Coal Tattoo

Contract vote a relief for UMWA, Murray Energy

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The news Friday evening was certainly welcome for both the United Mine Workers of America union and Murray Energy:

Rank-and-file members of the United Mine Workers of America voted Friday to approve a proposal for a new contract with the Bituminous Coal Operators Association, whose major member company is Murray Energy.

According a statement issued by the UMW, 60.3 percent voted in favor of the new collective bargaining agreement at six Murray Energy mines in West Virginia and Ohio.

As our story noted:

Murray has previously warned that finalizing a new contract with the UMW is a crucial part of his company’s plan to avoid financial default, and has hinted that without a deal he might consider bankruptcy court protection.

While the UMWA membership earlier this summer voted down an earlier contract proposal, the last thing union leaders want is to face a Murray Energy bankruptcy that would certainly not help their current battle to preserve union pensions and health-care benefits.

UMWA President Cecil Roberts said:

This was a tough vote for our members to take. The coal industry is in a depression and more than 50 companies have filed for bankruptcy in the last few years. Thousands have been laid off. The pressures on those who are still working are tremendous and growing.

But despite all that, our members took a courageous stand by voting to try to keep their company operating while maintaining the best wages, benefits and working conditions in the American coal industry.

And Murray CEO Bob Murray said:

This is a good day for Murray American’s UMWA-represented employees, as this agreement will go a long way toward ensuring that our coal mines can keep operating, and our employees working, even in the current depressed coal marketplace.

18 miners trapped in Turkish coal mine

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Turkey Mine Collapse

Rescue workers use pipes to pump water out of the mine after underground waters flooded a section of a coal mine in the town of Ermenek, some 500 kilometers (300 miles) south of Ankara, close to Turkey’s Mediterranean coast, Tuesday, Oct. 28, 2014. At least 18 workers were trapped inside, officials and reports said _ an event likely to raise even more concerns about the nation’s poor workplace safety standards. In May, a fire inside a coal mine in the western town of Soma killed 301 miners in Turkey’s worst mining disaster. The fire exposed poor safety standards and superficial government inspections in many of the country’s mines.(AP Photo/IHA)

Here’s the latest from The Associated Press:

Underground waters flooded a section of a coal mine in southern Turkey on Tuesday, trapping at least 18 workers, officials and reports said — an event likely to raise even more concerns about the nation’s poor workplace safety standards.

Initial reports said flooding inside the Has Sekerler mine near the town of Ermenek in Karaman province caused a cave-in, but subsequent reports said the workers were trapped by the surging waters. It was not immediately clear what caused the flooding.

Gov. Murat Koca said about 20 other workers escaped or were rescued from the mine, some 500 kilometers (300 miles) south of Ankara, close to Turkey’s Mediterranean coast

Sahin Uyar, an official at the privately owned coal mine, told private NTV television that the miners were stuck more than 300 meters (330 yards) underground.

“At the moment, 18 of our colleagues are trapped. We are working to pump water out from three sections of the mine,” he told NTV, adding that rescue crews had made no contact with the miners.

Uyar said the trapped workers’ chances of survival were slim unless they had managed to reach a safety gallery.

Turkey’s ministers for energy and transportation immediately left Ankara, the capital, to oversee the rescue operation.

In May, a fire inside a coal mine in the western town of Soma killed 301 miners in Turkey’s worst mining disaster. The fire exposed poor safety standards and superficial government inspections in many of the country’s mines.

Thursday roundup, July 3, 2014

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Climate Rules Arkansas

In this   June 2, 2014, file photo, a coal train stops near White Bluff power plant near Redfield, Ark. The Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality and state Public Service Commission called a meeting Wednesday, June 25, 2014, to discuss coming rules being imposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston, File)

Earlier this week, Jim Efstathiou Jr. and Mario Parker at Bloomberg produced an important story headlined Vanishing coal jobs weigh on U.S.-backed pension plans, in which they report:

After mining coal for almost 40 years, Robert Schultz hoped his pension would let him and his wife spend more time at the beach in retirement.

Then Schultz, a fifth-generation coal miner who retired about six years ago, got a letter from the U.S. Labor Department telling him that his pension was in financial trouble and benefits may need to be cut.

“We’re talking about people not getting what they need,” said Schultz, 61, of Boone County, West Virginia.

A surge in overseas demand that has raised coal’s outlook in the short run hasn’t stemmed long-run job losses, which could worsen with proposed U.S. limits on power-plant emissions. Competition from non-union operators has made matters worse, cutting employer contributions to the main pension plan for union miners and drawing a “seriously endangered” rating from pension regulators, raising the prospect of a government rescue.

The United Mine Workers of America plan, along with the fund for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, dominate the pool of underfunded plans. Should either fail, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., the government-run agency that backs employee pension plans, may be forced to step in, according to Randy Defrehn, executive director of the National Coordinating Committee of Multiemployer Plans, a group that advocates for pension operators.

“At that point you’d have several hundred thousand pensioners whose benefits just go away and I can’t imagine that they won’t be knocking at Congress’s door,” Defrehn said. Congress is already reviewing legislation to help pension plans.

We’ve reported on these issues before here and here, but this Bloomberg piece has some pretty interesting details. For example:

The pension plan for union miners had about $5.8 billion in liabilities in 2012 and was only 71.2 percent funded at the end of 2013, according to Labor Department filings  … “Instead of there being hundreds or thousands of contributing employers, they’re down to a handful now,” Defrehn, a former administrator at the coal miners’ pension, said in an interview. “That means that this plan is not in great shape…It sounds like the last nails are about to be hammered into the coffin.” 

Another Bloomberg piece, by the way, makes the point that EPA doesn’t kill coal jobs, better mining does:

The U.S. has lost more coal jobs since 1978 than it has today, and climate policy isn’t the reason. There wasn’t any. Coal companies are in the business of producing coal, not jobs. Between 1978, when the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration started collecting data, and 2013, the U.S. shed more than 132,000 coal jobs, or nearly 52 percent of its workforce, according to MSHA data.

In the same period, U.S. coal production jumped almost 47 percent, to about 984 million short tons last year, 16 percent below its 2008 peak.

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Friday roundup, May 23, 2014

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Turkey Mining Disaster

Two young girls pray at the cemetery in the coal miners’ town of Soma, Turkey, Sunday, May 18, 2014. Eighteen people, including mining company executives, have been detained as Turkish officials investigate the mining disaster that killed 301 people, a domestic news agency reported Sunday. (AP Photo/Emre Tazegul)

Here’s some of the latest news from Turkey:

As Turkish mines and safety codes come under the spotlight after the May 13 Soma disaster, which claimed 301 lives, miners around the country are also suffering in illegal mines that put thousands of lives at risk every day.

Illegal coal mines, where some unregistered businesses make money due to the low prices they can offer, are quite frequent in the Black Sea province of Zonguldak. Women, even children aged 15 or 16 work in the primitive facilities, where conditions are much worse than those of 9,500 working at Turkish Hard Coal Authority (TTK) facilities or 4,500 others at private mines in the region.


