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Business Lexington Article Summarizes Recent Day-Long Forum On Coal In Kentucky  Posted: December 3, 2009
Source: Smiley Pete Publishing

Mining for Accord
Coal forum focuses on changes to industry

by Campbell Wood

November 25, 2009

Lexington, KY - It's apparent things are changing in Kentucky when two leading coal executives spend over three hours on stage with a leading environmentalist and a journalist who wrote a book called "Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America's Energy Future." That scene occurred on the evening following a full day of speeches and discussions about the role of coal as a crucial fuel for our energy demands on the one hand, and its impact on the environment and quality of life on the other. It emerged early in the day that people on different sides of the issue had already been talking – and as a result, significant change is imminent.

“The way coal has been mined in Kentucky over the past 30 years is not going to happen anymore,” said Joseph Blackburn, director of the Lexington Field Office for the Office of Surface Mining (OSM), addressing UK’s recent Coal in Kentucky Forum. Blackburn told Business Lexington that he was speaking of two initiatives not yet implemented.

“It’s badly needed by all groups,” he said. “We’re very, very close.”

The forum brought together speakers that included coal industry leaders, environmentalists, scientists, engineers, government officials, journalists, politicians, lawyers and a historian for a discussion of issues and challenges of Kentucky coal. The forum was sponsored by the UK Department of Mining Engineering and the Center for Visualization and Virtual Environments and funded by Kentucky’s Cabinet for Energy and Environment.

Blackburn recalled that when the Surface Mining Control Reclamation Act (SMCRA) passed in 1977, there were cries that the new regulations would end the coal industry.

“Whenever the status quo is challenged or a paradigm is shifted, there is resistance,” he said.

“What’s happening today is a mockery of what Congress intended in 1977,” said Tom FitzGerald, Kentucky’s leading environmental lawyer and director of Kentucky Resources Council (KRC), addressing the forum at the evening session. “They would be ashamed of what we’ve done with the tools that they provided.”

At the core of SMCRA are the Approximate Original Contour (AOC) provisions, which required that surface mining be followed with restoration of the site so that it “closely resembles the general surface configuration of the land prior to mining.” Exceptions or “variances” would be granted when mining companies claimed that a stripped and flattened land had beneficial post-mining applications, such as industry, hospitals or golf courses. The granting of variances and the application of AOC were left for states to determine, and AOC became a matter of varying interpretations.

AOC Fill Management is one of these initiatives. Engineers from three major coal companies, another from the Army Corps of Engineers, Fitzgerald and a consulting engineer, along with representatives from the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and OSM, have been meeting in Louisville and hammering out a new protocol, which Blackburn asserted will better protect Appalachian headwaters and change the face of reclamation. When implemented, it will apply to the Louisville Corps District and Nashville District, covering most of Kentucky, except the portion of Eastern Kentucky that is in the Huntington District.

The new protocol aims to minimize valley fills (dumping of mining refuse into valleys), which will reduce disturbances within the watersheds. Blackburn said that these new procedures, when implemented, will require restoring surface mine sites close to their original contours using surface material removed during mining.

“We’re going to do fill minimization on every type of mountaintop mining job,” said Blackburn.

The other initiative under development is the Cumulative Hydrologic Impact Assessment (CHIA), which Blackburn explained will improve water quality analysis in the permitting process. Team members of that project include the Louisville Corps of Engineers, EPA, coal industry representatives with an engineering consultant, KRC and Kentuckians for the Commonwealth (KFTC), Kentucky Division of Water, Kentucky DNR and OSM.

An interagency memorandum is in the works. “Once it’s signed by the regulators — the EPA, the Corps of Engineers, OSM and particularly DNR (Department of Natural Resources) — the protocol will be implemented,” said Blackburn. DNR is the regulatory authority for all coal mining in Kentucky.

Plan would restore forests

Imagine the reforestation of nearly a million acres in central Appalachia with 125 million trees, creating economic benefits, green jobs and a better environment. Reclamation, as practiced under SMCRA regulations, missed the opportunity to implement reforestation, said Chris Barton of the UK Department of Forestry, a partner in the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative (ARRI). It’s a cooperative effort partnering OSM with about 150 Appalachian organizations. The mission is to bring reforestation to vast tracts of savannah-like grassland created by reclamation of surface mine sites. The practice of heavily compacting soil on reclamation sites to stabilize slopes and prevent slides left much of the land inhospitable to plant life other than grasses and shrubs.

