Coal Tattoo

Other coal news today …

While we in coal country are a little tied up trying to sort out the latest court ruling on mountaintop removal, there’s some other big news out there that’s important to the coalfields.

As The New York Times reports:

The debate on global warming and energy policy accelerated on Tuesday as two senior House Democrats unveiled a far-reaching bill to cap heat-trapping gases and move the country quickly from dependence on coal and oil.

But the bill leaves crucial questions unanswered and as of now has no Republican support. For those reasons, it marks the beginning, not the end, of debate in the current Congress on how to deal with two of President Obama’s top priorities, climate change and energy.

The draft measure, written by Representatives Henry A. Waxman of California and Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts, sets a slightly more ambitious goal for capping greenhouse gases than President Obama’s proposal, requiring a reduction in emissions of 20 percent by 2020 from 2005 levels. President Obama’s plan envisioned a 14 percent reduction by 2020. Both would reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases linked to global warming by roughly 80 percent by 2050.

This legislation is certain to not be popular with the coal industry or with the United Mine Workers of America union.

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Friends of Coal gets religion … well, kinda

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Another  interesting e-mail showed up in my inbox last week from the good folks over at Friends of Coal.

“This issue is critical to our industry as well as all West Virginians as it will raise everyone’s energy costs and use the money for totally unrelated matters and subjects,” the e-mail warned. “It is a ‘smack in the face’ for energy producing states.”

What is this dire problem that needs confronted?

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Byrd wants to slow climate action — again

byrdstop.jpgWest Virginia’s senior U.S. Senator, Robert C. Byrd, is among eight Democrats to join 25 Republicans in a letter that opposes efforts by the Obama administration to slow down consideration of long overdue legislation to deal with the threat of climate change.

I’ve posted a copy of the letter here,  and there’s coverage of this from The Associated Press and The New York Times’ Climate Wire.  (The media reports list a different number of senators, apparently because some signatures were added after those reports were filed. See the different list posted by Climate Wire here).

Byrd and the others are upset about talk by some in the Democratic leadership about using the annual congressional budget debate to pass President Obama’s plan for a “cap-and-trade” plan to reduce greenhouse gas emisisons.

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Why ‘clean coal’ is years away

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I know … I know… lots of Coal Tattoo readers don’t like the term. I’m not sure I do, either. (I’m working on a more thoughtful post on that, so stay tuned) …

But ‘clean coal’ just won’t stay out of the news for even a day. There are a couple of major stories out there today that I wanted to pass along to folks.

First, U.S. News and World Report explains “Why Clean Coal Is Years Away:”

America runs on coal. It’s cheap, plentiful (at least for another 100 years or so), and comfortingly domestic. Two hundred years ago, it powered the industrial revolution. Today, it spits out nearly half of the country’s electricity.

Coal’s problems, however, are getting to be so big and serious that they are not just overshadowing the industry but threatening to render it obsolete.

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Coal and climate change

Andrew Revkin is reporting some pretty scary stuff on his Dot Earth blog from the big climate change meeting in Copenhagen:

Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, the director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany, said that if the buildup of greenhouse gases and its consequences pushed global temperatures 9 degrees Fahrenheit higher than today — well below the upper temperature range that scientists project could occur from global warming — Earth’s population would be devastated.

“In a very cynical way, it’s a triumph for science because at last we have stabilized something –- namely the estimates for the carrying capacity of the planet, namely below 1 billion people,” said Dr. Schellnhuber, who has advised German Chancellor Angela Merkel on climate policy and is a visiting professor at Oxford.

What’s that got to do with coal? Everything.

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What future for FutureGen?

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As The Washington Post reported last week, the once-thought dead FutureGen project — the mother of all “clean coal” initiatives, seen above in what is surely a very optimistic artist’s rendering — appears to be alive and well, thanks to some language inserted into the Obama administration’s stimulus package.

And today, the House Committee on Science and Technology held a hearing on FutureGen. The hearing received a fair amount of media attention, including coverage in from Bloomberg, The New York Times, and The Associated Press.

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There’s also coverage of a separate Senate hearing, in which Energy Secretary Steven “Coal is my worst nightmare” Chu promises to take a “fresh look” at FutureGen and how it might fit into President Obama’s green energy plans.