A total of 114 people have been killed in accidents at these illegal mines since 1992.

There was also this interesting article in The New Yorker:

Coal is Turkey’s most exploited indigenous source of energy. Since Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (A.K.P.) first came into power, in 2002, it has been a cornerstone of their breakneck development. Umud Dalgıç, a sociologist with the Heinrich Boll Foundation, in Istanbul, said that the government sees coal as “essential for the growth of the country.” Coal, he argued, has come to symbolize the A.K.P.’s relationship with “average” Turks—whether that be miners who have found jobs in places like Soma and Kozlu, or poorer citizens who need cheap fuel to heat their homes. Working-class voters, like the miners, are essential to the popularity of Erdoğan and the A.K.P. During campaigns, Dalgıç added, some A.K.P. politicians have been known to hand out coal to the party’s supporters, along with food staples.

In Istanbul, protesters gathered in front of the offices of Soma Holding, and on Wednesday night, large crowds flocked to Taksim Square, animated by the same discontent that fuelled last summer’s protests in Gezi Park—anger at rapid development, at corruption in the government’s dealings with corporations, and at its apparent disregard for the well-being of Turkish citizens. But Istanbul can often feel far removed from the rest of the country, and even larger tragedies, like the earthquake that struck eastern Turkey in 2011, may quickly fade from memory here. With a few months remaining before presidential elections, the A.K.P. will be hoping that this disaster is quickly forgotten.

Turkey Mining Disaster

Several hundred members of the Union of Turkish Youth wear miner’s helmets during a march to commemorate the Soma coal mine victims, in Amasya, Turkey, Sunday, May 18, 2014. Eighteen people, including mining company executives, have been detained as Turkish officials investigate the mining disaster that killed 301 people, a domestic news agency reported Sunday. (AP Photo/Emre Tazegul)

“Today, I can see people asking, ‘Why do we need coal?’” said Gürbüz, the renewable-energy expert. “But the main problem—and this isn’t only for Turkey—is the relationship between electricity and the way it’s generated. Everybody’s angry when they see pictures of nature being destroyed, but they don’t see the correlation, the relationship between the electricity they consume in their houses and coal mines. This is not just in Turkey, this is everywhere.”


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Friday roundup, May 16, 2014

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Turkey Mining Accident

A relative of a victim of the mine accident weeps next to the grave of her loved one, in Soma, Turkey, Friday, May 16, 2014. An explosion and fire at a coal mine in Soma, some 250 kilometers (155 miles) south of Istanbul, killed hundreds of workers, authorities said, in one of the worst mining disasters in Turkish history. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

The terrible news continues to flow out of the coalfields of Turkey. Here’s the latest today from The New York Times:

SOMA, Turkey — As grieving families prepared to bury more of the dead from Turkey’s worst mine disaster, the country’s energy minister said on Friday that up to 18 people were still missing and that the death toll could exceed 300.

An explosion on Tuesday in a coal mine near Soma, a town in western Turkey, ignited a blaze producing noxious fumes that choked hundreds of miners to death as they were changing shifts. By Friday, the death toll stood at 284, but the energy minister, Taner Yildiz, said in televised remarks to reporters that the final count was unlikely to be more than 302.

 And surely this sounds familiar to folks who have followed recent mining and other industrial disasters in the U.S.:

A four-year-old report that clearly warns of the life-threatening risks in the Soma mine has revealed the tragedy of the workers who were killed in the Soma mine was blatantly not “a usual incident in the mining sector.”

The “Work Accidents in Mines” report prepared by the Chamber of Architects and Engineers’ (TMMOB) in 2010 gave notice of the dangers in the mine, warned against the potential disasters and set out solution suggestions.

However, none of the issues pointed to were heeded, heading for an inevitable fall.

The 152-page report says the coal at the Soma basin has a high level of methane, which makes the mine intolerant to any mistakes.

“No production should be made before the necessary research has been completed. Carrying out production with the lack of experience might lead to disaster,” the report warns.

The report draws attention to the lack of any alternative routes for breathing or escaping, which made the rescue of the workers almost impossible in case of an accident.

“The ventilation in the mine pit is adversely affected since workers can’t be evacuated from the mine urgently and safely,” says the report that explains the dangers in details.

Also this week, U.S. News and World Report had an extended report on mine safety and how these sorts of deaths and disasters simply don’t have to be happening:

Daniel Lambka was a 20-year-old graduate of Southern High School who loved deer hunting and mudding aboard his dirt bike. Arthur “D.J.” Gelentser, 24, “an avid outdoorsman,” also played basketball and performed with his church’s drama team. Timothy Memmer, 41, was a union millwright who would “ride his Harley whenever he could.” And Eric Legg, 48, and Gary Hensley, 46, hunted and fished in the hills of West Virginia.

Together, they are the first five fatal victims of coal mining accidents this year. Legg and Hensley, claimed inside Brody Mine No. 1 in West Virginia, were the most recent: trapped and killed when the roof of the mine tumbled onto them as they performed an especially risky mining procedure Monday night.

“We express our deepest sympathies to Eric’s and Gary’s families, friends and co-workers,” said Patriot Coal executive vice president Mike Day in a statement. “We are fully cooperating with state and federal mine regulatory agencies to investigate this incident.”

Yet Legg and Hensley’s deaths – and those of countless others – could have been avoided, experts say. 

“We have not come up with any new ways to kill coal miners,” says Celeste Monforton, a mine safety researcher and advocate who worked at the Mine Safety and Health Administration. “These are things that we’ve known for a long time and we know how to prevent them.”

Turkey Mining Accident

Miners wait near the mine in Soma, western Turkey, in Soma, Turkey, Friday, May 16, 2014. An explosion and fire at a coal mine in Soma, some 250 kilometers (155 miles) south of Istanbul, killed hundreds of workers, authorities said, in one of the worst mining disasters in Turkish history. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

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Turkey Mining Accident

The rows of open graves for the mine accident victims in Soma, Turkey, Wednesday, May 14, 2014. Rescuers desperately raced against time to reach more than 200 miners trapped underground Wednesday after an explosion and fire at a coal mine killed at least 200 workers, Energy Minister Taner Yildiz said Wednesday.(AP Photo/Emre Tazegul)

A lot of the coverage you see in U.S. news media this morning of the horrible mining explosion and fire  in the coalfields of Turkey has focused, perhaps understandably, on the protests that have erupted in the aftermath of this unspeakable disaster. Here’s USA Today, for example:

APTOPIX Turkey Mining AccidentProtests erupted across the country and angry relatives of the nearly 300 victims of a mine disaster booed Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he visited the mine and told them that mine accidents are “usual things.”

In the capital Ankara, police used tear gas and water cannon to disperse a group of students who tried to march on the Energy Ministry in protest of poor mine safety. Protests also broke out in front of the offices of the mining company, Soma Holding, in Soma and near Taksim Square in Istanbul – the center of anti-government protests last year.

