Coal Tattoo

Friday roundup, May 3, 2013

This Sept. 4, 2011 file photo shows the main plant facility at the Navajo Generating Station, as seen from Lake Powell in Page, Ariz. Navajo lawmakers will vote on a lease extension for a coal-fired power plant that allows the delivery of water to Arizona’s major metropolitan areas. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, file)

First this week, there was a great recap on The Daily Yonder from the Kentuckians for the Commonwealth event, Appalachia’s Bright Future, held down in Harlan. Headlined A Region Worth More Than Mountaintops, the blog reports:

How does Appalachia transition from coal to a new economy? Has mining been a positive or negative for the region? What will replace coal jobs, and what will give Appalachia a sense of identity now that coal is gone? It’s open for debate.

What’s not up for debate—according to the members of KFTC—is that the age of coal is over. In Knott County, Kentucky, coal production dropped 45% last year alone. The projections throughout the region are for a steeper decline in the future. On top of that, the coal-friendly Fifth Congressional District of east Kentucky is the poorest in America. The physical health, mental health and life expectancy of Kentucky’s coal counties are worse than some developing nations.

To say that “coal mining is our future” is not an argument—it’s a lie. Any honest discussion about present-day Appalachia has to start with the admission that the age of coal is dead. It died, not because it left Kentucky broke and sick, but because we ran out of the valuable resource that made us so poor.

It goes on:

The fact that we can’t move past establishing basic facts is not an accident. Coal companies don’t want people to discuss economic transition. To ask where the economy goes now is to risk being labeled “anti-coal,” a threat no Kentucky politician is willing to chance.

And that is the point. By flattening out the language—making all criticisms “anti-coal” and all agreement “pro-coal”—they create a linguistic zero-sum game. You are with us or against us. “[T]he reality of being pro-coal has meant being pro-coal industry,” says Anthony Flaccavento, a Virginia organic farmer and the founder of Appalachian Sustainable Development. During his unsuccessful run for Congress, he refused to say he was “pro-coal”. “I refused to say it. I said I was pro-coal miner. I’m pro-UMWA.” His opponents labeled him anti-coal, but he did better in coal mining communities than anywhere else.

Keeping the debate simple, says Flaccavento, plays right into the coal companies’ hands. It allows people to say they are pro-coal without ever having to ask what that means. “[B]ut I ask, exactly what part of ‘coal’ are they ‘pro’? It’s not the miners,” he says, noting that they fought safety regulations that would protect miners from black lung. “It’s not the miners’ families… It’s not the children of miners, because they ignore the reality that coal jobs have been declining for years.”

And:

Without coal, many alternative jobs could swoop in to the area.  Not all industries, however, are created equal—and, in fact, not all opportunities are worth taking.  Appalachia has been promised riches before: coal, tobacco and the highways were all supposed to make the region prosperous.

… Appalachians investing in themselves, banking their future on their own talents rather than on short-term promises from outside corporations, may not be crazy.  Maybe it has just never been tried before.

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Friday roundup, April 26, 2013

In this Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2012, photo, a Norfolk Southern Railroad train pulls transport cars full of coal near Goodfield, Ill. Norfolk Southern Corp. reports quarterly financial results after the market closes on Tuesday, April 23, 2013. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

This week started with still more terrible news from the coalfields of China:

An explosion in a coal mine killed 18 people and injured 12 others in Jilin province on Saturday when the mine operators defied a government order of suspending the work for inspections.

The blast occurred at 1:26 pm on Saturday in the Qingxing coal mine in Helong.

Seventy-three people were working underground, and 55 of them were lifted to safety.

All of the injured were receiving treatment in hospitals and were in stable condition, the Jilin provincial information office said in a statement on Sunday.

The mine’s senior managers have been detained by police, and the Qingxing coal mine’s operating permit has been canceled, according to the statement.

Closer to home, Jessica Lilly over at West Virginia Public Broadcasting had this very interesting story:

Last month, an Administration Law Judge of the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review commission denied a joint request from MSHA and Alpha Natural Resources to drastically modify citations against Brushy Eagle mine.

Brushy Eagly is a legacy Massey Energy mine operated by Marfork Coal group. Marfork Coal oversaw the Upper Big Branch mine in April 2010 when 29 mend died in an explosion.

 Most interesting was this part:

Former MSHA investigator and mine safety advocate Tony Oppegard points out that a CLR is not an attorney, but if approved by an Administrative Law Judge can participate in the litigation of citations before the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission.

“Their job is to try to take some of the burden off of MSHA attorneys,” Oppegard said, “by handling simple cases that can be easily and quickly resolved before administrative law judges. Typically these are these are rather simple citations usually that are not S and S.”

But a ruling issued by federal Administrative Law Judge Margaret Miller indicates that a CLR was chosen to represent MSHA as Marfork Coal contested violations that were S and S—meaning “significant and substantial.”

“I’m surprised in this particular case that MSHA would even have a CLR on the case,” Oppegard said, “because this is at a mine with a history of problems these are not routine violations some of them according to the ALJ’s decision were very serious.”

According to the court document, the CLR, representing MSHA, jointly filed a number of settlement requests along with the attorney for Marfork. The CLR requested that “S and S” designations be removed and also modified the number of effected people in several instances—both of which drastically reduced the penalties, sometimes by 90%. Judge Miller denied the proposed settlements because the suggestions were inappropriate.

“It’s very disappointing to read that a representative of MSHA is trying to reduce civil penalties by 90% or more,” he said. “I mean it’s absurd.”

There’s more:

The ruling also says that the CLR explained that District 4, southern West Virginia, “has seen two major mine disasters (one of which being the Upper Big Branch Disaster) in recent years and, consequently, the inspectors, many of whom are inexperienced, are under pressure to write citations.”

Tony Oppegard told Jessica:

If I was Joe Main I would be very upset to see that. In other words she’s basically trashing the inspectors who work in her office by saying they are writing bogus citations because they are under pressure. That why I say it sounds to me like she ought to be working for the coal industry.

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Friday roundup, April 19, 2013

This April 4, 2013 photo shows an 80-foot thick coal seam at Cloud Peak Energy’s Spring Creek strip mine near Decker, Mont.  From the time coal is blasted from strip mines in remote southeastern Montana to the point where it reaches customers in Asia, the fuel’s price gets marked up by five times or more, offering a lucrative emerging market for the companies that ship it overseas. But as the federal government investigates whether companies are unfairly bilking the treasury by paying royalties based on a far lower coal price, one of the industry’s main players, Cloud Peak Energy, is defending the practice.  (AP Photo/Matthew Brown)

There’s an interesting piece this week over at Yale Environment 360. It’s headlined,Will global coal boom go bust as climate concerns increase? Author Fen Montaigne writes:

Today, the global economy annually consumes at least 80 times more coal than was burned in 1850 at the height of the Industrial Revolution. The International Energy Agency said that global coal use — now close to 8 billion tons a year — could increase by 65 percent by 2035 if current energy trends continue.

A recent independent analysis reported that 1,200 new coal-fired power plants are being proposed worldwide, three-quarters of them in India and China. The planet still has so much coal underground that if industrial economies mine and burn this fossil fuel at current rates, known reserves would last for more than a century.

The problem, as the world’s climate scientists point out, is that to continue burning coal at the ever-expanding pace of recent years means that there is little hope of holding global temperature increases to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). To combust even a third to a half of the world’s proven reserves of coal would — barring the widespread adoption of carbon-capture technologies — lead to a climate-destabilizing rise in temperature far in excess of 2 degrees C, according to recent studies.

