Three recent news items suggest that supporting the coal industry at any cost is not in the best industry of the state or the industry.
110 Proposed Coal Plants Dropped: According to the Sierra Club’s Coal Plant Tracker, of the 230 proposals for new coal-fired plants or coal-to liquid plants, the number of proposed plants stopped or seriously jeopardized has now reached 110.
The latest victim occurred December 4 when the Utah Supreme Court overturned the state’s approval of an air permit for the NEVCO proposed coal-powered plant in Sigurd, Sevier County. Previously, the Utah Air Quality Division, backed by the state Air Quality Board, had decided that the plant would increase air pollution unnecessarily. The justices also questioned the extent to which the state regulators had explored the use of best available pollution control technology.
Four Pennsylvania Generating Stations to Close: On December 2, Chicago-based Exelon announced it will shut down some operations at two coal-fired power plants in the Philadelphia area in 2011. This includes both units at the Cromby plant in Phoenixville on the Schuylkill River in Chester County, and two of the eight generating units at the Eddystone plant in Delaware County.
According to a press report, “the company said the decision to shut the Eisenhower-era power plants was based on economics – the high-maintenance units are costly to operate in deregulated electricity markets, where wholesale prices are depressed.”
The planned closing of the Eddystone and Cromby coal-fired plants will reduce the CO2 emissions from Pennsylvania’s plants by 4.18%, in terms of the 2007 total figure of 117.5 million tons CO2 for all Pennsylvanian coal-fired plants. Closing our dirtiest plant (Bruce Mansfield) would reduce the 2007 total by 14.8%.
Senator Byrd Urges Fresh Look at Coal Industry’s Future: In a surprising Op-Ed on his Senate Web site, the senior senator from West Virginia, Robert Byrd, states that “Coal Must Embrace the Future”.
After recounting the changes that the West Virginia coal industry has experienced in the past, Senator Byrd writes, “change is undeniably upon the coal industry again. The increased use of mountaintop removal mining means that fewer miners are needed to meet company production goals. Meanwhile the Central Appalachian coal seams that remain to be mined are becoming thinner and more costly to mine. Mountaintop removal mining, a declining national demand for energy, rising mining costs and erratic spot market prices all add up to fewer jobs in the coal fields”.
Further on he states, ”The most important factor in maintaining coal-related jobs is demand for coal. Scapegoating and stoking fear among workers over the permitting process is counter-productive.
Coal companies want a large stockpile of permits in their back pockets because that implies stability to potential investors. But when coal industry representatives stir up public anger toward federal regulatory agencies, it can damage the state’s ability to work with those agencies to West Virginia’s benefit.”
About the need for coal in the nation’s mix he says “Let’s speak a little more truth here. No deliberate effort to do away with the coal industry could ever succeed in Washington because there is no available alternative energy supply that could immediately supplant the use of coal for base load power generation in America. That is a stubborn fact that vexes some in the environmental community, but it is reality”.
And on mountain top removal, “It is also a reality that the practice of mountaintop removal mining has a diminishing constituency in Washington. It is not a widespread method of mining, with its use confined to only three states. Most members of Congress, like most Americans, oppose the practice, and we may not yet fully understand the effects of mountaintop removal mining on the health of our citizens. West Virginians may demonstrate anger toward the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over mountaintop removal mining, but we risk the very probable consequence of shouting ourselves out of any productive dialogue with EPA and our adversaries in the Congress”.
The Senator concludes, “The greatest threats to the future of coal do not come from possible constraints on mountaintop removal mining or other environmental regulations, but rather from rigid mindsets, depleting coal reserves, and the declining demand for coal as more power plants begin shifting to biomass and natural gas as a way to reduce emissions.
Fortunately, West Virginia has a running head-start as an innovator. Low-carbon and renewable energy projects are already under development in West Virginia, including: America’s first integrated carbon capture and sequestration project on a conventional coal-fired power plant in Mason County; the largest wind power facility in the eastern United States; a bio-fuel refinery in Nitro; three large wood pellet plants in Fayette, Randolph, and Gilmer Counties; and major dams capable of generating substantial electricity.
Change has been a constant throughout the history of our coal industry. West Virginians can choose to anticipate change and adapt to it, or resist and be overrun by it. One thing is clear. The time has arrived for the people of the Mountain State to think long and hard about which course they want to choose.”