Obama directed the Environmental Protection Agency to issue limits on carbon emissions from existing power plants by 2015.

It’s one of the issues that will be discussed in the July 16-18 evidentiary hearing on Appalachian Power’s billion-dollar proposal before the Public Service Commission of West Virginia. The company proposes to buy parts of three coal-fired units to meet future ratepayer demand.

APCo assumed in the proposal it filed in December a carbon tax of $15 per ton of carbon dioxide emitted, starting in 2022.

Since that time, the federal government set its estimate of the “social cost of carbon” at $35 per ton — not a tax, but relevant as a figure government agencies use when setting new regulations to determine what costs to society are worthwhile … 

… Also sure to be discussed at the July 16-18 evidentiary hearing are the other cost estimates that led APCo to decide that the coal-fired assets are its least-cost option, whether energy efficiency could play a larger role in keeping rates down, and the feasibility and value of requiring the company to issue a Request for Proposals to test the market.


In this Nov. 1, 1958, file photo, Garnet Clarke, on stretcher, is the second miner brought to the surface after nearly ten days in the dark, at Cumberland Rail & Coal Co. in Springhill, Nova Scotia. On Oct. 23, 1958, an explosion trapped 174 miners at 13,000 feet underground, killing 74 of them. The Springhill mining disaster was among Canada’s deadliest accidents in the last 150 years, killing 74. Police say 50 people are presumed dead following a July 6, 2013,  fiery oil train crash in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, making it Canada’s worst railway crash in nearly 150 years. (AP Photo, File)

While some Coal Tattoo readers like to pretend that other nations aren’t doing anything about global warming — and that President Obama is asking Americans to go it alone — Reuters reported this week:

The United States and China, the world’s top emitters of greenhouse gases, agreed to five initiatives on Wednesday to cut carbon output from the largest sources, including heavy duty vehicles, manufacturing and coal-fired plants, the State Department said.

The U.S.-China climate change working group, which officials from both countries formed in April, will work with companies and non-governmental groups to develop plans by October to carry out the measures aimed at fighting climate change and cutting pollution.

The story goes on:

Wednesday’s move builds on an agreement last month by U.S. President Barack Obama and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping to cooperate in phasing out production and consumption of gases used in refrigerants and air conditioners.

The so-called hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, came into wide commercial use to replace ozone-depleting chemicals that are being phased out under the 1987 Montreal Protocol. They make up roughly 2 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, but use of the chemicals is rising at a rate of up to 9 percent a year.

And as Reuters also reported:

Air pollution is shortening the lives of people in northern China by about 5.5 years compared to the south, a disastrous legacy of a policy that provided free coal for heating in the north, an international study shows. Environmental problems are a source of rising social discontent in China; last month Beijing promised new measures to crack down on air pollution, partly by hastening a shift to renewable energy from fossil fuels. The report, by experts in China, the United States and Israel, said a communist policy of giving out free coal everywhere north of the Huai River in central China between 1950 and 1980 meant more heart and lung disease among 500 million people living in the area.

“Life expectancies are about 5.5 years lower in the northowing to an increased incidence of cardio-respiratory mortality,” the researchers wrote in Tuesday’s edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

The State Journal had two other interesting stories. One, by Taylor Kuykendall, described the taxpayer-funded coal-boosting Coal Forum‘s latest event about coal exports:

With tightening domestic markets putting a pinch on the state’s coal industry, officials and industry are looking at markets across the sea for the solution to its decline.

But as Taylor explained:

Jack Porco, president and CCO of Xcoal, a company dealing largely in export coal, said current export challenges include a market that had been oversupplied in anticipation of demand increases.

“We’ve had some good times. … I want to tell you we’re in a challenging moment,” he said. “They’re not challenges we can’t overcome, but there are challenges.”

Porco said current market conditions have more to do with the oversupply of coal than a softening of demand. Demand for coal has steadily increased globally while falling in the U.S.

“The industry has invested about $50 billion worldwide gearing up for what it thought was going to be ever-increasing demand from China,” Porco said. ” … What’s happened is that China’s demand for imported coal has leveled off.”

Strong competition from Australia, where production is ramping up and a weak dollar has influenced price, is also a threat to U.S. coal exports. Adding to that concern, Canada, once considered a small competitor for global coal markets has “come back with a vengeance,” Porco said.

And Pam Kasey had this story about CONSOL’s big new water treatment plant in north-central West Virginia:

In Marion County on July 11, Consol Energy unveiled what may be the future of coal.

Its new Northern West Virginia Water Treatment Plant outside Mannington treats polluted discharges from the company’s Blacksville, Loveridge and Robinson Run mines in Monongalia, Marion and Harrison counties.