All of which means that the most important question facing the world today as it confronts the challenge of global warming is this: Can the coal boom be rolled back before it irreparably harms the planet’s climate system?

The piece goes on to explain:

The coal industry presents the continuing growth of coal as inevitable, maintaining that in the coming decades it is the only cheap, abundant, and reliable energy source capable of allowing rapidly developing countries such as China and India to continue to advance economically. Milton Catelin, chief executive of the World Coal Association, a London-based industry group, says that focusing primarily on coal’s contribution to climate change while ignoring its pivotal role in economic development — helping, for example, to lift more than 600 million Chinese out of poverty — is misguided.

But a growing number of people in the environmental and financial communities are questioning the inexorable march of coal, which accounts for 43 percent of human-caused carbon dioxide emissions and roughly the same percentage of electricity production. They contend that a host of factors — including rising concern about global warming, air pollution, and water shortages — will lead in the next decade or two to a decline in coal consumption and a realization that investing in coal mining and coal-fired power plants is an increasingly risky financial proposition.

Meanwhile, The Washington Post reported:

You might have been wondering whether the Obama administration was going to impose the first-ever greenhouse gas limits on new power plants, since the deadline is April 13.

We reported nearly a month ago that the Environmental Protection Agency was likely to delay the rule to bolster their legal case for imposing the new carbon restrictions.

On Friday, EPA spokeswoman Alisha Johnson confirmed that the agency would not finalize the controversial proposal on time.

Johnson said in an e-mail that the agency was still reviewing more than 2 million comments on its proposal.

“We are working on the rule and no timetable has been set,” Johnson said.

And earlier this week, Bloomberg reported:

Power producers such as Dynegy Corp. (DYN) and Duke Energy Corp. (DUK) are bracing for new U.S. rules on the water they discharge, standards that may impose further costs on the embattled coal industry.

The Environmental Protection Agency is scheduled to issue a proposal tomorrow for toxic-waste disposal in water, and environmentalists are pressing the agency to ban use of slurry ponds for the disposal of waste left over after coal is burned to generate power. The EPA says power plants are the biggest industrial source of water contamination

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Friday roundup, April 12, 2013

Rescued miner Feng Zuxue is carried out of the mine shaft of a flooded coal mine in Weng’an County, southwest China’s Guizhou Province, Monday, April 8, 2013. Chinese state media Xinhua News Agency say three miners have been rescued after spending two and a half days trapped underground because of flooding in the coal mine that killed three of their colleagues. (AP Photo/Xinhua, Liu Xu)

While some of us were focused on yesterday’s confirmation hearing for EPA nominee Gina McCarthy, some reporters were thankfully also covering a House committee hearing on the important issue of coal-ash regulations — an issue where the Obama EPA’s actions so far haven’t lived up to their talk.

Greenwire, for example, reported (subscription only):

U.S. EPA and several Democrats yesterday said they were open to considering Republican-backed legislation aimed at creating state-centered standards for the disposal of coal combustion waste.

Even though EPA has been working for years on national regulations to police coal ash disposal, EPA Solid Waste Assistant Administrator Mathy Stanislaus said the agency doesn’t necessarily oppose a draft bill up for discussion that would effectively pre-empt EPA’s ongoing efforts.

“We do not have an official position,” Stanislaus testified during a sometimes-contentious hearing of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy.

Here in West Virginia, the State Journal had a write-up on the hearing, reporting:

A Congressional committee on the environment and economy says states should be given the authority to regulate “one of the largest waste streams generated in the United States” if the state conforms to federal minimum standards.

In a hearing of the U.S. House of Representative’s Subcommittee on Environment and Economy, under the Committee on Energy and Commerce, witnesses testified regarding coal ash recycling and storage. Leaders of the committee touted legislation designed to allow states to implement standards regarding the handling of coal combustion residuals, a material that can be recycled into building materials.

“The long and short of it is – Congress is perfectly capable of establishing a standard of protection for coal ash,” said Environment and the Economy Subcommittee Chairman Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill. “The states are perfectly capable – and in the best position – to implement robust permit programs for coal ash.”

Others aren’t so sure about all of this … longtime mine safety engineer Jack Spadaro, for example, testified:

I am certain that the proposed legislation in its present form, without specific requirements for review of design, stringent geotechnical and hydrological engineering requirements, and vigorous enforcement by a federal regulatory agency will result in a catastrophic failure of a coal ash dam containment structure that will result in extensive loss of life and severe environmental damage that will be irreversible. There are thousands of such structures in the United States at this time and the failure of one or more of these dams is assured unless strict engineering standards are imposed.

And Lisa Evans, a coal-ash expert with the group Earthjustice, told lawmakers:

The Coal Ash Recycling and Oversight Act of 2013 cannot and will not adequately protect American communities from the toxic pollution from coal ash. Its ‘unique’ approach fails to guarantee the safety and security of communities located near high hazard dams and fails to ensure the protection of our nation’s drinking water, rivers and streams. After decades of dangerous disposal of billions of tons of coal ash, it is extremely disappointing that a bill without deadlines would receive serious consideration by this Congress.

Meanwhile, whistle-blowing Kentucky coal miner Scott Howard got some good news, as The Huffington Post reported:

A panel of federal judges ruled Thursday that a Kentucky miner who was fired two years ago after alleging unsafe conditions at his mine deserves to keep his job, delivering yet another legal victory to a highly public coal-industry whistleblower.

Charles Scott Howard lost his job at Cumberland River Coal Company, a subsidiary of energy giant Arch Coal, in May 2011. Managers informed him he was being let go because he was no longer fit to work due to an on-the-job injury. But Howard had lodged a litany of safety complaints against the company in the run-up to his layoff. An administrative law judge ruled last year that letting Howard go amounted to discrimination under the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act.

Cumberland River appealed that decision, arguing that putting Howard back on the job would actually endanger him, due to his injury, and undermine safety law. The panel of appellate judges, however, didn’t buy it.

On another mine safety matter, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration announced this action:

Rox Coal Inc., which operates the Geronimo Mine in Somerset County, Pa., has been found in violation of a mandatory electrical hazard safety standard by an administrative law judge with the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission. The ALJ deemed the violation “quintessentially flagrant” and ordered the company to pay a $110,000 civil penalty.

The ALJ’s finding sustained the Mine Safety and Health Administration’s issuance and assessment of the violation as flagrant following an investigation into an electrical accident at the Geronimo Mine.

On Oct. 3, 2007, a miner was shocked while changing the fuse on a high-voltage switch house at Geronimo Mine. The mine’s chief electrician intentionally had disabled the safety switch two days prior to sending the miner and a co-worker to change fuses. As a result, the miners worked within inches of 7,200 live volts while performing this work.

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Friday roundup, March 29, 2013

A house-sized dump truck hauls dirt and rock Tuesday March 26, 2013 at the Black Thunder coal mine in northeast Wyoming’s Powder River Basin near Wright, Wyo., source of almost 40 percent of the nation’s coal production. The federal government says it is withholding $110 million in mineral payments to 36 states as a result of automatic spending cuts that took effect this month. (AP Photo/Mead Gruver)

There was a great op-ed commentary recently in the Herald-Leader over in Lexington by a coal miner and Kentuckians for the Commonwealth member, Carl Shoupe:

I come from a long line of hard-working Appalachian people. My great-grandfather worked in timber. My grandfather and father were coal miners. And I’m proud to tell you that my son is one of the best underground miners I know.