Most of the coverage focused on testimony from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress.  It its testimony and an accompanying audit report, the GAO described a major error it said led the Bush administration to junk FutureGen back in January 2008.

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What global warming? Well, actually …

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Yeah, yeah … everybody was making with the jokes (or worse) yesterday. Mother Nature had the last laugh, dumping a bunch of snow and some freezing temperatures on activists from around the country who journeyed to Washington, D.C., to protest lack of action on — of all things — global warming. (Lots more about the protest here).

Take Frank Maisano over at Bracewell & Giuliani (who, oddly enough, advocates for both coal-fired power plants and the wind industry). Tucked in his weekly e-mail blast was this remark on Monday’s protest:

Whether it will really have an impact remains to be seen of course, as it seems the snowplows may need to collect them rather than the paddy wagons.

It’s all very funny.

I like a good joke as much as the next guy. But there’s a real danger that this kinda of humor gets perpetuates the lingering myth that global warming and climate change aren’t really something to be that worried about. This climate change science stuff can get pretty complicated. Folks in the media haven’t done a great job explaining it, and it’s very easy to get confused — or to just get it wrong on purpose.

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Why lots of folks are excited about Steve Chu

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Newly confirmed Energy Secretary Steven Chu has gotten a lot of attention in the coalfields for his comments about how a certain fossil fuel is “his worst nightmare.”

But over at Climate Progress, physicist-turned-blogger Joseph Romm had an interesting item the other day the shows why Chu is considered by many folks to be an incredibly refreshing pick to run DOE.

“Finally,” Romm writes, “we have a top administration official telling it like it is.” Then, Romm describes some comments Chu in a Los Angeles Times article:

In a worst case, Chu said, up to 90% of the Sierra snowpack could disappear, all but eliminating a natural storage system for water vital to agriculture.

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Hansen on Coal River Mountain: Go Tell Obama

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For more than 20 years, James E. Hansen has been one of the nation’s preeminent climatologists and a leading voice about the dangers of global climate change. Now, Hansen has weighed in on the growing battle over whether Coal River Mountain should be home to a strip mine or a wind-energy facility.

Earlier this week, Hansen posted a short paper, “Tell President Obama About Coal River Mountain,” on his Web site:

“Coal River Mountain is the site of an absurdity. I learned about Coal River Mountain from students at Virginia Tech last fall. They were concerned about Coal River Mountain, but at that time most of them were working to support Barack Obama. They assumed Barack Obama would not allow such outrages to continue.”

Hansen explains the “absurdity” this way:

The issue at Coal River Mountain is whether the top of the mountain will be blown up, so that coal can be dredged out of it, or whether the mountain will be allowed to stand. It has been shown that more energy can be obtained from a proposed wind farm, if Coal River Mountain continues to stand. More jobs would be created. More tax revenue would flow, locally and to the state, and the revenue flow would continue indefinitely. Clean Water and the environment would be preserved. But if planned mountaintop removal proceeds, the mountain loses its potential to be a useful wind source.

As regular Gazette readers know, Coal River Mountain Watch and other environmental groups are promoting a wind-energy facility as an alternative to Massey Energy’s plans for a mountaintop removal operation. Hansen’s commentary was posted to his website on Tuesday, the same day that 14 people were cited for trespassing in two protests aimed at that particular Massey operation. (Some folks in the coal industry have recently contacted me, questioning the findings of a study that touted the economic impacts of the wind proposal. I plan to look into those complaints, and report back to readers on what I find).

Last June, Hansen told Congress and then the National Press Club that the United States needed to outlaw coal-fired power plants that don’t capture their carbon dioxide emissions by 2030.

In his commentary on Coal River Mountain, Hansen says Obama supporters are already becoming “restive” and that he’s been asked to speak at a variety of actions around the country calling for faster action by the new president to deal with climate change and coal. “I don’t know what to say,” Hansen says. “I feel that more time must be given. But these people are right — the directions that are taken now are important.”

Capito, climate and coal

Rep. Shelley Moore Capito announced today that she’s been named to a key House committee that will play a big role in energy policy and in congressional debates over global warming.

