Clean Coal’s Mountainous Upstream Blindspot

Gasification-based IGCC power plant technology offers a powerful means of cleaning up local air pollution from coal-fired power and, via carbon capture and storage, its carbon footprint. Carbon-Nation has argued in past that it should be legally mandated for new power plants burning coal because (1) air pollution laws require use of the best emissions controls available, (2) carbon capture and storage will be economically viable under emerging carbon caps and taxes, and (3) adding new carbon emissions from coal is unjustifiable given the critical need to stabilize atmospheric levels of CO2. 

But let’s be clear on one thing: IGCC and carbon capture can substantially clean up the coal-fired power plant, but they can’t deliver “clean” coal. That’s because extracting coal to feed the power plants is, in itself, a dirty business — at least as it is currently practised. Last week I witnessed this firsthand at two West Virginia mines where mountains are literally dismantled to reveal their hidden coal seams, then piled back to a rough approximation of their original contours or left flat for development. I visited the mines as part of the Society of Environmental Journalists’ annual conference, held this year in the heart of coal country in Roanoke, Virginia. 

Mountaintop removal mining, as this practice is called, accounts for about a third of Appalachian coal production but contributes a considerably larger share of Appalachian coal burned in power plants (conventional deep mines yield more metallurgical coal used in steel mills). They are, without question, environmentally and culturally destructive. Thousands of cubic meters of rock, sand, and soil dumped into valleys bury ephemeral stream beds; wildlife are displaced; sludge impoundments from coal-cleaning operations threaten groundwater and communities; and residents of the mountains suffer internal devestation as the lands that define their existence are blasted into oblivion. For a sense of scale check out this 5MB panorama of the mine pictured above by National Geographic executive editor Dennis Dimmick.  

Can the coal industry do better? Yes. For example, reclamation experts from Virginia Tech told the tour that mountaintop mines are adopting a new reforestation approach that could restore the mountains’ ecology within two generations. That’s huge improvement over current practices where grasses and shrubs take over, leaving the land in what Virginia Tech forestry professor James Berger called a state of “arrested succession.”

Will the industry ever make coal mining socially and environmentally sustainable? Appalachian activists who have fought ‘Big Coal’ for decades doubt it. For one thing, the coal companies enjoy undivided support from state legislators and governors in coal states. That’s why West Virginia author and political activist Denise Giardina told the SEJ conference attendees that she was “rooting for global warming” to stop coal. “I think it will force us to change,” said Giardina, who made it clear that IGCC power plants sequestering CO2 weren’t the kind of change she had in mind. Quite the opposite in fact: “If we ever have clean coal,” said Giardina, “you can kiss the mountains goodbye.”

I’m going to need more time to reflect on what I saw and heard last week. The scale of carbon reductions required and developing nations’ right to develop may yet justify the ongoing use of coal. But, at the very least, it is more clearer to me than ever that cleaning up our energy systems must start with energy efficiency and less extractive forms of renewable energy. We are all, as willing users of coal-supplied power grids, contributors to Appalachia’s plight everytime we turn on the juice. 

Storied author, poet and social critic Wendell Berry put that message to the SEJ conference in the bluntest of terms: “It’s awfully hard to remember when you push that button that you are authorizing mountaintop removal.” 

For more on mountaintop removal mining check out this week’s article by the Associated Press which I believe was inspired by the SEJ mountaintop mining tour.

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This post was created for Energywise, IEEE Spectrum’s blog on green power, cars and climate

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