I believe that we can create new jobs, find safe energy and live in healthy communities. But to have that future, a bright future, we must stop the destruction that’s going on in communities where coal is mined. It’s not going to be easy, it’s going to take all of us. And it will take real leadership with courage and conviction.

The commentary continued:

Since I’ve been around coal all my life, I guess I should be pleased when our “leaders” say they are Friends of Coal. But lately, I’ve been wondering, which part of coal they’re friends with.

Peabody Energy and its new company, Patriot Coal, are trying to weasel out of paying health and pension benefits promised to thousands of retired UMWA miners. Have you heard any objection from these Friends of Coal in our marble palaces in Frankfort? Those miners earned their benefits with their sweat and their blood, but now Peabody wants to dump them like they’re just more overburden.

These politicians may be friends of coal, but they’re not friends of coal miners and their families. These miners and their families are being robbed of their retirement and benefits.

My friend Truman recently spent a week hooked up to a hospital ventilator. Like thousands of others, he suffers with black lung, caused by working in underground mines filled with coal dust. Today, the number of severe black lung cases is on the rise again, affecting workers on strip mines and below ground. And yet Congressman Hal Rogers has led efforts in Congress to block rules designed to protect miners from that awful disease.

The congressman may be a friend of coal corporations, but he’s no friend of coal miners who have to breathe hazardous air every day they work.

And:

Another friend of mine had to move with his daughter away from the homeplace where his family has lived for over 200 years. Toxic runoff from mountaintop removal was poisoning him and his family.

But his state representative, House Speaker Greg Stumbo, stood up at an Environmental Protection Agency hearing about water pollution and insisted that anyone who wants to save the mountains should just “go buy one.”

The speaker may be a friend of the coal companies, but he’s no friend of coalfield families threatened by mountaintop mining and poisoned water.

It concludes:

Kentucky needs more leaders who are less worried about being friends of coal and more determined to be friends of miners and the mountains that are our home. We need leaders who are worried about our children’s future instead of their next election. We need leaders who will commit to helping us build the bright future we deserve — and can have if we work for it.

Meanwhile, there was a commentary from the World Resources Institute (citing EIA data) that reported:

New data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) reveals a troubling trend: Coal-fired power generation—and its associated greenhouse gas emissions—were on the rise as 2012 came to an end.

According to the data, which was released yesterday, natural gas prices have risen significantly since April of 2012, prompting a rise in coal-fired electric generation (see figure below). This increase marks a dramatic change from the trends we’ve seen in the United States over the past several years. U.S. energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from the power sector had been falling, mostly due to more electricity being generated by renewables, slowed economic growth, and a greater use of low-cost natural gas, which produces roughly half the CO2 emissions of coal during combustion.

The new uptick in gas prices and coal use suggests that we cannot simply rely on current market forces to meet America’s emissions-reduction goals. In fact, EIA projects that CO2 emissions from the power sector will slowly rise over the long term. To keep emissions on a downward trajectory, the Administration must use its authority to prompt greater, immediate reductions by putting in place emissions standards for both new and existing power plants.

At the same time, several readers pointed out to me this important post from EIA’s Today in Energy feature that reported:

Preliminary coal production data for 2012 show that 9 out of the top 10 producing coal mines in the United States are located in Wyoming; the top two producing mines in Wyoming account for 20% of total U.S. coal production by tonnage. Collectively, the top 10 mines accounted for 38% of total U.S. coal production by tonnage in 2012. Shares of production by energy content for the top mines are somewhat lower since the sub-bituminous coal they produce has lower heat content per ton than bituminous coal produced in other regions.

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Friday roundup, March 15, 2013

In this photo provided by China’s Xinhua News Agency, a relative of miners waits at the site of the accident in Shuicheng County, southwest China’s Guizhou Province, Wednesday, March 13, 2013. China said 21 coal miners have been killed and four more are missing following an accident inside a mine in the southern province of Guizhou. (AP Photo/Xinhua, Ou Dongqu)

 As the photo caption above says, 21 coal miners in China and four more were listed as missing following an explosion and roof collapse.

In other international news, Gardiner Harris at The New York Times touched on coal-mining in this story about new child labor rules in India:

After descending 70 feet on a wobbly bamboo staircase into a dank pit, the teenage miners ducked into a black hole about two feet high and crawled 100 yards through mud before starting their day digging coal.

They wore T-shirts, pajama-like pants and short rubber boots — not a hard hat or steel-toed boot in sight. They tied rags on their heads to hold small flashlights and stuffed their ears with cloth. And they spent the whole day staring death in the face.

Just two months before full implementation of a landmark 2010 law mandating that all Indian children between the ages of 6 and 14 be in school, some 28 million are working instead, according to Unicef. Child workers can be found everywhere — in shops, in kitchens, on farms, in factories and on construction sites. In the coming days Parliament may consider yet another law to ban child labor, but even activists say more laws, while welcome, may do little to solve one of India’s most intractable problems.

“We have very good laws in this country,” said Vandhana Kandhari, a child protection specialist at Unicef. “It’s our implementation that’s the problem.”

The story goes on:

Suresh Thapa, 17, said that he has worked in the mines near his family’s shack “since he was a kid,” and that he expects his four younger brothers to follow suit. He and his family live in a tiny tarp-and-stick shack near the mines. They have no running water, toilet or indoor heating.

On a recent day, Suresh was sitting outside his home sharpening his and his father’s pickaxes — something he must do twice a day. His mother, Mina Thapa, sat nearby nursing an infant and said Suresh chose mining himself.

“He works of his own free will,” she said. “He doesn’t listen to me anyway, even when I tell him something,” she added with a bittersweet laugh.

Ms. Thapa said that three of her younger sons go to a nearby government school and that they would go into the mines when they wanted to.

“If they don’t do this work, what other jobs are they going to get?” she asked.

India’s Mines Act of 1952 prohibits anyone under the age of 18 from working in coal mines, but Ms. Thapa said enforcing that law would hurt her family. “It’s necessary for us that they work. No one is going to give us money. We have to work and feed ourselves.”

The presence of children in Meghalaya’s mines is no secret. Suresh’s boss, Kumar Subba, said children work in mines throughout the region.

“Mostly the ones who come are orphans,” said Mr. Subba, who supervises five mines and employs 130 people who collectively produce 30 tons of coal each day.

He conceded that working conditions inside his and other mines in the region were dangerous. His mines are owned by a state lawmaker, he said.

“People die all the time,” he said. “You have breakfast in the morning, go to work and never come back. Many have died this way.”

Closer to home, there was a big court hearing in Washington in the U.S. EPA’s appeal of a ruling that threw out its veto of the Spruce Mine permit.  Greenwire explained:

Skeptical appellate judges put tough questions today to both U.S. EPA and a major coal mining company as the two argued over the agency’s 2007 Clean Water Act veto of a federal strip-mining permit issued by the Army Corps of Engineers for a sprawling West Virginia mine.

The stakes are high in the battle over Mingo Logan Coal Co.’s Spruce No. 1 mine — one of the largest-ever mountaintop-removal mining projects — as the mining company challenges one of EPA’s most potent regulatory weapons, its Clean Water Act veto.

