Coal Tattoo

Still more about Benjamin


As the controversy grew for months over West Virginia Supreme Court Chief Justice Brent Benjamin not recusing himself from a major Massey Energy case before the court, Benjamin has been pretty quiet about the whole thing. Citing judicial ethics rules, Benjamin has consistently declined to comment.

But the court’s PR staff certainly hasn’t. They’ve sent out letters to the editor defending Benjamin and urged reporters to quote liberally from the opinion in which the chief justice took 40 pages to explain why he didn’t have a conflict of interest hearing a case involving Don Blankenship’s company.

Then Monday, on the eve of the big U.S. Supreme Court oral argument in the case, the Supreme Court’s PR staff sent out a press release they said summarized Benjamain’s “dispositive voting record” in cases involving Massey or its subsidiaries.

[UPDATED — Transcript of the U.S. Supreme Court argument is available here.]

Based on this list, the press release concludes:

Overall, Chief Justice Benjamin voted against the interests of Massey Energy or its subsidiary 81.6% of the time. Most of these votes occurred before the Caperton v. Massey Energy case was decided, and involve votes in cases which were decided by unanimous and non-unanimous votes of the Court. (Of course, in the rehearing of the Caperton case, Chief Justice Benjamin appointed two of the acting Justices after the recusal of Justices Maynard and Starcher and those two circuit judges split their decision, one voting for Massey and one voting against Massey.) According to information which was in the file or which was referenced in local news reports, all votes by Chief Justice Benjamin represented votes against the financial interests of Massey Energy of approximately $317 million.

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Obama, Manchin and coal


(President Barack Obama talks with W.Va. Gov. Joe Manchin following a White House dinner with the nation’s governors. AP photo)

The Associated Press had a story the other day about a letter that the governors of Colorado, Utah and Wyoming sent to President Barack Obama, urging the president to fund development of so-called “clean coal” projects in western coal states.

It struck me as a little odd, because West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin is buddies with Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal, and the pair have worked together before on coal issues that affect the two states. But Manchin wasn’t part of this letter to Obama.

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Coal production to dip, then rebound

Coal production is expected to fall by 4.4 percent in 2009, and then increase by 2.5 percent in 2010, according to new reports from the U.S. Department of Energy.


CONSOL, Massey named to “Climate Watch list”

Two major coal operators have been named to a “Climate Watch List” of companies that are lagging behind their industry peers in responding to the business challenges presented by global climate change.

CONSOL Energy and Massey Energy were included in the list issued by CERES, a coalition of investors and environmental groups.

“These climate watch companies are ignoring a major business trend that will influence their competitive position for years to come,” said Mindy S. Lubber, president of CERES. “Given the political shift in Washington, all companies should be minimizing climate risks and maximizing clean energy opportunities. Companies that miss this trend are setting themselves up to fail in the 21st century low-carbon economy.”

Here’s what the watch list had to say about CONSOL:

Given that coal combustion accounts for about one-third of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the U.S. and given the growing regulatory momentum to reduce emissions from power plants, the New York City Pension Funds filed a resolution with the Pittsburgh-based company requesting a report on how the company is responding to growing regulatory and competitive pressure to significantly reduce GHG emissions. CONSOL is the nation’s largest bituminous coal producer.

And here’s what it said about Massey:

The Virginia-based coal company continues to resist shareholder resolutions requesting the company to develop and disclose a strategy for responding to climate change. Thirty percent of shareholders voted in favor of the resolution last year. Given that coal combustion accounts for about one-third of all GHG emissions in the U.S., the New York City Pension Funds filed a resolution, for the third consecutive year, requesting a report on how the company is responding to growing regulatory and competitive pressure to reduce GHG emissions. Massey is the nation’s 4th largest coal producer.


Coal industry officials and their supporters are understandably pleased with last week’s big ruling by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. But the company whose permits were at direct issue in the case — Massey Energy — doesn’t seem to really have thought the lower court injunction was that bad after all.

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Coal Symposium starts today

Gov. Joe Manchin and Rep. Shelley Moore Capito are among the features speakers at the 36th Annual West Virginia Mining Symposium, being held over at the Charleston Civic Center.

The event gets started today, with sessions on mine safety and environment. The event continues Thursday and Friday.

Peak Coal?

We’ve heard a lot about “peak oil” in the last few years, but coal industry officials and their supporters are always quick to tell us we have hundreds of years of coal left in the ground.

But now, some researchers are starting to strongly question this assumption.

I first wrote about this issue in June 2007, when the National Research Council published a report which warned that federal policymakers did not have accurate estimates of the amount, location and quality of mineable coal:

It is clear that there is enough coal at current rates of production to meet anticipated needs through 2030, and probably enough for 100 years.  However, it is not possible to confirm the often-quoted assertion that there is a sufficient supply for the next 250 years.

More recently, Joe Romm’s Climate Progress blog made me aware of a U.S. Geological Survey study which  warned that all was not well in Powder River Basin of Wyoming, the nation’s most productive coalfield:

The total original coal resource in the Gillette coalfield for all eleven coal beds assessed, and no restrictions applied, was calculated to be 201 billion short tons. Available coal resources, which are part of the original coal resource that is accessible for potential mine development after subtracting all restrictions, are about 164 billion short tons (81 percent of the original coal resource).

Recoverable coal, which is the portion of available coal remaining after subtracting mining and processing losses, was determined for a stripping ratio of 10:1 or less. After mining and processing losses were subtracted, a total of 77 billion short tons of coal were calculated (48 percent of the original coal resource).

Coal reserves are the portion of the recoverable coal that can be mined, processed, and marketed at a profit at the time of the economic evaluation. With a discounted cash flow at 8 percent rate of return, the coal reserves estimate for the Gillette coalfield is10.1 billion short tons of coal (6 percent of the original resource total) for the 6 coal beds evaluated.

Then today, the group Clean Energy Action has issued a report further questioning the oft-cited optimistic estimates of the nation’s existing coal reserves.

“Americans often assert that there is a ‘200-year supply’ of coal in the United States, but the truth is almost no one has ever investigated the claim,” says the report’s author, Leslie Glustrom, a member of the Colorado-based group. Among the findings:

It appears that rather than having a “200-year-supply of coal”, the United States has a much shorter planning horizon for moving beyond coal-fired power plants. Depending on the resolution of geologic, economic, legal and transportation constraints facing future coal mine expansion, the planning horizon for moving beyond coal could be as short as 20-30 years.

Read more discussion of this at Climate Progress, and  thanks to Tom Rodd and his Appalachian Coalfields Climate Change Forum, for bringing the new study to my attention.

Money for nothing?


My colleague Alison Knezevich reported in today’s Sunday Gazette-Mail about a study by the West Virginia Center for Budget and Policy that found our state government has given taxpayer-funded subsidies to companies that later cut jobs.

The study, cites only a few examples. But in my experience trying to find out where government economic development money went, I’ve learned that state officials from both political parties are very secretive about these matters. Even when they’re not, state officials have a hard time putting numbers together that show which incentive programs are working and which aren’t — let alone which specific deals worked and which didn’t.

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