And here’s The New York Times:

As the death toll from Turkey’s worst mining accident rose on Thursday, labor leaders called for a one-day strike, adding to the growing political challenges facing the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan over its handling of the disaster.

Demonstrations broke out on Wednesday in Ankara, the capital, and in Istanbul, as public displeasure surfaced. Rescue workers, meanwhile, struggled to locate scores of coal miners still unaccounted for after an explosion ignited underground fires a day earlier. Late on Wednesday, the official death toll was put at 274 but it increased to 282 on Thursday when eight more bodies were recovered.

Other coverage has focused on the desperate search for survivors, as this BBC account did:

As ambulances took away an increasing number of bodies, some of the bereaved wailed uncontrollably and were carried away by their families.

Nearly 450 workers have been rescued, according to the mine operator. However, no survivors have been found in the last few hours.

Mr Erdogan said 80 of those rescued had been treated for injuries, none of which were serious. Nineteen of these had already been discharged from hospital.

The BBC’s James Reynolds in Soma says family members of missing miners are gathered at the hospital. They told him they would not move from there until they got information about their loved ones.

Of course, then there’s the political reaction from Turkey:

Recep Tayyip ErdoganOpponents blamed Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s (right)  government for privatizing the country’s mines and ignoring repeated warnings about their safety.

“We as a nation of 77 million are experiencing a very great pain,” Erdogan told a news conference after visiting the site. But he appeared to turn defensive when asked whether sufficient precautions had been in place at the mine.

Explosions like this in these mines happen all the time. It’s not like these don’t happen elsewhere in the world,” he said, reeling off a list of global mining accidents since 1862.

If that doesn’t sound familiar, you’ve forgotten what Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said not so long ago, after two West Virginia miners were killed in separate — but entirely preventable  (see here and here) — accidents on the same day:

Today, four families were shaken by the unexpected but always present danger associated with mining. While we strive to ensure the safety of our coal miners, accidents do occur. Joanne and I pray for the miners and their families. We ask all West Virginians to do the same.

But as I read these accounts, all that I can really focus on is how needless all of this death and suffering really is. As we mentioned yesterday, coal-mining disasters are preventable. We’ve known for decades what causes them and what steps can be taken to stop them from happening. Even the slow horror of one-by-one coal-mining deaths in roof falls or machinery accidents can be prevented.  So why don’t we put an end to coal-mining deaths and disasters?

Over at NPR, Howard Berkes spent some time on that question, in a piece headlined Past Disasters Haunt Modern-Day Coal Mining Accidents.

Talking with long time mine safety expert and advocate Davitt McAteer, Howard’s piece explains how the Turkish disaster may have began with the sort of electrical system problem that is relatively easy to avoid, even in underground coal mines. And, McAteer explains, the death toll in Turkey is almost certain far worse than it needed to be, because the blast occurred at shift change when — because of the operators’ desire not to shut down equipment during that process — twice as many workers were underground as might otherwise have been. Commenting on that practice, McAteer told Howard:

It enhances productivity by keeping the production in operation, but what it does is double the number of people at risk.

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Turkey Mining Accident

Family members cry as they wait outside the mine in Soma, western Turkey, Wednesday, May 14, 2014. (AP Photo/Berza Simsek)

Maybe folks in West Virginia’s coalfields should be glad they’re not in Turkey, where the news is just unbelievably horrible:

Rescuers here battled on Wednesday to reach miners trapped underground after more than 200 were killed in one of the worst mining disasters in Turkey in decades. Despite the extensive rescue operation, a senior official said hopes of finding survivors were “dimming.”

The authorities said that the death toll had risen to 232 by mid-afternoon, the Associated Press reported.

More than 200 were thought to be still underground after an explosion in a power distribution unit on Tuesday set off a fire that was still burning on Wednesday. The official casualty toll was put at 205 dead and 80 injured — the highest for such a disaster since 263 workers died in a gas explosion at a mine near Zonguldak on the Black Sea in 1992.

“We are worried that this death toll will rise,” the energy minister, Taner Yildiz, told reporters at this mining town some 75 miles northeast of the Aegean port of Izmir. “I have to say that our hopes are dimming in terms of the rescue efforts.”

“We are dealing with an incident that might result with the highest worker loss ever in Turkey,” Mr. Yildiz said, according to Turkish news reports. “We still want to hope that miners have found small caves to hide in to breathe and survive.”

Of course, coal-mining disasters are preventable, even in Turkey, as one recent study concluded:

In summary, the cause and type of occupational fatality in the Turkish coal-mining industry suggests that many deaths could be prevented through the use of modern mining equipment as well as through tighter enforcement and regulation in the non-public mining sector.

Here in West Virginia, our mining industry likes to brag about how technologically advanced it is, while often bucking and delaying and picking away at any sort of rule that would mandate better life-saving equipment in our mines. And while the industry and political leaders talk a lot about how important mine safety is, we still see companies employing incredibly dangerous practices like the one that was going on Monday night when miners Eric Legg and Gary Hensley were killed at Patriot Coal’s Brody No. 1 Mine in Boone County:

The miners were performing “retreat mining” — in which workers back out of the mine, removing coal pillars that were left to hold up the roof — when pressures from the ground above the mine caused a sudden release of coal and rock material from the mine roof or wall, according to preliminary accounts from federal and state regulators and the company … An outburst, or a “bump,” is a sudden release of the roof, wall or even floor rock into an open area of the mine. Outbursts are different from roof falls. A roof fall is just what it sounds like: pieces of roof rock come apart and fall. Outbursts occur because of pressure pushing down onto the mine roof or wall, as opposed to the roof or wall simply falling down …

Various studies have found that coal outbursts or bumps can be especially hard to prevent. But, the studies over many years have also shown, they are not natural occurrences and can be avoided or the risk reduced with proper mine planning and compliance with that planning. “Inadequate mine planning or incorrect design can increase the occurrence of bumps in underground coal mines,” says one 1991 report by the U.S. Bureau of Mines.

Kentucky attorney Tony Oppegard, a former MSHA staffer and longtime mine safety advocate, said that retreat mining or “pulling pillars” is “the most dangerous type of mining.”

“Compliance with the pillar removal plan is essential,” Oppegard said. “The plan must be followed religiously because even the slightest deviation can have devastating consequences. In almost every retreat mining fatality that I’m aware of, failure to comply with the pillar plan was the cause of the accident.”

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Friday roundup, Jan. 3, 2014

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Clean Coal Conundrum

In this Oct. 21, 2013, photo, an earth mover, and a dump truck move through the open lignite pit at Liberty Mine adjacent to the Mississippi Power’s Kemper County energy facility in central Mississippi near DeKalb. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

As I continue to catch up on things after the holidays, this roundup will run through some stories that we missed over the last two weeks. First, it’s worth taking a look at this piece from Darren Epps at SNL Financial, which provides his version of the top coal-related stories of the year we’ve just ended.