EPA’s use of that veto in 2011 effectively revoked the 4-year-old mining permit issued under the George W. Bush administration. The agency cited its authority under the pollution law’s Section 404, which empowers the EPA administrator to scrap a “specification” in a corps permit “whenever he determines” a potentially unacceptable environmental damage.

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Friday roundup, March 8, 2013

In this Feb. 16, 2013 photo, buildings from the Smith Mine still stand 70 years after 74 miners died in a coal mine explosion at Bear Creek, Mont. It was the biggest coal-mining disaster in state history. (AP Photo/The Billings Gazette, Bob Zellar)

There was an important piece on The Daily Yonder this week. It was called Life After Coal: Does Wales Point the Way? and was written by Tom Hansell and Patricia Beaver of Appalachian State University. They wrote:

What happens when fossil fuels run out? How do rural communities reinvent themselves as natural resources are depleted?

In the Appalachian mountains, where coal mining is projected to decline dramatically this decade, some people are looking to Wales for answers.

The challenges to Wales and Appalachia in recent decades are tragically similar. The Welsh coalfields were mostly shut down in the 1980’s, with a loss of more than 85,000 jobs. Meanwhile, the Appalachian coalfields lost over 70,000 mining jobs between 1980 and 2000, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). A June 2012 EIA report projects that Appalachian coal production will be cut in half this decade. Former mining communities in Wales have 30 years of experience with regenerating local economies. By comparing and contrasting the Welsh and Appalachian experience with coal, we are examining the human costs of de-industrialization and asking “what’s next for these rural communities?”

Among other things, they write:

There is no magic bullet to economic recovery in coal mining regions. Former mining communities in the Welsh Valleys are doing better than the 1980’s, but population has dropped and employment remains low. The first step to regeneration was “greening the valleys” — government programs to clean up mine waste piles, acid mine drainage and other sources of pollution. Naturally, government resources are required for large-scale reclamation to be successful. In order for government to be effective, rural people need to be actively involved in the process of government. This means that grassroots organizing is an important element of economic regeneration.

And:

Perhaps most importantly, the topic of energy is still an intensely debated issue. In some areas coal is making a small resurgence – the latest figures have between 800 and 1,000 miners working in Wales. Meanwhile, energy corporations and the Welsh government have made a huge commitment to wind power — spinning turbines are commonplace above the former mining valleys. The government has partnered with private power companies to develop these wind farms and is now exploring large-scale tidal power.

On the surface this all sounds good. However, these former mining communities have well founded concerns about outside corporations developing local energy resources without investing in the community. When residents of the former Welsh mining valleys look at proposals for industrial scale wind farms from multinational energy corporations, many wonder when these corporations will pull out, leaving communities to fend for themselves once again.

Read the whole thing here, click here to learn more about Tom’s movie, and watch this video clip:

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Friday roundup, Feb 15, 2013

Relatives of miners killed in a blast at the Vorkutinskaya coal mine, mourn during the funeral ceremony in Vorkuta, Komi region in northern Russia, Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013.  A blast at a coal mine in northern Russia on Monday killed 18 people, officials said. (AP Photo)

The Philadelphia Inquirer had an interesting feature story the other day:

SHAMOKIN, Pa. – The black mountain of coal waste that looms over Route 61 here is both a grimy testament to an ephemeral economy and an apt symbol for this town time has discarded. That anthracite refuse came from long-shuttered mines and collieries, closures that have halved Shamokin’s population since the 1930s.

Many of the remaining 8,000 residents are as old as the tattered clapboard houses they occupy. (Since 1996 the town, about 70 miles northwest of Allentown and 70 miles northeast of Harrisburg, has issued just four permits for new single-family homes.) So deep has the vein of poverty grown here that more than 70 percent of Shamokin Area High School’s students qualify for free lunches.

Decades after King Coal’s demise, Pennsylvania’s coal region is littered with similarly depressed communities. And the economy isn’t the only victim. As Wednesday’s national signing day for college recruits dawns, many here fear that quality high school football, a cherished tradition and a civic balm in difficult times, could soon become the next disappearing resource.

“We’re a very depressed area,” said Rick Kashner, Shamokin’s athletic director and a former player at the school in Coal Township. “We were kind of known for hard-nosed coal region football. But our participation numbers are down significantly.”

 And from Kentucky, we had this story from the Courier-Journal:

A bill intended to help students in coal counties get their bachelor’s degrees passed the House Education Committee on Thursday without dissent.

House Bill 210 would use some of the state’s coal severance tax revenues to pay for financial aid to students in coal counties who have already earned two years of college.

The bill, which now goes to the House floor, stems from a proposal last year by former Gov. Paul Patton to put the private University of Pikeville in the state university system. Patton is now president of the University of Pikeville.

Patton’s concern is that students in Eastern Kentucky’s coal counties must now travel farther than students elsewhere in the state to attend any state university.

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Monday roundup, Feb. 11, 2013

Central entrance to Vorkuninskaya coal mine in Vorkuta on Monday, Feb. 11, 2013. Rescuers have recovered 10 bodies at the Vorkutinskaya mine in Russia’s Komi region. The blast at a coal mine in northern Russia on Monday killed 18 people, officials said Monday. (AP Photo)

Terrible news today out of the coalfields of Russia:

An underground methane gas explosion killed up to 18 miners at a coal pit in northern Russia on Monday and President Vladimir Putin dispatched his disasters minister to the scene to oversee rescue efforts.

Rescue workers said they had brought 10 bodies to the surface at the Vorkutinskaya mine, owned by large Russian steel company Severstal, in the icy Komi region and were trying to recover eight other corpses.

About 250 people had been at the pit at the time of the blast, about 800 meters (2,600 feet) below the surface but most had escaped or been rescued, government officials said.

Much closer to home, Jim Bruggers at the Courier-Journal in Louisville has been tweeting today from a legislative hearing in Kentucky prompted by an issue he previously covered here: A move to weaken the state’s water quality standards for selenium.

Here in West Virginia, our new attorney general is getting more media coverage (from the Gazette and the State Journal) for his renewed promise to fight federal government efforts to reduce the coal industry’s impacts on our water, air, land and climate.  Apparently, the attorney general’s view of federalism somehow includes President Obama giving a state attorney general an “advise and consent” role in who becomes the next administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. I’ve posted a copy of Attorney General Patrick Morrisey’s letter to the president here.

Regular readers of this blog know that Mr. Morrisey has not really been willing to explain exactly what legal authority he has to do anything about anything EPA does (see here and here), an issue that seems all the more interesting, given that DEP Secretary Randy Huffman has said his agency doesn’t really want or need the attorney general’s help taking on the federal government.

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Friday roundup, Feb. 8, 2013

Sakiba Colic, left, and Semsa Hadzo, right,  exchange jokes and laugh outside the shaft of the coal mine in Breza, 20 kms north of Sarajevo, Bosnia, after completing their 8-hour shift at 450 meters under ground on Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013.  The mine in Breza is the only one in Bosnia where a group of women work deep underground in the coal mines alongside their male colleagues, a legacy of communism, but they’re set to retire in three years, marking the end of an era for this community where almost everybody is connected to the coal mine. The shafts and elevators echo with laughter and tales of their grandchildren as women miners work alongside their male counterparts.(AP Photo/Amel Emric)

As we wait to hear what — if anything — President Obama will say about global warming next week in his State of the Union address, the Wall Street Journal reported a prediction of what could be a major policy announcement:

President Barack Obama in next week’s State of the Union speech will lay out a renewed effort to combat climate change that is expected to include using his authority to curb emissions from existing power plants, people who have talked to the administration about its plans said.