Barton spoke of new methods of reclamation that show a 75 percent survival rate for tree plantings, as compared to the 20 percent survival rate with the accustomed practice. The top four to six feet of the reclaimed site is made of arable, loosely compacted soil. Reclamation workers learn “best tree-planting techniques” and those trees that are best for ridge tops as well as those for valleys. Maturing forests will grow to far exceed the carbon sequestration capacity of grassland. Reforestation benefits include reduced runoff and erosion, improved water quality and accelerated natural succession. Barton said that the proposed ARRI project, Green Forest Works for Appalachia, would employ 2,000 Appalachian residents to plant the 125 million trees over the nearly one million acres.

Any discussion of coal in Kentucky must include mention that Kentucky derives 92 percent of its electrical energy from coal while the fossil fuel is burned to generate 50 percent of the nation’s power. Veteran journalist Al Cross, director of the Institute of Rural Journalism, pointed out that coal has been a shrinking industry in Kentucky, going from direct employment of 48,000 in 1981 to 13,000 in 2004, now accounting for less than one percent of non-farm employment in the state. Cross also spoke of a statewide survey conducted by the Kentucky Environmental Education Council that found mountaintop removal/surface mining ranked third among Kentuckians’ perceptions of the state’s top environmental problems.

“To me, the prevailing view in the coal field is that mountaintop removal is an economic benefit that should not be outlawed, but it needs to be scaled back,” Cross said to Business Lexington.

Recent studies put coal industry on defensive

Jason Bailey of the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development (MACED) referenced MACED’s 2009 report that concluded, among other things, that economically the coal industry costs the state more than it benefits it, and that the coal counties themselves would benefit from economic diversification. Rick Clewett, EKU professor and a leader with the Sierra Club, cited two recent studies, including one by Michael Hendryx, a public health policy researcher at West Virginia University, that suggest the cost of the coal industry’s impact on public health in Appalachia far outstrips the industry’s economic benefits. The second study mentioned by Clewett, Hidden Costs of Energy: Unpriced Consequences of Energy Production and Use, issued by the National Academy of Sciences, presents in its section on coal energy production a thorough analysis of pollutant streams and other “hidden” costs of coal. It states, “Emissions of CO2 from coal-fired power are the largest single source of GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions in the United States.” Looking to the future, the report finds it “impossible to consider the future of coal-fired generation without considering the prospect of carbon capture and sequestration (CCS).”

“Coal is under siege,” declared Wayne Rutherford, judge-executive of Pike County. “Coal is not the villain. It ought to be the hero, what it’s done for this country. Coal helped keep America free.”

Noting that he drives a hybrid, Rutherford claimed Pike County as a “green” county and listed a number of green accomplishments and initiatives, including a site identified for wind power generation.

State Representative Rocky Adkins spoke of Kentucky as a leader in cutting-edge energy research, including work on carbon capture and sequestration. Both Rutherford and Adkins described the coal industry as Eastern Kentucky’s Toyota.

Vanessa Hall of Pikeville, a third grade teacher and member of KFTC, had a different view.

“I live in the coal fields of Eastern Kentucky,” she said. “I live with pollution, destruction and degradation that happens everyday.” Echoing concerns of “diminished coal resources, smaller seams, less returns on the dollar,” Hall called for more initiatives to employ renewable energy technologies wherever possible.

FitzGerald, the environmental lawyer, questioned constructing a 75-year power plant where only 30 years of economically accessible coal might remain.

Jim Cobb of the Kentucky Geological Survey recalled the booming ‘80s, when Kentucky coal mining production reached 179 million tons a year.

“Now we’re down to about 125 million tons a year,” he told Business Lexington, “so we’re declining.”

He said a big part of that decline is reserve depletion, as well as competition from coal in the western United States, particularly Wyoming. In a U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper (1625-C), one study is reported to have concluded in 1994 that, at 1990 levels of production, Pike County has less than 50 years of coal reserves remaining (Chapter J, J24).

Fact-based imperative or competitive conspiracy?

Paul Patton, president of Pikeville College and former governor, has a dim view of negative narratives about the coal industry.