Just before Christmas, my friend Jim Bruggers over at the Courier-Journal in Louisville had a big take-out piece about the failure of the Obama administration (those “war on coal” folks) to live up to their promises of improving the regulation of toxic coal ash from the nation’s power plants. Jim wrote:

Witnesses still recall with horror the sights, sounds and smells of the Tennessee Valley Authority’s power plant disaster here five years ago, when a mountain of toxic coal ash broke loose in the middle of a frozen night to bury hundreds of acres and devastate a community.

“It was not a spill,” said Roane County resident Steve Scarborough. “It was a geologic event. People that lived right there looked out their windows and saw a forest moving by.”

coal-sludge-image2Miraculously, nobody was injured when 5.4 million cubic yards of piled, sodden ash broke loose on Dec. 22, 2008. But the slide, which destroyed three homes, damaged dozens of others, and poured into two tributaries of the Tennessee River, has required a $1 billion cleanup, with $200 million more to go … 

… The catastrophic slide also sparked a national debate that’s still unresolved over how to manage one of the nation’s largest sources of industrial waste — which contains arsenic, lead, mercury and other metals that can contaminate groundwater, lakes and rivers, and cause cancer and other health and environmental problems.

After the Kingston disaster, newly appointed Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson, who has since left her post, promised the nation’s first federal regulations to ensure environmentally safe and structurally sound coal-burning waste storage.But, so far, the EPA has failed to enact a single regulation — even as the agency has documented an increasing number of ash sites that have polluted the environment.

The story continues:

Before the TVA disaster, EPA didn’t even know for sure how many ash landfills and ash ponds existed. It counted 618 landfills and ponds in 2000, but after the spill, a detailed survey found more than 1,000 ponds and 437 landfills containing coal ash.

“Kingston was a watershed event that should have brought quick federal controls on the disposal of this waste,” said Lisa Evans, a Boston attorney with Earthjustice. “Instead, it brought on widespread paralysis at the EPA and within the (Obama) administration. It’s as if Hurricane Katrina happened, and they didn’t fix the levees.”


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Friday roundup, Dec. 20, 2013

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China Mine Explosion

In this Friday, Dec. 13, 2013 photo released by China’s Xinhua News Agency, miners wait at the entrance to the Baiyanggou coal mine after a gas explosion occurred, in Xinjiang region’s Changji prefecture, western China. An official at the Xinjiang region’s work safety bureau said Saturday, Dec. 14, 2013 that 21 miners were confirmed dead and another one who had been trapped was injured. (AP Photo/Xinhua, Zhao Ge)

Climate Progress had an interesting post this week called What A Year: 45 Fossil Fuel Disasters The Industry Doesn’t Want You To Know About, that included several incidents from the coal industry such as:

February 11 An explosion in a coal mine in northern Russia kills at least 17 miners in a shaft saturated with methane gas. Rescue workers said 23 people had been in the shaft at the time. The blast occurred about 2,500 feet underground.

February 13: Very large landslide hits a colliery in Northern England. No injuries, but Dave Petley, a geology professor at Durham University, said it “may well be the largest and most significant landslide in the UK for a decade or more.”

February 14: A landslide hits the Phillippines’ largest open coal mining pit, burying at least 13 workers and killing at least 7. The accident was the third to occur in mining sites in the country over the last six months.

February 19: A large rock cliff collapses on top of a coal mine in southern China, burying and killing five people, including two children. An estimated 5,000 cubic metres of rock fell on Yudong village in Kaili, in the country’s Guizhou province.

March 29 and April 1: The Babao Coal mine explosions kill 53 people in China. The coal mine company responsible, Tonghua Mining (Group) Co. Ltd., was later found to have concealed the death toll in the incidents, additionally concealing deaths of six workers in five accidents in 2012.

Meanwhile, the Christian Science Monitor had this interesting and important story:

Environmentalists fear that approval for one of the world’s largest coal ports and an associated dredging operation to create a ‘shipping super-highway’ will cause severe damage to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

The reef, which stretches 1,400 miles along Australia’s east coast – roughly equivalent to the distance between New York City and Havana, Cuba – is the source of frequent tension between conservationists and business interests.

This week Australia approved the expansion of an existing coal port at Abbot Point near the town of Bowen in northern Queensland to handle projected exports from the Galilee Basin, an inland geological depression thought to hold vast coal reserves but where development has been hampered by lack of export infrastructure.


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‘Coal in its current form is simply unsustainable’

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The latest projections from the International Energy Agency are out this morning, and here’s how they read:

Tougher Chinese policies aimed at reducing dependency on coal will help restrain global coal demand growth over the next five years, the International Energy Agency (IEA) says in its annual Medium-Term Coal Market Report released today. Despite the slightly slower pace of growth, however, coal will meet more of the increase in global primary energy than oil or gas – continuing a trend that has been in place for more than a decade.

Coal industry supporters will love this quote from IEA Director Maria van der Hoeven said:

Like it or not, coal is here to stay for a long time to come. Coal is abundant and geopolitically secure, and coal-fired plants are easily integrated into existing power systems. With advantages like these, it is easy to see why coal demand continues to grow.

Those coal supporters — especially those who oppose any efforts to do anything about coal’s carbon footprint — need to read on, because van der Hoeven also said:

But it is equally important to emphasise that coal in its current form is simply unsustainable.

Check out the prepared remarks here, because there’s more:

There is no denying the controversial reality of coal, and its dominance of power generation worldwide. No fuel draws the same ire, particularly for its polluting qualities both locally and in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. And yet no fuel is as responsible for powering the economic growth that has pulled billions out of poverty in the past decades. As we look to the long term, we must ask what role coal has to play in the energy mix that we want to achieve – because there will be a role. But without mitigating the polluting effects of coal, pursuing business as usual will have enormous and tragic consequences.

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Friday roundup, Dec. 13, 2013

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APTOPIX China Shanghai Pollution

The skyline of the Lujiazui Financial District with the high-rise buildings is covered with heavy smog in Pudong in Shanghai, China, Monday, Dec. 9, 2013. The dirty air that has gripped Shanghai and its neighboring provinces for days is attributed to coal burning, car exhaust, factory pollution and weather patterns, and is a stark reminder that pollution is a serious challenge in China. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)

This week ended with some tragic news from the coalfields of China, as reported by Reuters:

A blast at a coal mine in China’s far-west Xinjiang province killed 21 people on Friday, state agency Xinhua said.

The gas explosion initially trapped 34 workers at the Baiyanggou coal mine. Thirteen were rescued by Friday afternoon while the rest had died, the agency said, adding that investigations were under way.

Although the toll from accidents has fallen, China’s coal mines are the deadliest in the world because of poor safety and the rush to feed energy demand from the world’s second-largest economy.

In other news and commentary this week, there was an item on The Thoughtful Coal Miner blog that looked back on another forgotten coal-mining disaster, the Dec. 7, 1992, explosion at Southmountain No. 3:

Following the explosion, a great deal of controversy arose around whether state and federal mine inspectors had done their jobs, especially with regard to whether or not inspectors had  been physically going into the mine to inspect mine ventilation, safety equipment, coal dust accumulation, and rock dust application. I had always heard rumors that inspectors would just sit out in the office trailer of the mine site, shooting the breeze with mine managers, and in some cases, even accepting “gifts” from small coal company operators. 

