Less coal more cool

6 10 2009

Coal is controversial. Its place as part of countries’ energy mixes (from heavy to marginal reliance), mountaintop removal, and approvals of new coal fired plants haven given rise to much debate. I like to think that when it comes to coal less is more and for that specific reason signs of the demise of coal or at least the struggles of the industry are always pleasant to notice. Last week the sweet treat came courtesy of the US EPA who delayed 79 coal mining permits in four Appalachian states for mountaintop removal.

Mountaintop removal is the surface mining of coal using explosives to remove up to 300 vertical meters at a top of a mountain to expose the coal seams. This method is usually seen as a productive and economic way to mine coal as the output per worker per hour more than doubles in comparison to underground coal mining. It is also safer for workers but the benefits of surface coal mining end there. At the environmental level, the impacts of mountaintop removal are offsetting the economic benefits. Due to excess rock and soil being dumped into “valley fills”, water is contaminated in the process and substantial deforestation takes place. A study has shown that measures undertaken to mitigate the environmental impacts of mountaintop removal have little effect in reducing environmental damage. It is summarized here.

The mining permits delayed this week were delayed due to uncertain compliance with the US Clean Water Act. EPA stated in a letter that the applications have not yet adequately demonstrated that anticipated adverse environmental and water quality impacts have been fully avoided and minimized since more than 80% of the permits “exhibited the potential to cause or contribute to violations of applicable water quality standards”. The EPA required additional information regarding potential cumulative impacts as well as an assessment of the effectiveness of existing mitigation plans to compensate for anticipated loss of functions associated with the burial and mine through of headwater streams. If projects were approved as currently envisioned a total of 170 miles of streams would be buried under mine waste.

At the community level, the coal industry has been pretty swift in to taking the jobs and energy security rhetoric in reaction to the EPA’s announcements of delays. West Virginia Coal Association President Bill Raney said in a statement that “They don’t understand why Washington is willing to kill-off good paying jobs when our economy is still on the ropes and the unemployment rate is still unacceptably high”. This one sentence sums up well the reluctance of the industry to acknowledge the environmental challenges ahead of mankind. At least this time the industry made it without slamming climate change science. Perhaps the US coal industry could take note of the Dalai Lama’s comment when asked about the development of the oilsands:
In a choice between “destruction of environment or losing money, then we have to choose losing money.”

There are conflicting regulatory measures in the US regarding the disposal mine waste as, since 2001, tailings are considered to be fill material and can now be placed legally in a waterway and since December 2008 mining waste can be put directly into headwater waterways. The Clean Water Protection Act, being debated in Congress, would review the definition of fill material to exclude mining waste and would therefore forbid the disposal of tailings in waterways. Until this comes into force, one can only find comfort in the fact that some US utilities companies are shifting away from coal-fired power generation due to the US progressing towards a cap and trade. This is the case of the Arizona Public Service, the NV Energy, PNM Resources as well as California’s Pacific Gas and Electric (if I am not mistaken California aims to have a coal-free energy mix)

P.S. Browsing the web for this post, I found a lot of information on Coal Tattoo, a blog hosted on the Charleston Gazette’s website. It’s now on the blogroll.

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16 02 2010
Flash News! Update on U.S Coal, Mongolia & [lots of other things] « Just Digging: a Mining and Metals blog

[…] Coal in the U.S. In the entry on the U.S. Budget proposal, I have warned of the backlash that the decision to repeal corporate income tax exemptions for the coal, oil and gas industries would unleash. Shortly after the publication of the Budget, Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia complained about the inconsistency of such message regarding the future of coal and warned that this announcement could lead producers to reduce their output. He based his critique on the absence of wording related to other measures already established in support of coal production and recent US EPA action regarding mountain-top removal. […]

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