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Dethroning King Coal December 1, 2008

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change, Coal.
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Last month I was fortunate enough to drive through – and not stop in – the lovely state of West Virginia.  It was dark, but between the mountain passes I did get to do some sightseeing.  I was impressed by the neoclassical grandeur of the state capitol building, but I was also treated to pollution-belching industrial complexes beautifully backlit by gas flares.   The scene was reminiscent of, but did not smell quite as bad as, Gary, Indiana – a real gem in a state that prides itself on being “The Crossroads of America” (read: between places worth visiting).  But I digress.

Drifting somewhere between “the zone” and highway hypnosis, I was jarred awake by a billboard just past Charleston.  It said, “YES COAL. Clean, carbon neutral coal. ” I slammed on the brakes so hard I was nearly rear-ended as I slowed to make sure I’d read correctly.  ‘Clean’ is already a sleazy misnomer for coal, but ‘carbon-neutral’? That sign’s not just wrong, it’s probably illegal: There are laws protecting the public from false advertising.

clean-coal

An ad like the one I saw. Maybe your head didn't just explode, but this is ridiculous.

There is no way to burn coal without releasing its carbon.  That’s just how combustion works.  The only way that billboard is not a blatant mistruth is as a deceitful allusion to carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) a process that theoretically would allow us to catch carbon dioxide as it’s emitted.  But CCS is expensive and has yet to be practically implemented, so coal remains our most carbon-intensive (and dirtiest) energy source.

Walker Machinery, the mining equipment supplier responsible for this and other misleading coal ads, even admits on its Web site that its statements refer to the [ideal] future of coal, not the present.  And that dirty present has gotten some attention lately.

One of Walker Machinery’s major customers is Massey Energy, the nation’s fourth-largest coal company.  Massey has received a lot of negative press.  In 2006, notorious CEO Don Blankenship was sued with Massey when his unrelenting emphasis on coal production over safety led to two deaths in a mine fire.  Last year, Massey was sued for committing up to $2.4 billion worth of violations of the Clean Water Act.  And this year, two West Virginia Supreme Court Justices had to recuse themselves from a case against Massey after photos surfaced of one vacationing with Blankenship on the French Riviera.  The court, led by a third justice on whose campaign Blankenship spent $3.5 million but who has still ruled on numerous cases about Massey, voted to overturn a previous $77 million verdict against the company (see video below).

ABC’s Nightline reports on Don Blankenship.  Check this out.

How has Massey responded to its criticism? Blankenship unloaded on coal critics last week at the Tug Valley Mining Institute, calling them “communists,” “atheists” and “greeniacs.” He then compared environmentalists to Osama bin Laden.   But my favorite quote was, “Most people wouldn’t believe that coal is the most important thing to the environment. ” I’ll provide some context lest that sound silly: the environment to which he was referring was the “total environment,” which is composed not just of “trees and all that” but also of the ability to send our children to school.

Oh, that environment…wait, what?

Blankenship’s rant went on to sympathize with like-minded people who don’t believe in climate change but are “afraid to say that because it is a political reality.” Without exploring the remarkable similarities between his “political reality” and our “actual world,” I’d just like to say I hope that in this new political era we can set aside pesky realities and embrace fanatical utopias where ignoring something hard enough makes it magically disappear.  Viva la status quo!

But coal executives like Blankenship have reason to be cranky these days.  Two weeks ago, the Environmental Protection Agency ruled that utilities must apply the best available control technology for carbon dioxide emissions at new coal-fired power plants.  This really just updates EPA policy to start treating CO­2­ like other pollutants, but it has serious implications for the future expansion of coal power – unless they can show us some clean, carbon-neutral coal plants.

Yet the Bush bonanza is not quite over.  The EPA ruled against utilities, but coal mining continues as usual.  And according to a blog post by Rob Perks at the Natural Resources Defense Council, the EPA is soon expected to weaken environmental regulations on toxic mining waste.  The governors of Tennessee and Kentucky have opposed this assault on their states’ water quality; West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin has not, tacitly upholding his state’s submission to the coal industry at the expense of environmental and public health.

Just last week Massey Energy received approval to flatten another West Virginia mountain in search of coal.  Local citizens are pleading with the governor to rescind the permit, claiming that the mountain has enough wind potential to cleanly power up to 150,000 homes.  Would it be so terrible for West Virginia to invest in some renewable energy and preserve the mountains that drive its valuable tourism?  That would certainly be a step in a new direction.

mountaintop

This used to be a mountain before coal mining. For a sense of scale, those are 6 cars just left of center in front of that road across the middle.

Governor Manchin, when it gets so bad that passing college kids feel comfortable casually deriding your entire state, maybe it’s time for a change. America already has a Gary, Ind.  Why don’t you help keep West Virginia “Wild and Wonderful” by leaving a few of its mountains intact?

A version of this post ran in The Chronicle at Duke University.

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Comments»

1. Ryan - January 11, 2010

Hi Jamie,

I’m just wondering where you found the Walker “Yes Coal” photograph. If you could contact me via email with an address, I would like to use the photo for a sustainability publication.

Cheers,

2. CCS: An Energy Wild Goose Chase, Not Silver Bullet « The Political Climate - July 15, 2010

[…] the industry is lying to the public: “clean, carbon-neutral coal”is decades away, if possible at all. The billions of dollars spent on this research could be […]

3. Dr. Carl Heltzel - July 20, 2010

A total farce and at best a dishonest attempt to sway the thoughts of the public, especially those with no chemistry background.
Disgusting.


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