For once, it appeared that the defunct system of mine safety regulation would be seen for what it truly was, and, maybe, just maybe, the system would be fixed. With the idea that many mine inspectors and mine officials were facing time in prison due to their failures to uphold mine safety laws, many people speculated that they scrambled to find ways to clear their names, or at least lessen the backlash they would receive for their failures to protect the lives of eight men–men whose families would never recover from the loss of their loved ones.

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Friday roundup, Dec. 6, 2013

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Cold Day

Trees dominate the skyline on a cold winter morning at Lake Manawa, Iowa, in front of the MidAmerican Energy power plant, Friday, Nov. 22, 2013. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

A topic that comes up periodically here on Coal Tattoo is why the U.S. should do anything about its greenhouse gas emissions absent an international agreement that includes all nations. Well, NPR, via WFPL, had an interesting piece on that called, “What’s In it for U.S. to Cut Greenhouse Gas Emissions.”  It explains:

… If you ask Daniel Kammen, it’s a goal within reach. He’s a professor of energy and nuclear engineering at the Energy and Resources Group at Cal, and has an office just down the hill from Wolfram’s.

“China already has a carbon price; the U.S. does not,” Kammen points out, arguing that the world’s largest emitter isn’t ignoring climate change. That price is paid, one way or another, by companies that emit carbon dioxide.

It’s a relatively small amount of money — not nearly enough to stop the rapid increase in emissions from China. But China has other motivations to reduce emissions — starting with its toxic air.

“China is already paying a very high price for its fuel diet, and sees every motivation to ramp that amount of pollution down,” Kammen says. “That’s why China has become the world’s leader in production of solar panels, wind turbines and batteries for electric vehicles.”

Those technologies are still dwarfed by fossil fuels, but China is at least positioned for a transition, Kammen says.


Across San Francisco Bay, Stanford University’s Sally Benson also sees a rationale for cleaning up U.S. emissions, even as China and other countries are making the problem worse.

“Certainly you do it for the good of the world, but you also do it for risk management,” says Benson, who directs the Global Climate and Energy Project at Stanford. Benson is referring to both economic and physical risk.

“I think there will come a day,” she says, “when it will become so clear that we need to do this right away, that the countries that haven’t prepared themselves really put themselves at much greater economic risk.”

The piece continues:

Finally, we posed the question to Chris Field, an environmental biologist who directs the Carnegie Institution for Science’s Department of Global Ecology, also on the Stanford campus.

Field argues that the United States can find ways to act that aren’t simply unilateral. If the U.S. gets the structure right, its strategy could actually shape what happens in the rest of the world, he says.

For example, the price of a product should reflect its environmental cost, Field says. That way, any buyer would help pay for the small incremental damage caused by the carbon dioxide that ended up in the atmosphere when the product was made.

The U.S. could impose this price unilaterally on domestic products. If China doesn’t also add that to the price of, say, an iPhone made in China, the U.S. could add the carbon fee with a tax at the border — and that money would go into the U.S. Treasury.

But Field also makes a more philosophical argument, one based on doing the right thing.

“Personally,” he says, “I believe that we are close to an era where if a country wants to be regarded as a leading country on the international scene, [its leaders] will recognize that this is one of the things you need to do.”

Meanwhile, the coal industry didn’t take too kindly to those remarks about changing and the future from U.N. climate chief Christiana Figueres. The Guardian reported:

The head of the World Coal Association (WCA) has accused UN climate chief Christiana Figueres of ‘ignoring reality’, following her call to the coal industry to invest in more efficient technologies.

In an interview, World Coal chief executive Milton Catelin told RTCC that Figueres’ lack of expertise in the mining and energy sectors meant she “misses some of the fundamentals about the energy sector”.

He was responding to a speech Figueres made to a ‘Climate and Coal Summit’ on the sidelines of UN negotiations in Warsaw two weeks ago, where she told the audience that “coal must change rapidly and dramatically for everyone’s sake.”

But as the New York Times reported, not everyone in the business world is so upset about the prospect of putting a price on carbon:

More than two dozen of the nation’s biggest corporations, including the five major oil companies, are planning their future growth on the expectation that the government will force them to pay a price for carbon pollution as a way to control global warming.

The development is a striking departure from conservative orthodoxy and a reflection of growing divisions between the Republican Party and its business supporters.

A new report by the environmental data company CDP has found that at least 29 companies, some with close ties to Republicans, including ExxonMobil, Walmart and American Electric Power, are incorporating a price on carbon into their long-term financial plans.

Both supporters and opponents of action to fight global warming say the development is significant because businesses that chart a financial course to make money in a carbon-constrained future could be more inclined to support policies that address climate change.

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Monday roundup, Dec. 2, 2013

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Russia Sochi Torch Relay

In this photo provided by local residents gather to welcome torch bearers with Olympic flame at the Kedrovsky coal mine in Kemerovo region, west Siberia, Russia, Friday, Nov. 29, 2013.  The 65,000-kilometer (39,000 mile) Sochi torch relay, which started on Oct. 7, is the longest in Olympic history. The torch has traveled to the North Pole on a Russian nuclear-powered icebreaker and has even been flown into space. (AP Photo/

As I catch up on the news after taking a few days off, the Wall Street Journal story, “Coal’s Decline Hits Hardest in the Mines of Kentucky” stands out as one that a lot of folks were paying attention to and talking about. Reporters Kris Maher and Tom McGinty write:

Since he was laid off from his mining job in January, William Hensley’s life has been upended.

Days after he lost his position, Mr. Hensley, 50 years old, said he was diagnosed with black lung disease. The bank soon took back his 2012 Chevy Suburban, after he was unable to make the $600 monthly payments. He can no longer afford health insurance and has drawn down all but $5,000 he had in a 401(k) retirement plan to pay for another vehicle and living expenses.

Mr. Hensley, who is raising his 12-year-old granddaughter with his wife, went from making $82,000 a year as an underground foreman to collecting about $15,000 in unemployment benefits this year. But that aid is set to run out in December and mining jobs are scarce.

“This is the worst I’ve ever seen it,” said Mr. Hensley, who has spent 32 years of his life mining coal.

Unprecedented pressures on the U.S. coal industry and nearly two years of mine closures and layoffs are reshaping the heart of the Central Appalachian coalfields in ways that many experts believe could be permanent.

While the coal industry overall is losing market share to abundant natural gas, mines in Central Appalachia have become increasingly uneconomical. Natural gas is cheaper, and so is coal mined in two other big coal basins centered in Wyoming and Illinois.

This is a story we know well by now. But it also has some interesting new stuff, including this:

A Wall Street Journal analysis of Mine Safety and Health Administration data reveals that the picture is bleakest across a swath of 26 counties in Kentucky’s eastern coalfields, where coal has been the lifeblood for more than a century.

