Monday, April 23, 2007

Coal under fire

As far as electricity generation in this country is concerned, coal is still king. In his book "Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America's Energy Future" Jeff Goodell points out something that may surprise and certainly dismay many:

"In truth, the United States is more dependent on coal today than ever before. The average American consumes about twenty pounds of it a day. We don't use it to warm our hearths anymore, but we burn it by wire whenever we flip on the light switch or charge up our laptops. More than one hundred years after Thomas Edison connected the first light bulb to a coal-fired generator, coal remains the bedrock of the electric power industry in America...We may not like to admit it, but our shiny white iPod economy is propped up by dirty black rocks."
"The Future of Coal", a recently released by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology study group co-chaired by Professors John Deutch and Ernest Moniz, predicts that despite concerns about climate change: "coal will increase under any foreseeable scenario because it is cheap and abundant." This report was written before the Supreme Court ruling on CO2 emissions. That decision and subsequent policies constraining CO2 emissions could have a major impact. (GW)

Coal Assaults Continue

By Ken Silverstein
EnergyBiz Insider
April 18, 2007

A federal judge has ruled that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers needs to do more study before it issues permits to allow coal companies to perform any surface mining that would bury vital headwater streams. While the decision may get overturned by a higher court, it does emphasize the need to balance economic and environmental concerns.

Beyond the issue of mountaintop mining, the ruling carries implications with respect to the future use of coal-fired power generation. That's because U.S. lawmakers appear likely in the coming years to pass legislation that would constrain carbon output. Any such law would make it increasingly costly to build coal plants, which produce the preponderance of greenhouse gases. As a result, utilities would then be forced to rethink business strategies.

The assault on coal continues with mountaintop mining being one of the battles. In his decision, Judge Robert Chambers of the Southern District West Virginia said the corps failed to demonstrate that the strip mining technique is lawful. That marks the fourth time a federal judge has revoked mountaintop removal mining access, although in each case the 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Richmond has overturned those orders.

The corps maintains that it has adhered closely to the Clean Water Act and the National Environmental Policy Act, noting that the mines for which it issued permits will cause "no significant impact." That position is supported strongly by the coal industry.

Two federal appeals court judges disagree, however, writing in a dissenting view from the other Richmond-based jurists that, "This case is of exceptional importance to the nation and, in particular, to the states of the Appalachian region. The Appalachian mountains, the oldest mountain chain in the world, are one of the nation's richest, most diverse, and most delicate ecosystems, an ecosystem that the mountaintop coal mining authorized by the corps' general permit may irrevocably damage."

That sentiment in combination with the general desire to curb greenhouse gas emissions will have a major affect on the coal industry. If the United States starts regulating carbon emissions and subsequently allows such credits to be traded, they will sell for at least $25 a ton. Because less sophisticated coal plants produce at least twice the carbon emissions as other alternatives, the industry must develop new technologies or risk losing market share to natural gas, nuclear and renewable energy forms.

Emissions aside, mountain removal mining literally sheers off the tops of mountains to get at the underlying coal seams. But, the rock and dirt that is removed in the process is subsequently placed in the surrounding valleys and therefore buries some streams, harming overall water quality. Roughly 6,700 permits were issued between 1985 and 2001. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, about 1,200 miles of streams have been buried while at least 380,000 acres of local forestry have been devastated.

"This decision does give the corps another chance to try and show that they can issue permits for valley fills in streams without violating the law," says Steven Roady, an attorney for Earthjustice that sued the corps over this issue. "But the evidence to date shows that the corps has no scientific basis -- no real evidence of any kind -- upon which it bases its decisions to permit this permanent destruction to streams and headwaters."

Sensible Solutions

The ultimate goal is to come up with a sensible solution -- one that minimizes environmental harm while giving coal-dependent states a chance to prosper. The issue does not just affect the people of rural West Virginia, Kentucky and Eastern Tennessee. It also touches everyone else. Coal is used as the primary fuel form for about 50 percent of the electricity generated in this country.

Mountaintop mining accounts for a third of all coal mined in Appalachia and a study by Marshall University says that 15,000 jobs and $2.4 billion in economic output in West Virginia alone depend on these mining operations. The Energy Information Administration estimates that coal reserves in Appalachia are 55.2 billion tons while coal production tied to mountaintop mining in West Virginia alone is 52 million tons annually.

The strip mining technique gained prevalence in the 1990s, largely because about 90 percent of the resources that lay beneath those peaks were available for production. After the area is mined for coal, it must be "reclaimed" and turned into something useful. Coal companies and economic developers also said that the newly-created flat land -- a scarcity in many parts of Appalachia -- has turned once unusable areas into thriving properties where schools, shopping malls and recreational sites now exist.

"The opponents want the world to only see active, not-yet-reclaimed sites in their pictures and articles," says Bill Raney, executive director of the West Virginia Coal Association. "The entire story, through complete reclamation, is much more truthful, but is not nearly as dramatic for those who oppose mining. The miners are `practicing' environmentalists who make sure the environment is actually protected every day at their operations."

If history is a guide, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals is likely to overturn the lower federal court decision. But the fight over mountaintop removal is just one piece in the overall strategy to knock coal off its pedestal. Witness the case in which TXU Corp. became embattled over a proposal to build 11 coal-fired power plants in Texas before two private suitors proposed a buy-out of the utility.

"Now we just have to make the paradigm shift and start thinking about shipping electrons instead of coal," Leslie Glustrom, an activist with Clean Energy Action in Boulder.

The pressure will continue. Utilities that rely on coal must accept that the legislative and regulatory environment is changing. They must implement modern coal technologies while embracing the use of sustainable energy forms. It's not just about reducing the level of emissions. It's also about safeguarding their shareholders.


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