President Barack Obama is said to be pushing for specific goals on reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.

The action, building on a pledge in the second inaugural address, fits within Mr. Obama’s larger strategy of making full use of his executive authority in areas where Congress is putting up obstacles to his agenda.

The speech, to be delivered Tuesday, isn’t finished.

Mr. Obama is likely to signal he wants to move beyond proposed Environmental Protection Agency rules on emissions from new power plants and tackle existing coal-fired plants, people familiar with the administration’s plans said.

Not surprisingly, as The Washington Post reports:

Lobbyists for coal-burning utilities such as Southern Co. and Duke Energy are consulting environmental advocates and holding strategy sessions as they seek a role in shaping President Obama’s plan to combat climate change.

Obama’s emphasis on global warming in his inaugural address last month has led power and coal producers, which have fought regulation of greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, to begin crafting their own proposed rules.

“It was the hope of a lot of companies in this sector that the president would be defeated,” Manik Roy, vice president for strategic outreach at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, an Arlington-based energy and environment policy group, said in an interview. “Now that the president has raised this as such a high issue, you’d be absolutely nuts not to be in there trying to engage constructively.”

And having lost with their scorched earth, burn-the-bridges “war on coal” campaign of fear and misinformation, the coal industry is apparently trying to make nice with the administration:

Groups such as the National Mining Association (NMA), which has sued to block or overturn Environmental Protection Agency rules in the past, appear to be taking a less confrontational approach now. The association for producers such as Arch Coal Inc. and Peabody Energy called last year’s EPA proposal that would have effectively outlawed new coal-fired power plants that lack carbon-capture technology “unprecedented and unlawful.”

For the next round of rule-making, the group is considering proposing its own regulations.

“We are looking at it internally here with our members to see if there are particular pathways that work better and can keep coal as a vibrant part of the electricity portfolio,” Hal Quinn, the NMA president, told reporters on Jan. 28. “That’s a very important question.”

The NMA, based in Washington, donated $839,250 to federal candidates for the 2012 election, with 92 percent going to Republicans. American Electric Power Co. and Southern Power, among the top coal-burning utilities in the United States, gave about three-quarters of their political donations in 2012 to Republican candidates and groups, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign spending. Coal producers as a group gave 90 percent of their donations to Republicans.

But Obama was reelected. The results have left coal companies and power producers pivoting from political foes to reluctant partners of Obama.

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Friday roundup, Feb. 1, 2013

In this Jan. 18, 2013 photo, BHP Billiton spokesperson Norman Benally steps down from one of the smaller buckets used at Navajo Mine east of Farmington, N.M.  The Navajo Nation is in negotiations to buy the Navajo Mine from BHP Billiton in 2016 when BHP’s lease expires. (AP Photo/The Durango Herald, Joseph Stephenson)

The news side of the journal Nature had a story this week headlined Obama rekindles climate hopes: President will use regulations to sidestep stalled Congress that reported:

Throughout his re-election campaign, US President Barack Obama rarely said the words ‘climate change’. But in his second inaugural address, on 21 January, Obama renewed a commitment to address global warming, citing both moral and economic imperatives. To fail, he said, “would betray our children and future generations”.

The 2010 demise of a climate bill that would have enacted a cap-and-trade system to limit greenhouse-gas emissions remains one of the key failures of Obama’s first term. With a divided Congress still standing in the way of legislation, the administration is likely to rely on its own power to impose new regulations, once Obama has replaced the retiring heads of three agencies key to the climate agenda.

And the journal had an editorial that said:

… The administration should issue strong regulations for power plants and send a message to the coal industry: clean up or fade away. The energy utilities will duly cry foul, but the same companies are already powering down old and inefficient coal-fired power plants in favour of natural-gas plants. Why? Because natural gas is cheap and burns more cleanly than coal, helping companies to meet increasingly stringent air-quality regulations.

Meanwhile, SNL Energy had a pretty comprehensive rundown of impending coal-fired power plant retirements, reporting:

A new year and another four years of the Obama administration have sparked a flurry of announcements from fossil fuel generators in the opening month of 2013, including numerous planned coal unit retirements and several potential unit conversions from coal to natural gas.

The most prominent of the announcements came from coal-fired heavyweight Southern Co., which announced Jan. 7 that its Georgia Power Co. subsidiary would seek to retire or refuel 15 coal- and oil-fired units, in part to avoid costly air emissions upgrades that would be needed to comply with the U.S. EPA’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, or MATS.

On the chopping block for Georgia Power are 11 coal-fired units at its Harllee Branch, Kraft and Yates plants. Under the current plan, the Branch and Yates coal units would be retired by April 16, 2015, the effective date of MATS. The utility expects to seek a one-year extension of the MATS compliance date for the Kraft units, retiring them by April 16, 2016.

More recently, Berkshire Hathaway Inc.-owned MidAmerican Energy Co. committed to stop burning coal at three Iowa power plants under a settlement agreement with the Sierra Club. The plan, announced Jan. 22, calls for MidAmerican to cease burning coal by April 2016 at units 1 and 2 at the George Neal station; units 1 and 2 at the Walter Scott plant; and units 7, 8 and 9 at the Riverside plant.

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Friday roundup, Jan. 25, 2013


Representatives of Cloud Peak Energy and Montana’s Crow Tribe sign an agreement Thursday Jan. 24, 2013, that gives the mining company leasing options on 1.4 billion tons of coal beneath the Crow Indian Reservation, in Billings, Mont. Pictured from left are Cloud Peak legal counsel Amy Stefonick, company chief executive Colin Marshall, Crow Tribal Chairman Darrin Old Coyote and Tribal Executive Secretary Alvin Not Afraid. The deal would expand mining on the reservation with the coal likely to be exported overseas. (AP Photo/Matthew Brown)

We had more news this week about terrible mining accidents in other part of the world. First, there’s this:

Investigators have launched a criminal probe into a coal mine accident that killed four miners in Russia’s Siberia region on Sunday.

And from China:

As one more body was found Monday, the death toll in Friday’s coalmine accident in southwest China’s Guizhou Province has risen to three, with 10 miners still missing. Eighteen people were working in the mine shaft when the gas outburst accident happened Friday afternoon at the Jinjia Coal Mine in the Panxian County of Liupanshui City.

In a previous roundup of news and commentary about President Obama’s second term, I failed to include this from the Washington Post WonkBlog’s Brad Plumer:

A week after he won the 2008 presidential election, Barack Obama addressed a gathering of governors and other officials in Los Angeles, assuring them that global warming would be a top priority for his first term. “Now is the time to confront this challenge once and for all,” he said. “Delay is not an option.”

His goal at the time? An ambitious plan to cut America’s heat-trapping greenhouse-gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050 and invest $150 billion in new clean-energy and efficiency technologies over the next 10 years. It was a pledge to completely upend the existing U.S. energy economy.

But Obama got only part of the way there, to the chagrin of many of his green supporters. True, U.S. carbon dioxide emissions have fallen 7.7 percent since 2006 — but much of that has been due to the recession and a glut of cheap new natural gas that has displaced dirtier coal, a dip that could just prove temporary.