The number of coal-mining and related jobs in the region remained fairly steady between 2000 through 2011, fluctuating from one quarter to the next by an average of about 400 jobs, but never dipping below 11,400. Since 2011, the area has seen an unrelenting decline that left eastern Kentucky with just 8,000 mining jobs in the second quarter of this year. State officials say there are now fewer miners working in Kentucky than any other time in records dating to the 1920s—a decline largely driven by the eastern slice of the state.

Good for Kris and Tom for using the much more helpful data, which most local media here — and certainly local political leaders and government agencies in West Virginia — refuse for some reason to recognize as a better source for tracking both the short-term and long-term changes in mining jobs, coal production and other such things.

Unlike some other recent national stories, the Journal piece does a reasonable job of explaining that there are a collection of complex factors at play in the Appalachian coal decline, and of pointing out that many experts don’t see this decline as reversing itself. And it also quotes Alpha Natural Resources CEO Kevin Crutchfield making a pretty valid point about discussions of how to diversify the region’s economy:

Alpha, the nation’s third-largest coal operator by production and the biggest in Central Appalachia, has laid off 594 workers at Kentucky mines and related coal facilities since January 2012. It now operates 10 underground mines in the state, down from 23 underground and six surface mines in 2011. It also shut four facilities that process coal.

“It’s devastating, to say the least,” Mr. Crutchfield said. He said he has had discussions with elected officials about helping to diversify the region’s economy.

We’ve got to start thinking about this longer-term,” he said, but added, “diversifying the economy, while it sounds good, is not going to help these folks immediately.”

And that’s where the story shows a common weakness, when both national and local media are covering this issue. There is little evidence here that the Journal sought to hold local business and political leaders accountable for not following the many warnings over many years about the need to move beyond a coal-only economy. They do point out that Kentucky leaders have in recent months moved to start talking more about diversification, but the story doesn’t put those folks on the spot for waiting so long. At the same time, the story paints coal in a bit of a one-sided way, describing its long-time economic importance to the region without also mentioning black lung, mining deaths, coal-slurry pollution, or coal’s role in climate change. To really explain coal to readers requires a much broader discussion. Perhaps its unfair to expect that out of every newspaper story. Still, there’s always room for a little more context in these kinds of stories.

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Friday roundup, Nov. 22, 2013

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On May 9, 1959, Kennedy and U.S. Sen. Jennings Randolph (white hardhat) spoke with several miners at the U.S. Steel Cleaning Plant in McDowell County. Courtesy photo.

In today’s Gazette story about the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy, reporter David Gutman had some interesting stuff related to Kennedy and the coal industry:

Much of what Kennedy said as he toured the state would fit perfectly in a modern stump speech. In other words: A lot hasn’t changed.

Today West Virginia politicians of both parties denounce the “war on coal” that they see coming from the federal government, and the job losses that they say come with it.

It is not a new issue.

“Machines have been replacing men in the mines in recent years. Thousands are out of work and many of the older men among them do not see much hope of finding jobs,” the Logan Banner wrote on April 26, 1960, the day after Kennedy’s visit. “One of Kennedy’s stops yesterday was at Rossmore, a little mining camp of a few dozen dwellings just outside Logan. A few years ago it was thriving, but now only three or four families remain. The other houses have boarded windows and are slowly falling into decay.”

Kennedy called it “as distressed an area as I’ve ever seen,” and his speech that night sounded a theme eerily familiar to today.

“There is no industry which has suffered more from government neglect in the last eight years than the coal industry,” Kennedy told a crowd of 600 at the Logan courthouse. “And there is no industry which holds greater promise for the future. Eight years of short-sighted policies – of drift and indecision in Washington – have seen the gradual deterioration of a great industry.”

Speaking of 50 years ago, John Cheves had another edition of the Herald-Leader’s look back on Harry Caudill’s “Night Comes to the Cumberlands.” This one was headlined, ‘A lot of people here have just given up’ and it reports:

The president of the United States dropped from the sky in 1964 to shake the hand of unemployed coal miner Tommy Fletcher and declare war on poverty.

A half-century later, viewed from where it began, the war has produced a depressing stalemate.

President Lyndon B. Johnson toured Martin County as he prepared to ask Congress for a $1 billion aid package for Appalachia, a place thrust into an unflattering spotlight by Harry Caudill’s book Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area.

… Fifty years into a massive effort to prop up these communities, they can’t stand on their own. In the near future, as an austerity-minded Congress continues to cut food stamps, Head Start and other anti-poverty measures, it’s not clear what will sustain them.

As if to emphasize the point, the Herald Leader also reported this week:

The coal industry continued to shed jobs and production in Eastern Kentucky in the third quarter of 2013, tightening the screws on a region already reeling from earlier losses.

Statewide, the coal industry reduced employment at mines and preparation sites by 439 workers, or 3.4 percent, during the period from July 1 to Sept. 30, according to a report released Monday by the state Energy and Environment Cabinet.

There are fewer coal jobs in Kentucky than at any time since the state started keeping track in 1927, but nearly all the losses have been in Eastern Kentucky, where the job losses have the feel of a crisis.

“It’s just a sad time,” Leslie County Judge-Executive James Sizemore said Monday. “All of these coal-producing counties are going to be hurting.”

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U.N. climate diplomat: Coal needs to clean up its act

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Poland Coal and Climate

Young girls  protest in front of the Polish Ministry of Economy in Warsaw,  Monday Nov. 18, 2013 where a  Coal  Industry meeting  is taking place in Warsaw, Poland, Monday, Nov. 18, 2013.  The U.N.’s chief climate diplomat on Monday urged the coal industry to diversify toward cleaner energy sources and leave most of the world’s remaining coal reserves in the ground. On the sidelines of a U.N. climate conference, Christiana Figueres told dozens of CEOs of coal companies meeting at Poland’s Economy Ministry that their industry needs to change radically to curb emissions of heat-trapping gases that scientists say are warming the planet.  ( AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

Making the rounds today is news of an important speech that the U.N.’s chief climate diplomat delivered today to a coal industry group that scheduled its own meeting to coincide with the internatinoal climate conference taking place in Warsaw, Poland. Here’s how The Associated Press reported it:

FigThe U.N.’s chief climate diplomat on Monday urged the coal industry to diversify toward cleaner energy sources and leave most of the world’s remaining coal reserves in the ground.

On the sidelines of a U.N. climate conference, Christiana Figueres told dozens of CEOs of coal companies meeting at Poland’s Economy Ministry that their industry needs to change radically to curb emissions of heat-trapping gases that scientists say are warming the planet.

“The world is rising to meet the climate challenge as risks of inaction mount, and it is in your best interest to make coal part of the solution,” Figueres said.

Reuters described it this way:

The U.N. climate chief urged a radical clean-up of the coal industry on Monday to help limit global warming, at an industry meeting in Warsaw condemned by environmentalists as a distraction from the nearby U.N. climate change conference.

Christiana Figueres, head of the U.N.’s Climate Change Secretariat, told the coal summit that the industry had to change “rapidly and dramatically” to limit high pollution and carbon emissions, including in heavily coal-dependent Poland.