The NWVWTP is enabling streams in the Monongahela River watershed to recover from decades of mine discharges. According to the company’s educational video, it will be “an industry benchmark for mine water management.

But before we get too gushy about CONSOL’s actions, let’s also remember, as Pam also explained:

The plant is the result of a March 2011 court settlement. In that settlement, Consol took responsibility for its role in a 2009 golden algae bloom that killed most of the life on 30 miles of Dunkard Creek at the West Virginia-Pennsylvania border.

An investigation determined the fish and mussel kill was caused primarily by wastewater high in total dissolved solids, or TDS — salts, essentially — from coal and coalbed methane production. Consol had been putting salty discharges into Dunkard Creek from its Blacksville #2 and other mines for decades. The state Department of Environmental Protection eventually established water quality standards for chlorides, a component of TDS, and had been engaged with the company since 2002 in a series of actions and negotiations over the company’s failure to meet the resulting permit limits.

For previous coverage of the deal CONSOL made see here, and it’s also worth looking back at this 2009 Sunday Gazette-Mail story, in which we explained:

Since at least 2002, the DEP has listed Dunkard Creek and several tributaries as “biologically impaired.” At least two major coal discharges have consistently violated water quality limits – sometimes discharging five or six times the legal standards – for years.

Environmental groups say that DEP officials have been far from aggressive in trying to remedy the problems.

At least three times in the last decade, the DEP gave CONSOL Energy time extensions to stop violating its permit limits for chloride, a pollutant believed connected to the fish kill.

And earlier this year, the DEP issued a proposed cleanup plan that included no remedy for a growing problem and potential fish-kill culprit: The stream’s high level of conductivity, which is also linked to CONSOL’s discharges.

And here’s a story with an interesting twist about climate change and power plants:

Power plants across the country are at increased risk of temporary shutdown and reduced power generation as temperatures and sea levels continue to rise and water becomes less available, the Department of Energy said Thursday.

By 2030, there will be nearly $1 trillion in energy assets in the Gulf region alone at risk from increasingly costly extreme hurricanes and sea-level rises, according to the Energy Department report on the impact of climate change on energy infrastructure.

And finally, the Guardian published an interesting commentary by the head of Greenpeace Australia:

A mighty political struggle is dividing Australia, but it is not the mêlée taking place in Canberra. It is the battle that pitches the kids on my street: bouncy Jack, serious Cristiana, little toddling Lily and all of their mates, and every other child from across Australia, against a gigantic industry that menaces their future. It is the epic fight that is taking place between the fossil fuel companies and the rest of us.

The politics of climate change is often seen as complicated, but in one sense it is all very simple. On the one side we’ve got those who leading UK analyst Tom Burke calls “the climate makers – the small number of large businesses who produce and burn fossil fuels”. On the other side is everyone else.

In Australia, the arch climate makers are the coal mining companies, with up to 91 coal projects planned for Queensland and New South Wales alone. If they are allowed to proceed, burning the coal from these new projects could add an additional 1.5 bn tonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere each year after 2018.

These are the coal mining companies who care so little about our country that they would wreck the Great Barrier Reef for their trade, and would dig up the fossil fuels that the science tells us is unburnable carbon. They’ve used the money that was meant for developing carbon capture and storage into a promotional slush fund. The head of the Australian Coal Association apparently sees the collapse of Arctic sea ice as worth a joke. These are the realities of the coal industry’s cynicism and contempt.

 It goes on:

Whether we can break the grip of the coal dead hand on our politics is a defining challenge of our time. Climate change is not just another policy issue. Global warming undermines the very foundations of the modern state. Professor James Hansen has described coal as “the single greatest threat to civilisation and all life on our planet”. According to Australia’s own Climate Commission, “[b]urning all fossil fuel reserves would lead to unprecedented changes in climate so severe, that they will challenge the existence of our society as we know it today.”

We already know that the extreme heatwaves and catastrophic bushfire conditions during the angry summer of 2012-13 were made worse by climate change. A nation perpetually reeling from cyclones, floods, fires and droughts, and struggling with food security and mass climate migration in a drastically more unstable world, will find it difficult to prosper. It is hard to see how Australians can hope to become healthier, better educated, more productive, or more content, in a world of climate chaos.

The choice could not be starker. The contrast in visions of the future is clear. If the climate makers win, it means diminished opportunities and reduced horizons for our children and grandchildren. The kids on my street deserve better than what the coal industry has in store for them. All our kids deserve better than that. It is the coal industry against the rest of us.