From the Sierra Club, we have another report about more coal-fired power plants closing:

Today, the Sierra Club and Warren Buffett’s MidAmerican Energy Company announced a landmark settlement that requires the Iowa utility to phase out coal burning at seven coal-fired boilers, clean up another two coal-fired boilers and build a large solar installation at the Iowa State Fairgrounds. The announcement also pushes the total amount of coal generation retired or announced to retire since 2010 to over 50,000 megawatts, almost one-sixth of the nation’s coal fleet.

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Friday roundup, Jan. 18, 2013

 

Gary May, former UBB mine superintendent walks away from the U.S. District Court in Beckley Thursday, Jan. 17, 2013 with his attorney, Tim Carrico, after his sentence hearing. May was sentenced to 21 months in prison and three years of supervised release. Judge Irene Berger also ordered that May pay a $20,000 fine. (AP Photo/The Register-Herald, Rick Barbero)

In case you happened to miss it, here’s the link to our story about U.S. District Judge Irene Berger sentencing former Upper Big Branch Mine superintendent Gary May to 21 months in jail for his guilty plea to taking part in a Massey Energy conspiracy to violate mine safety laws. Howard Berkes over at NPR also had a piece about the sentencing, though it looked like to me that Kris Maher of the Wall Street Journal was the only member of the national media who attended the hearing.

Also this week, the UBB Memorial launched a new website that you can check out here, and Dan Lowrey at SNL Financial did a piece about former Massey CEO Don Blankenship’s recent commentaries on coal-mine safety issues, which we covered previously here on Coal Tattoo.

Manuel Quinones  of Greenwire did a piece about the battle over coal-ash regulation, featuring the town of Chester, W.Va.:

The ground here is leaking.

Several neighbors have moved away to escape seeps coming out of the hillside. They say the leaks have dampened their backyards and infested their homes with mold.

Curt and Debbie Havens, who put a trailer on their Pyramus Road lot in the mid-1970s and built their current home in 1979, are ready to pack up, too.

“It’s equivalent to seven fire hoses,” Curt Havens said, describing one outflow. “If you lay seven fire hoses side by side, that’s how much water is coming through there.”

Neighbors blame the 1,700-acre Little Blue Run coal ash dump — an unlined impoundment that straddles the border with Pennsylvania and has for decades been a repository for combustion waste from FirstEnergy Corp.’s Bruce Mansfield coal power plant near Shippingport, Pa. The waste travels several miles through an underground pipe.

And my buddy Tim Wheeler at The Baltimore Sun had a piece about coal-ash issues in Maryland:

The operator of three coal-fired power plants in Maryland has agreed to pay a total of $2.2 million in penalties and fix long-standing pollution problems at the landfills in Southern Maryland and Montgomery County where it disposes of the ash from those plants, according to court documents.

In a proposed consent decree filed recently in U.S. District Court, subsidiaries of GenOn Energy, a Houston power company, agreed to settle lawsuits by Maryland and environmental groups alleging that the company’s Brandywine, Faulkner and Westland coal-ash landfills have been polluting groundwater and nearby streams. GenOn, which merged last month with NRG Energy, based in Princeton, N.J., pledged to pay $1.9 million and to investigate and clean up the contamination caused by its disposal facilities.

The company also agreed recently to settle another lawsuit brought by the Maryland Department of the Environment accusing it of allowing ash from its Brandywine landfill in Prince George’s County to wash into a tributary of the Patuxent River. In that consent decree filed in Prince George’s Circuit Court, GenOn agreed to pay $300,000 and to beef up runoff pollution controls at the site.

 

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Friday roundup, Jan. 11, 2013

A massive dragline coal mining machine is moved form one mine to another near Blue Creek, Ala., in a Dec. 6, 2012 photo.  A temporary roadway is being built as the machine makes the 17-mile move.  (AP Photo/ AL.com, Frank Couch)

This week saw a terrible coal-mine gas explosion that killed eight coal miners in Turkey, and prompted this response, as reported by the local press:

Authorities at a Zonguldak mine in which eight workers were killed Jan. 7 failed to implement the recommendations of a damning official report from 2011 that outlined huge safety breaches, according to reports.

“It is a coincidence that a fatal incident has not occurred yet [at the Kozlu coal mine],” read the report which was prepared by the Turkish Audit Courts for Turkish Parliament’s public economic enterprise body in 2011. The eight mine workers were killed due to a gas leak at the mine in the Black Sea province of Zonguldak.

The state-owned Turkish Hard Coal Enterprise’s (TTK) was in efforts to “increase safety” at the mine.

Reports said the miners were overcome by a large amount of methane gas after they opened a coal deposit.

The report further revealed that TTK’s operating sub-contractor was not actually a mining firm but a construction company instead. “The firm failed to take the necessary measures regarding work safety,” according to the report. The report also included many negative former reports about the mining company.

Much closer to home, new West Virginia mine safety chief Eugene White gave an interview to West Virginia Public Broadcasting:

We’ve got to get into the coal miner’s heads, so to speak, to let them know we’re there they don’t need to be afraid of us yes we’re going to do our job we are an enforcement but we are a training agency. We just got to let them coal miners know that we’re in this together it takes all of us and they don’t they just need to think about what they’re going to do before they do it. We have a lot of good laws in place and if we follow those rules and regulations I think we’ll be OK.

 

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Friday roundup, Jan. 4, 2013

Afghan porters put a sack of coal donated by the United Nation’s refugee agency (UNHCR), in Kabul, Afghanistan, Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2013. Around 440 Afghan returnees and the most vulnerable families who are at risk in the cold winter weather received winter relief assistance distributed by the United Nation’s refugee agency. (AP Photo/Musadeq Sadeq)

In part two of a series about coal workers (see part one here), Mike Elk of In These Times did a take-out piece on the Patriot Coal bankruptcy, reporting:

If you are an individual struggling with debt, your options are limited. But if you are a coal company, you may be able to take advantage of a creative new strategy to shed your obligations.

Over the past decade, Peabody Energy and Arch Coal, the nation’s largest coal companies, offloaded large amounts of retiree healthcare obligations to new companies that now face bankruptcy. The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) says that the spin-offs were designed to fail in order to clean the companies’ books of their retiree debts.

In 2007, Peabody Energy spun off a new company, Patriot Coal, which inherited 10 unionized mines in Kentucky and West Virginia. Along with the mines, Patriot took on $557 million in healthcare obligations to UMWA retirees. In 2008, Patriot bought Magnum, which had been similarly spun off from Arch Coal three years earlier. From Magnum, Patriot inherited another $500 million in obligations to retired miners, according to the UMWA.

Oddly, for a 5-year-old company, Patriot wound up with nearly three times as many retirees as active employees, more than 90 percent of whom never worked for the company. Overburdened by its debts, in July of 2012 Patriot declared bankruptcy.

In bankruptcy court, Patriot is seeking to be released from its pension and retirement obligations to some 10,000 UMWA retirees, covering more than 20,000 beneficiaries which total more than $1.3 billion.

“Especially in an era of declining demand and price for coal, there is a mismatch between the cost of [Patriot’s] legacy obligations and [its] ongoing ability to generate revenue,” Patriot Coal wrote in its bankruptcy filings. “[Patriot’s] return to long-term viability depends on [its] ability to achieve savings with respect to these liabilities.”

In response to the bankruptcy, the UMWA is suing Peabody and Arch Coal, saying Patriot was designed to fail in order to release Peabody from retiree obligations. Citing the Coal Act of 1992–in which Congress ordered coal companies to provide lifetime healthcare benefits to UMWA retirees–the UMWA says that the mining giants are still responsible for the retiree healthcare obligations assumed by Patriot.