She urged the industry to “leave most existing reserves in the ground”, to shut inefficient plants and to capture and bury all emissions of carbon dioxide from coal-fired plants, a technology that has proved too costly so far for wide use.

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Friday roundup, Nov. 15, 2013

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Donald Crabtree

In a  Wednesday Nov. 30, 2011 photo, Donald Crabtree, a Tennessee Valley Authority project manager from Stevenson, Ala., leads a media tour around the old Bowling Green, Ky. power plant on Power St., which was torn down to allow for TVA expansion. The Tennessee Valley Authority’s board voted Thursday, Nov. 14, 2013, to close six morecoal-powered units in Alabama and replace two more in Kentucky with a new natural gas plant.   (AP Photo/Daily News, Alex Slitz)

There was more bad news for the coal industry this week, with this announcement by the Tennessee Valley Authority:

The Tennessee Valley Authority board of directors took action Thursday to further diversify TVA’s power generating mix to keep pace with changing economic and regulatory conditions, and in keeping with TVA’s commitment to keep electric rates low and reliability high … The board approved a coal fleet plan that will retire eight coal units at three plant sites with more than 3,000 megawatts of combined generating capacity.  A number of these units were already idled or scheduled for idling and/or retirement based on an agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency.

The retirements affect all five coal units at the Colbert Fossil Plant in Tuscumbia, Ala.; one of two operating coal units at Widows Creek Fossil Plant in Stevenson, Ala., and two of three coal units at the Paradise Fossil Plant near Central City, Ky. Paradise Unit 3, one of TVA’s largest coal units, will continue to operate.

There’s plenty of coverage out there on this, including stories from the Chattanoogan, The Associated Press (via The Washington Post), and the Courier-Journal. It’s also worth looking at this presentation for more on the analysis that led to the TVA decisions.

And over at WFPL, Erica Peterson had this interesting story on the TVA announcement:

Senator Mitch McConnell is touting his role in a recent decision to keep burning coal at a Western Kentucky power plant, even though less coal will be burned—and the decision to keep burning the remainder was made months ago.

The Tennessee Valley Authority Board of Directors voted Thursday to convert two of the three coal-burning units at its Paradise Fossil Plant in Muhlenberg County to natural gas. The third unit will remain coal-fired.

Upon the vote, McConnell released a statement headlined “Following Meeting with McConnell, TVA Announces It Will Keep the Paradise Fossil Plant Open” with the subheading “McConnell informed today by TVA that one of the three units at the facility will continue burning coal.”

But the latter decision was already made, and it was public months ago (it’s in this document from August and I mentioned last month).

“Let’s just say unit 3 [the coal burning unit] was never in danger of closing,” says a TVA spokesman.


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Friday roundup, Nov. 8, 2013

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Poland Coal and Climate

In this Dec. 2, 2008  file photo people stand in front of the Patnow coal-fuelled power plant near Konin, central Poland. Coal-reliant Poland is hosting  UN climate talks but also a high-level coal industry event on the sidelines of the conference, in an occurrence that has infuriated climate activists. (AP Photo/Alik Keplicz)

While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency began its “listening sessions” on greenhouse gas regulations (see here, here and here) — absent any meetings where EPA officials might actually step foot in the nation’s coalfields — SNL Financial had this interesting report on what the Obama administration’s Energy Department is up to:

With government officials from 22 countries and the European Union gathered in Washington, D.C., to discuss carbon capture and storage, the Obama administration on Nov. 7 announced a new $84 million research initiative aimed at improving the climate change mitigation technology and driving down associated costs.

“Today’s meeting is a reaffirmation of the global community’s commitment to work together to advance CCS,” Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said during his introductory address to the Carbon Sequestration Leadership Forum, a 10-year-old international initiative that includes countries that cumulatively are home to 60% of the world’s population.

Moniz suggested that the world economy’s continued reliance on fossil fuels for energy makes advancing commercial CCS critical to combating climate change. International cooperation and curbing the greenhouse gas emissions that are warming the globe are central to President Barack Obama’s climate action plan, he added.

“We have to work to create tangible and concrete steps to help bring this technology to market more quickly and affordably,” Moniz said, outlining the task at hand for environmental ministers. They arrived on the fourth and final day of the forum to sign off on a ministerial communiqué that policy experts and industry stakeholders have been considering since Nov. 4.

In a press release, the Energy Department outlined its latest action in this regard:

As part of the Obama Administration’s Climate Action Plan, today the Energy Department announced the selection of 18 projects across the country to research innovative, second-generation technologies that will help improve the efficiency and drive down costs of carbon capture processes for new and existing coal-fired power plants …

To date, the Obama Administration has invested $6 billion in clean coal technologies to ensure the U.S. continues to have access to safe, sustainable and affordable energy from our abundant domestic fossil resources. Developing, demonstrating and deploying these technologies is a critical part of President Obama’s all-of-the-above approach to American energy.

With nearly $84 million in investments from the Energy Department – and additional cost-share from industry, universities, and other research institutions – the projects will support the development of advanced technologies that will help enable efficient, cost-effective application of carbon capture and storage (CCS) processes for new and existing coal-fired power plants.

Projects will conduct carbon capture research for two different fossil power generation processes. For traditional, combustion-based power plants – like most coal-fired plants today – research will focus on more efficiently capturing carbon emissions post combustion. More advanced, gasification-based electric power plants break down coal – or almost any carbon-based feedstock – into its chemical constituents before any combustion takes place. Research into this technology will improve the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of pre-combustion carbon capture.

A full list and brief descriptions of the awards can be found HERE.

It didn’t get much attention last week during the hearing House Republicans staged to carry on about the administration’s “war on coal,” but there was valuable testimony from the Center from American Progress, in which the center’s Daniel J. Weiss explained one reason it’s in the best interests of coalfield communities to have greenhouse gas emissions rules in place:

By allowing EPA to move forward with common sense rules to protect public health and the climate, companies will have the certainty they need to make pollution control investments, strategically plan for new business opportunities in cleaner energy technologies, and develop new employment opportunities for displaced workers.

A previous and more detailed report from the center told us that coal’s survival depends on getting these rules in place:

… The EPA’s proposed rule will speed the development and deployment of CCS. With a clear and certain technology-based pollution-reduction target, equipment vendors would have an incentive to develop new carbon capture systems, and improve existing ones to lower costs and enhance performance. Utilities could seek federal grants or loan guarantees from existing programs to defray part of the CCS costs. Investors would be more inclined to finance the initial generation of CCS plants to gain a “first mover” advantage, knowing that a market would exist for more plants as the industry scales up. Utilities are nervous that public service commissions that oversee their electricity rates will not allow them to recover the costs from the increased expense of building power plants with CCS technology. An EPA carbon-pollution standard would enable utilities to make a much stronger case for cost recovery because CCS would be a requirement for any future power plant burning coal.