In a press release, West Virginia Republican said she will “bring a coal state perspective” to the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming.

“Our energy future should be at the forefront of the national discussion, and I’m excited to bring a West Virginia voice to those issues as a member of this committee,” Capito said. “From clean coal to wind energy and other alternative technology, our state has an important role to play.”

This particular committee was set up by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in early 2007 “to add urgency and resources to the commitment of this Congress to address the challenges of America’s oil dependence and the threat of global warming” according to the committee Web site

Last year, Capito flunked the League of Conservation Voters annual scorecard of congressional votes on environmental issues. As I wrote when the scorecard was published:

Capito received poor marks in part for her votes with the GOP minority against incentives for wind, solar, plug-in vehicles and other renewable energies. She also voted in favor of opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.

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Welcome to Coal Tattoo …

I’ve lost track of how many blogs there are that deal in some way with the swirling issues and growing controversies surrounding the coal industry. So does the world really need another one?

Well, I sure hope so.

Coal helped to build industrial America, powered our nation through two world wars, and is still an important part of the economy in coalfield communities from West Virginia to Wyoming. And, as industry supporters and their billboards remind us, coal keeps the lights on in about half of all American households.

But the downside of coal becomes more and more apparent each day.

Over the last three years, a string of mine disasters — Sago, Aracoma,  Darby and Crandall Canyon — reminded us of the very real human cost to miners and their families.  Just before this past Christmas, the collapse of the TVA coal-ash dam in Tennessee showed us again that there’s really nothing that clean about coal.

Earlier this week, the New York Times’ blog, Green Inc, observed that it’s been a tough week for coal. Among other things, the Times cited the Air Force’s cancellation of plans for a coal-to-liquids fuel plant in Montana, Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s call for a moratorium on new coal plants, and a $140 million Clean Air Act settlement by utilities in Kentucky. (Closer to home, the Times also noted yesterday’s big protests against Massey Energy, and a new lawsuit over contaminated drinking water supplies).

But with a few exceptions, most of the blogging out there about coal comes from either the industry’s most vocal opponents (see Coal is Dirty or the Front Porch) or from coal industry boosters such as Behind the Plug.

So maybe it’s time for one of the few daily newspapers in the country that still covers the coal industry on a regular basis to get into the game, to take the leap into the blogosphere.

We’ll still be doing plenty of coal stories in the daily print edition, as well as longer projects on the industry in the Sunday edition. But the blog format will allow the Gazette to get information out more quickly, and to help foster the growing national — really, international — discussion about the future of coal.

With that in mind, one thing that I want to note is that it seems that there are really two separate discussions going on about coal.

One of them is out there in the broader world. Scientists, policymakers and even investors are becoming more and more convinced that the downsides of coal have to be addressed. One way or the other, coal-fired power’s contribution to global warming must be dealt with. To these folks, the question is: Can coal have a place in our energy mix in a carbon-constrained world?

The other discussion is happening here in West Virginia, and in other coal communities. Locally, the issues are different, and in many ways much more emotional. It’s a battle between families who rely on coal to put food on their tables and send their kids to college, and folks who live near coal mines and are tired of blasting, dust, and water pollution. To these folks, the questions are: How can we protect coal’s future or how can we shut down mountaintop removal?

These two discussions are starting to intersect a little bit. Activists who don’t like mountaintop removal are talking more and more about climate change. But there’s still a huge disconnect between the way the broader world talks about coal and the way we here in the coalfields do.

Perhaps the scientists and activists who understand what coal burning is doing to our climate should try to understand a little more about how a third-generation coal miner in Eastern Kentucky feels. And maybe that coal miner should be a little more open to hearing what the world would be like if we don’t do something about rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  Most importantly, maybe the policymakers in Washington need to understand what the economic impact of climate change regulations is going to be on places like West Virginia and Wyoming. And maybe politicians and government officials in places like Charleston, W.Va., need to come to terms with the fact that change is coming to this industry.

I hope this blog contributes a little bit to helping these discussions along. I welcome thoughts, comments, suggestions and criticisms on how to get this job done.