Speaking of Peabody, Andrew Revkin had an interesting post about that company’s claims of being a “leader in clean energy solutions,” a piece that may have prompted Peabody to remove those claims from its website.

Closer to home here in West Virginia, the UMWA issued a statement in support of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s decision to make Eugene White director of the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training.  And over in Kentucky, Erica Peterson at WFPL reported:

Kentucky Utilities will spend $57 million to install updated pollution control equipment and pay civil penalties under the terms of a proposed consent decree.

The money will go to installing a sulfuric acid mist emission control system at the company’s Ghent power plant, replace a coal-fired boiler and pay $300,000 in fines to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Also this week, many folks in the anti-mountaintop removal movement are mourning the death of Rebecca Tarbotton of the Rainforest Action Network. The New York Times noted:

Although the network, which is based in San Francisco, is not as familiar a name as environmental groups like the Sierra Club or Greenpeace, it was regarded as particularly effective while Ms. Tarbotton worked there.

Ms. Tarbotton joined the network in 2007 as director of its global finance campaign. In her first years, she helped lead an effort that persuaded some major banks, including Bank of America and Wells Fargo, to stop lending money to companies that mine coal by blasting off the tops of mountains in Appalachia.

Some critics dismissed the banks’ response as public relations moves and noted that mining companies could find financing elsewhere. But other analysts said that increasing scrutiny by environmental groups was pressuring big corporations to better align their activities with public attitudes on environmental preservation.

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Friday roundup, Dec. 21, 2012

This Sept. 11, 2012 photo shows a Whitehaven Coal mine outside Narrabri, Australia near Gunnedah, 450 kilometers (280 miles) northwest of Sydney.  (AP Photo/Rob Griffith)

There was some big news out of Kentucky this week, with American Electric Power’s announcement that it is going to close the Big Sandy Power plant in Louisa. The announcement — coverage here from WFPL and the New York Times — comes after May’s decision by AEP to drop plans to retrofit the facility with new pollution controls.

As the Times noted:

This has been a bad year for the coal industry … A total of 55 plants, including Big Sandy, have closed or have announced plans to shut down, according to a count by the Sierra Club. That will leave 395 coal-burning plants in the United States, compared with 522 in 2010, according to the Sierra Club.

Nationwide, coal production dropped this year by an estimated 7 percent even as exports grew to Asia and Europe, according to the Energy Department.

Politically, this has been a disappointing year for the coal industry as well. Industry executives contributed heavily to Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, while also sending large donations to important Congressional races, like Senate contests in Ohio, Virginia and Montana, in which their preferred candidates lost.

Bruce Nilles, Senior Director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, bragged in a press release:

At this pace, we are on track to end the scourge of coal burning in the United States within the next two decades.


Nilles and others at the Sierra Club celebrate for this reason:

Every coal plant retired means less mining destruction, less air and water pollution, and a better chance to prevent runaway climate disruption.

That particular Sierra Club press release didn’t include any of the group’s occasional comments (especially by Beyond Coal campaign director Mary Anne Hitt) calling for political leaders in coalfield communities to focus efforts on diversifying local economies.  Speaking of diversifying the coalfields, I think I previously failed to mention on this blog a great piece published on The Daily Yonder about that very issue. Eastern Kentucky resident Kelli B. Haywood tells her family’s version of that story:

Whether a person stands on the side of the coal industry or feels the industry is the detriment to our well-being isn’t going to matter when we are faced with having to transition our economy from coal. After the likely mass exodus, like those we have seen in our past when coal production declined, those left behind — and those who choose to stay — will have to find a way to work together to provide for their families or live in dire poverty.

I dare say that a way will be found. I honestly don’t know if John and I will be in the group that tries to work it out or in the group that goes — or if, in the meantime, we will pack up the house and head on out to a community that isn’t facing such a critical position, such hostility toward those of the opposite opinion, and such day-to-day turmoil.

Dad says, “If the coal industry goes away, the only thing left in eastern Kentucky would be those singing kum-ba-yah around the campfire to deaf ears.” Who knows what would come of that? I’ve been around some pretty productive campfires – and not. What if, though, this little pocket of d.i.y entrepreneurs is the beginning of something new?

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Friday roundup, Dec. 7, 2012

In this Sept. 11, 2012 photo, a four-wheel-drive car follows a large mining truck as it makes its way to the top of a Boggabri coal mine near Gunnedah, Australia, 450 kilometers (280 miles) northwest of Sydney. (AP Photo/Rob Griffith)

Over at The Associated Press, Vicki Smith this week had a nice overview of the larger issues raised by the death of a CONSOL Energy miner in the collapse of a coal-refuse embankment in Harrison County, W.Va.:

With a driver and his bulldozer missing in a thick, dark lake of coal slurry, a mine safety expert and critic of the coal industry says regulators are ignoring stricter construction standards that could prevent more failures at hundreds of similar dam-like structures around the country.

For at least a decade, state and federal regulators have allowed coal companies to build or expand the massive ponds of gray liquid and silt atop loose and wet coal waste, said Jack Spadaro, an engineering consultant and former director of the National Mine Health and Safety Academy.

“They’re building on top of the existing slurry, and therein lies the problem,” Spadaro said. “It’s wet and it has no stability. It’s creating hazards for all of us downstream.”

Meanwhile, just in time for that CONSOL fatality, one of the company’s mine superintendents had a letter to the editor in the Pittsburgh paper criticizing what he said is over-regulation of the mining industry:

Sadly the Environmental Protection Agency is putting ideology ahead of practicality … At the end of December, CONSOL Energy’s Miller Creek Mine in Mingo County, W.Va., will have no permitted reserves to support the 145 employees at this location and despite our best efforts, the company may not be able to reassign those workers. These employees are not statistics, they are real people with mortgages, car payments and children to feed and put through school … Moving forward on permits like ours, and countless others, could mean thousands of jobs and do wonders for our economy.

Meanwhile, in China:

An accident in a coal mine in southwest China killed 17 miners on Wednesday, while 11 workers were still missing three days after another mine flooded in the northeast, state media reported.

The official Xinhua News Agency said there was an outburst of coal and gas in a shaft in a mine in Fuyuan county in Yunnan province on Wednesday afternoon.

Citing the county government, Xinhua said the other 49 miners underground at the time escaped unharmed.

In a separate report, Xinhua said 11 miners were still missing three days after a coal mine flooded in northeastern Heilongjiang province. A total of 22 miners were working in the mine when it was flooded on Saturday night. Six escaped, two were helped out on Sunday and three miners had been confirmed dead.

China has the world’s deadliest coal mine industry, with 1,973 miners killed in accidents last year.

Safety improvements have reduced deaths in recent years, but safety rules are often ignored and accidents are still common.

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Friday roundup, Nov. 23, 2012

A vessel is seen carrying coal on the river Rhine in Duisburg, Germany, Monday, Nov. 19, 2012.(AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

Just after the election, the Herald-Dispatch over in Huntington published an interesting op-ed by Kenova native Cliff Staten headlined, “King Coal politics more complicated than industry lets on“:

The massive media offensive by the coal industry against new EPA rules and EPA enforcement of current rules dominates the politics of the state. Of course, it is important to remember that the coal industry has dominated state politics since the early 1900s. It is an industry that typically gets whatever it wants and rarely compromises. The current debate is much more complicated than what the coal industry suggests in its 30-second sound bites and on its billboards.