“Those people in the Northeast have a strong incentive to be anti-coal,” argued Patton, suggesting that driving up Kentucky energy prices and diminishing the state’s competitive advantage in attracting industries would challenge the future of the Kentucky coal economy.

“The future of coal is greatly dependent on how we address climate change,” countered FitzGerald. “Now is not the time to shift mistrust to the East Coast. Now is the time for engagement and creativity.”

Rep. Adkins said that if it’s true that energy use is going to double over the next 20 years, as projected, the nation needs a 21st century version of the industrial revolution, with coal continuing to hold an important role in providing energy for future generations. Professor Clewett later suggested that a doubling of energy consumption should not be perceived as inevitable, but that we should set as a goal no increase in energy consumption, employing energy efficiency and renewable energy sources. A great deal of political will would be required to make it happen, he said.

Joseph Craft, president and chief executive officer of Alliance Resource Partners, let it be known that he loves “blue and white” and coal, all brought together with the $7 million he raised for UK’s controversially named “Wildcat Coal Lodge” athletic dormitory. Craft runs one of the most successful coal-producing operations in the eastern United States. While Craft regards coal a pillar of the U.S. economy, his business instincts call for dealing with climate change — which he doesn’t deny, but does question — in such a way as not to undermine U.S. competitive strength in a global economy.

To illustrate his presentation to the Lexington Forum, Jeff Goodell, author of Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America’s Energy Future, projected on a large screen behind him Google Map satellite images of West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky, mottled with mountaintop removal sites. It was startling to see a to-scale image of Lower Manhattan easily fitting into one of those tracts with room to spare.

“There’s no lobbying Mother Nature,” Goodell said. “Climate change is real. Burning coal is a big part of it.” Goodell, who once worked with Apple founder Steve Jobs, said there is a broader energy revolution happening in the United States.

Goodell’s vision is shaped by his experience in the storied Silicon Valley. His model of technology development is the rapid succession of ideas and advancements — products shedding old designs and limitations to arrive at surprising new horizons. He said Silicon Valley money and investments around the world are pouring into renewable energy technology development.


While acknowledging that we have a debt of gratitude to coal for the abundant energy the nation has derived from it, Goodell noted that he has traveled with climate scientists and has seen the rapidly melting North Pole ice cap, which now is projected to vanish by 2030, much sooner than earlier predicted. It is a consensus among most climate scientists, he said, that by 2100, there will be a three- or four-foot rise in ocean levels. The climate scientist Jim Hansen, he said, thinks it could be a seven- to eight-foot rise.

Fred Palmer, senior vice president of government relations with the Peabody Coal Company, also believes in the power of science, especially on the industrial scale. A path out of poverty is paved with coal, he believes, citing a link between the availability of electricity to rises in life expectancy and education.

Palmer mentioned China’s massive growth, but that growth has not come without a heavy price. James Fallows reported in the November issue of Atlantic Monthly: “… the Chinese government recently accepted a World Bank estimate that some 750,000 of its people die prematurely each year just from air pollution.”

Coal brings electricity and it also brings pollution. It contributes to life expectancy and it brings death.

The coal industry is on a quest for what proponents call “clean coal.” Palmer believes coal will remain a key fuel of the future. The U.S. Secretary of Energy, Dr. Stephen Chu, supports research into new, cleaner methods of fueling electrical power generation with coal. Chu has called for construction of 10 demonstration carbon sequestration plants by 2016 — a huge undertaking with no guarantee of success.

Carbon sequestration, the storage of captured carbon deep in the earth, has its risks. The National Academy of Sciences study mentioned earlier in this article states that with carbon capture and sequestration, “… there are significant risks due to accidental release of sequestered carbon.”

And the jury is still out on whether carbon capture, a process of removing CO2 from power plant emissions, can be made efficient enough to reduce its own demand for additional power — and coal.

Other initiatives include FutureGen, a public/private endeavor of the U.S. Department of Energy and an alliance of leading international energy companies with the goal of demonstrating a near-zero emissions, coal-powered plant that would pipe liquefied CO2 for sequestration into the earth.

There was no anti-coal movement evident at UK’s daylong forum. It seems to this writer that there was a realistic recognition by all that we depend on coal and the people who work in the coalfield, but there was also movement to find regulatory fixes and creative solutions to better meet our energy and environmental needs.

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