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Friday roundup, Nov. 1, 2013

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Power Plant Closing

Tons of coal sit next to a Big Sandy power plant unit near Louisa, Ky., but the days of using coal to generate electricity are numbered at the sprawling operation in eastern Kentucky. Kentucky Power Co. is closing the complex’s 800-megawatt unit in 2015, and the utility says it will seek regulatory approval to convert the plant’s smaller unit to burn natural gas instead of coal. (AP Photo/Bruce Schreiner)

By far the most important coal story this week was the Center for Public Integrity series that examined many of the ways the process of applying for federal black lung benefits is stacked against disabled coal miners.

There’s more background about black lung on our website,  and the remarkable stories from Chris Hamby reminded me of previous work on black lung done by other great journalists — especially two different projects produced by the Courier-Journal in Louisville. You can read those here and here. Reading those stories, it’s maddening to think about how — despite so many reforms and hard work by so many — little as changed on this issue.

Speaking of change, the National Journal had an interesting piece this week headlined Coal Country’s Decline Has a Long History

… For all the rage over Obama’s environmental agenda, mining jobs began disappearing in the region long before he entered the White House, for reasons that have nothing to do with regulations now coming out of Washington.

In fact, coal mining jobs in Appalachia fared far worse under the Reagan, Clinton, and George H.W. Bush administrations than they have under Obama.

According to employment counts from the Mine Safety and Health Administration, from 1983—the earliest year for which MSHA had data—to 1989, combined coal jobs in West Virginia and Kentucky fell from 79,000 to 64,000.

In the following four years under the first President Bush, coal jobs in the two states fell to 56,000. And by the final year of the Clinton administration, the states’ combined total of mining jobs had fallen to a nadir of 33,000.

By comparison, West Virginia and Kentucky coal-mining payrolls have been relatively stable during Obama’s first four years in office: In 2009, there were just under 43,000 coal miners in the two states combined. In 2012, the latest year for which MSHA has final data, the count totaled just over 41,000.

And The Hill had this commentary by former coal worker Carl Shoupe of Kentucky:

As a retired coal miner, the son of a coal miner, and the father of a coal miner, I’m curious about Congress’ recent attacks on the EPA and claims of a “war on coal.” These claims are nothing but a distraction from the real needs of coalfield communities.

You see, the coal industry has been leaving Appalachia and Eastern Kentucky for decades.  In 1980 there were more than 34,000 coal miners working in Eastern Kentucky.  By 1990, that number was down to 25,000 despite a production peak. Fewer than 8,000 jobs remain today — the lowest since 1927 — and continue to fall.

For years, industry analysts, coal company executives, and energy agencies warned that our best and easiest coal has been mined, that transportation costs have been rising, that cleaner and cheaper alternatives to coal were on the rise. 

It has been clear that we needed to be building a new economy here in the coalfields for generations, yet our political leaders have done little or nothing to help us prepare for the inevitable transition.

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Friday roundup, Oct. 25, 2013

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Carbon Pollution

A Norfolk Southern Railroad train pulls transport cars full of coal near  Goodfield, Ill., on Oct. 9, 2012.   (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

Earlier this week, the Center for American Progress had an interesting report about the coal industry’s focus on the export market. It was headlined Big Coal’s Export Lifeboat Hits Stormy Seas, and it explained:

A year and a half ago, the U.S. coal industry—faced with a steady decline in domestic coal consumption—seemed to have found a lifeboat. The industry planned to export vast amounts of western coal from the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana, shipping the coal by rail to new export terminals planned on the West Coast in Washington and Oregon and then overseas to Asia.

At that time, plans for six new coal export terminals were underway; together, the terminals were projected to be able to handle more than 150 million tons of coal per year. Coal industry executives spoke enthusiastically about the overseas prospects, with Cloud Peak Energy Inc. proclaiming in an announcement of its first quarter results in 2012 that, “International demand for our coal continues to grow, and international thermal coal prices remain robust.”

But in recent months, the lifeboat has begun to look a lot less seaworthy. China, the prime driver of world coal demand, is taking a number of steps to reduce coal imports, including producing and using domestic coal more efficiently, banning new coal-fired plants in areas with heavy air pollution, and boosting the use of natural gas, nuclear energy, and renewables. These efforts helped pop a bubble in coal prices that occurred from 2011 to 2012, with the Newcastle benchmark spot price down about 40 percent from its level in early 2011. At the same time, a wave of stateside opposition to the construction of U.S. coal export terminals and the related increase in train traffic has been building in the Pacific Northwest and across the West into Montana. It is a movement reminiscent of the broad opposition to the proposed Keystone XL pipeline that would transport crude oil gleaned from tar sands from Canada to the Gulf Coast, built around a combination of issues involving local traffic and health concerns and global climate change effects.

Interestingly, the center’s Climate Progress blog also had a report about coal use in Poland that’s worth checking out:

Poland relies almost exclusively on coal to generate its power, but a new study has found diversifying the country’s energy mix might not actually be that hard.

The study, released Friday by several European energy and environmental groups, including Greenpeace, found Poland could cut its coal electricity generation in half, from 120 terawatt hours a year to 60 by 2030. The shift would require a clean energy investment of $264 billion — about double what Poland currently spends on energy production, but an investment that would lead to cheaper energy in the long run, according to the report. It could also create 100,000 jobs in the renewable energy sector by 2030.

“Poland is home to a geriatric energy system, based on coal. Its power plants are old with about 70 percent of them being over 30 years old,” the report said.


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Friday roundup, Oct. 18, 2013

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Navajo Mine

A front end loader dumps coal into a hauler, Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2013, at a mining operation at the Navajo Mine in Fruitland, N.M. (AP Photo/The Daily Times, Jon Austria)

Earlier this week, Bill Estep over at the Herald-Leader in Lexington had the latest on the efforts by a growing number of folks in Kentucky to chart a future for their coalfields as the mining industry continues to decline:

 Eastern Kentucky needs a strategic plan to diversify its job base and money to make the plan a reality as its coal industry withers, according to a regional economic development organization.

In a paper released Monday, the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development called on legislators to set up a body that could create a plan to boost Eastern Kentucky’s economy and oversee its implementation.

Eastern Kentucky has lost more than 5,700 coal jobs in the last two years, creating a critical need for better planning to develop the region’s economy, the report said.

“Literally ever single person we’ve talked to said we’ve got to do something else,” said Justin Maxson, president of MACED, which is based in Berea and funds projects in Eastern Kentucky.

The story goes on:

One option to fund a new strategic plan for the area would be to set aside 25 percent of the money the state collects from a tax on mined coal, the report said.

Some of that money could be used right away to put the plan in place, and some could be set aside in a permanent endowment that could grow and be used for economic development going forward, the report said. Several other coal-producing states have a similar endowment.

Under that approach, a good bit of the coal-severance money would still be available immediately for other state and local needs, the report said. That will be an important point as legislators, policy makers and local officials consider the idea to create what MACED called the Appalachian Planning and Development Fund.

MACED has a press release here, and you can read the full report for yourself here.

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