West Virginia coal is facing intense competition from the cheaper and more efficient coal industry in the west, especially Wyoming. West Virginia coal has become much more expensive in recent decades due to the depletion of easily accessible coal reserves and much higher unionization rates compared with easily accessible coal and very low unionization rates in Wyoming.

The piece continued:

Coal will still be important to the state beyond my lifetime, but it is time for the state to begin seriously to discuss and chart a course for the long run: a post-coal era. As a proud native of West Virginia and a union supporter, I believe that discussion of the state’s post-coal era must include all involved, not just the powerful coal industry. It should take place not only in the halls of government but also in neighborhoods, the small towns, the cities, the union halls, the Chambers of Commerce, and perhaps most importantly in the schools and universities at all grade levels.

It is the current students and young people who have the most to gain or lose in the long run. If we believe that the economy of West Virginia is in a crisis, it is time for ALL to make sure there is a viable economy for our posterity. Simplistic slogans and solutions will not address the real problem.

And writing for the Appalachian Voices “Front Porch” blog, Matt Wasson had an interesting analysis of the coalfield results of this year’s presidential race:

If Romney had won, it would be the rural, white demographic in coal-mining regions that would be the focus of the “How he won” stories, not the historic impact of the Latino, women’s and youth vote. Pundits would be talking about how anti-regulation messages like “stop Obama’s war on coal” resonated with the electorate and how Republicans won a mandate to roll back environmental and public health regulations.

Exhibit A of that winning Republican strategy would have been Boone County, W.Va., which produces more coal than any other county east of the Mississippi River, and saw the largest pro-Republican swing (R+42%) of all 3,140 counties in the U.S. between 2008 and 2012. Of course, West Virginia is hardly a swing state, but the same pattern holds for southwestern Virginia, where the vote margin in the six coal mining counties swung in favor of Republicans by 24% — by far the best showing in a state that Romney barely lost.

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IEA report: Coal’s share of global energy to decline

In this photo taken  Jan. 19, 2012, smoke rises in this time exposure image from the stacks of the La Cygne Generating Station coal-fired power plant in La Cygne, Kan.  (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, Filr)

There’s a new International Energy Agency report out today that has important news for the coalfields. From the IEA fact sheet:

Fossil fuels remain the principal sources of energy worldwide, though renewables grow rapidly. Demand for oil, gas and coal grows in absolute terms through 2035, but their combined share of the global energy mix falls from 81% to 75% during that period.

And there’s this, which will sound familiar to folks in Appalachia:

The unlocking of unconventional resources portends a very bright future for natural gas, which nearly overtakes coal in the primary energy supply mix by 2035.

Now, much of the media coverage is going to focus as this report from Reuters did:

The United States will overtake Saudi Arabia and Russia as the world’s top oil producer by 2017, the West’s energy agency said on Monday, predicting Washington will come very close to achieving a previously unthinkable energy self-sufficiency.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) said it saw a continued fall in U.S. oil imports with North America becoming a net oil exporter by around 2030 and the United States becoming almost self-sufficient in energy by 2035.

“The United States, which currently imports around 20 percent of its total energy needs, becomes all but self-sufficient in net terms – a dramatic reversal of the trend seen in most other energy importing countries,” it said.

But what’s probably far more important is what IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven tried to explain in the agency’s news release:

North America is at the forefront of a sweeping transformation in oil and gas production that will affect all regions of the world, yet the potential also exists for a similarly transformative shift in global energy efficiency. This year’s World Energy Outlook shows that by 2035, we can achieve energy savings equivalent to nearly a fifth of global demand in 2010. In other words, energy efficiency is just as important as unconstrained energy supply, and increased action on efficiency can serve as a unifying energy policy that brings multiple benefits.

Why? Fatih Birol, IEA Chief Economist and the WEO’s lead author, explains:

Our analysis shows that in the absence of a concerted policy push, two-thirds of the economically viable potential to improve energy efficiency will remain unrealised through to 2035. Action to improve energy efficiency could delay the complete ‘lock-in’ of the allowable emissions of carbon dioxide under a 2oC trajectory – which is currently set to happen in 2017 – until 2022, buying time to secure a much-needed global climate agreement. It would also bring substantial energy security and economic benefits, including cutting fuel bills by 20% on average.

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Friday roundup, Nov. 9, 2012

President Barack Obama pauses as he speaks at the election night party at McCormick Place, Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012, in Chicago. Obama defeated Republican challenger former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Understandably, the news and commentary this week was mostly stuff about the election, and where President Obama will take coal policy during his second term. Here are a few of the pieces I noticed:

— Politico reported that President Obama emerged “bruised but victorious” from the “war on coal”:

Mitt Romney’s strategy for picking up coal country was simple: paint President Barack Obama as the enemy of the region’s important industry.

But millions of dollars in advertising later, Obama still picked up Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia — states Romney needed desperately, leaving him with only West Virginia.

Romney did outperform John McCain, who picked up fewer votes in areas of Virginia most tied to the coal industry, but the numbers still weren’t enough to topple Obama, who also won the state in 2008.

— The Washington Post explained that Obama appears likely to continue efforts to curb greenhouse gases, push energy efficiency:

President Obama’s reelection, along with key wins by Senate Democrats, ensures that the federal government will press ahead with efforts to promote renewable energy and energy efficiency and to curb greenhouse gas emissions linked to climate change.

But the scope of these policies could be constrained by congressional opposition and by concern over their economic impact, making it likely that a second Obama term will deliver some, but not all, of environmentalists’ top priorities.

Investors were quaking already, pummeling shares of coal-mining companies that waged a vigorous advertising battle against Obama’s reelection and which are potential casualties of any curbs on greenhouse gas emissions. Shares of Peabody Energy fell 9.6 percent Wednesday, Arch Coal plunged 12.5 percent, Consol Energy dropped 6.1 percent, and Alpha Natural Resources sank 12.2 percent.

“Obama’s re-election . . . provides the basis for positive movement on clean tech and climate action once the new Congress meets,” the banking giant HSBC’s global research group told investors in a research note. But it added, “Silence on climate issues during the campaign until the onset of Hurricane Sandy and continued Republican majority in the House means that scope for strategic action will remain limited.”

 — Writing for EnergyBiz.com, Ken Silverstein explained:

When the major networks declared last night that President Obama had carried Ohio and had thus clinched the White House, the analyses concluded that it centered on the auto bailout, not the coal industry.

As it turns out, the president didn’t need to carry Ohio to win a second term, having secured enough of the battleground states to give him a comfortable margin of victory. But the state still represents a cross-section of voters that any candidate would love to have in their column. To that end, President Obama focused on the revival of the auto industry that is integral to the region while Mitt Romney pounded Obama for his administration’s “war on coal.”

— Reuters wrote:

Energy producers braced for tighter regulation in President Barack Obama’s second term, with coal companies expecting more emissions restrictions and drillers anticipating less access to federal land even as his platform promotes energy independence.

Opponents already believe Obama has waged a “war on coal” through the administration’s push for stricter regulation of greenhouse gas emissions by the Environmental Protection Agency.

“Four more years of President Obama translates into additional pressure on the coal industry from the EPA and numerous environmental groups,” energy investment bank Simmons & Co said in a note to investors on Wednesday.

 

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