Obama's First 100 Days of Coal: A Few Honest Words, Please

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Obama's First 100 Days of Coal: A Few Honest Words, Please

If you're going to lead my country,
If you're gonna say it's free
I'm gonna need a little honesty
Just a few honest words

-Ben Sollee, "A Few Honest Words"

With those proverbial first 100 days coming to a close, here are ten moments--some good, some confusing, some hair-raising--in the short swift time of coal in the Obama administration's new era of "clean, renewable energy that will lead the 21st century."

This much is clear: The Obama administration has ushered in a new era of democratic participation in the great energy debate, opening the door to discussions on coal and its dirty legacy for the first time in nearly a decade, and allowing the winds of change to air out Washington's coal dank corridors. No question about it: The Obama administration has clearly made great strides in the right direction to tackle the reality of climate destabilization and unchecked coal mining operations.

At the same time, it is also clear that the Obama administration does not have a road map for withdrawal from our disastrous dependence on coal, no grand plan for a regulated phase out of mountaintop removal or coal-fired plants. Instead, borrowing a page from the compromising policies of the Carter and Clinton wags, the Obama administration appears to be putting its faith in questionable regulations, albeit stricter, but still beholden to the coal industry and its inevitable crimes of extraction and indisputable impact on our children's future.

Above all, an incredible coalition of citizens groups, activists, environmental organizations, students and coalfield heroes has come together in these first 100 days of the Obama administration to bring a little truth and clarity to the debate on clean energy and power our nation past coal. Indeed, see: www.powerpastcoal.org

As the Waxman-Markey debate plods along, how about a few honest words on CCS--carbon capture and storage technologies that everyone knows is an infeasible chimera?

Instead of using government statistics from 1974 on coal reserves, how about a few honest words on the depleting reality of coal today?

1) EPA's Elvis Rule: Greenhouse Gases Must Not Leave the Building April 17, 2009

The EPA first put a hold on the approval of a coal-fired plant in South Dakota on January 22nd; in mid-February, it announced its intention of more closely regulating carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired plants. After a scientific analysis of carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons and sulfur hexafluoride, the EPA then made an extraordinary decision in April to propose a ruling to recognize greenhouse gases as a cause of climate change and an accountable threat to public welfare.

"This finding confirms that greenhouse gas pollution is a serious problem now and for future generations," EPA head Lisa Jackson said in a statement. "Fortunately, it follows President Obama's call for a low carbon economy and strong leadership in Congress on clean energy and climate legislation. This pollution problem has a solution-one that will create millions of green jobs and end our country's dependence on foreign oil."

"The current global atmospheric concentrations of the six greenhouse gases are now at unprecedented and record high levels compared to both the recent and distant past," the ruling says. "It is also unambiguous that the current elevated greenhouse gas concentrations are the primary result of human activities."

2) Mr. President's Nostalgia: When Can We Stop Being the Saudi Arabia of Coal, and Become the Saudi Arabia of Biomass or Wind or Solar? February 18, 2009

In an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, President Obama borrowed one of his favorite campaign lines and reminded us that his misplaced Illinois coalfield nostalgia is still deeply embedded:

"I think that it is possible for us to create a set of clean energy mechanisms that allow us to use things not just like oil sands, but also coal," he said. "The United States is the Saudi Arabia of coal, but we have our own homegrown problems in terms of dealing with a cheap energy source that creates a big carbon footprint."

3) Converting the Capitol Power Plant: Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid Deal With the "Dark Shadow" Over the Capitol February 26, 2009

In anticipation of the largest civil disobedience action against coal and climate destabilization in late February, Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader Reid instructed the Acting Architect of the Capitol to convert the 100-year-old coal-fired dinosaur plant to natural gas--a first step, albeit a non-renewable one. They wrote:

"The switch to natural gas will allow the CPP to dramatically reduce carbon and criteria pollutant emissions, eliminating more than 95 percent of sulfur oxides and at least 50 percent of carbon monoxide. The conversion will also reduce the cost of storing and transporting coal as well as the costs associated with cleaning up the fly ash and waste. Eliminating coal from the fuel mixture should also assist the City of Washington, D.C., in meeting and complying with national air quality standards, and demonstrate that Congress can be a good and conscientious neighbor by mitigating health concerns for residents and workers around Capitol Hill."

4) The Sword of Damocles to Clean Coal Guardians: James Hansen on Coal Death Trains February 15, 2009

In an oped in the UK Guardian, NASA climatologist James Hansen spelled out his scientific conclusions in no uncertain terms:

"Coal is not only the largest fossil fuel reservoir of carbon dioxide, it is the dirtiest fuel. Coal is polluting the world's oceans and streams with mercury, arsenic and other dangerous chemicals. The dirtiest trick that governments play on their citizens is the pretense that they are working on "clean coal" or that they will build power plants that are "capture ready" in case technology is ever developed to capture all pollutants. The trains carrying coal to power plants are death trains. Coal-fired power plants are factories of death."

5) EPA: TVA Time for Coal Ash Regulations March 9th, 2009

After last December's TVA coal ash pond disaster reminded the nation that coal ash had not been classified as a hazardous material and properly regulated, and that half of the nation and our water supply rested within an hour of a coal ash pond, EPA administrator Lisa P. Jackson announced: "Environmental disasters like the one last December in Kingston should never happen anywhere in this country. That is why we are announcing several actions to help us properly protect the families who live near these facilities and the places where they live, work, play, and learn."

Specifically, the EPA would:

--gather critical coal ash impoundment information from electrical utilities nationwide, --conduct on-site assessments to determine structural integrity and vulnerabilities, --order cleanup and repairs where needed, and --develop new regulations for future safety.

6) Mountaintop Removal: An Agonizingly Slow Sorta Maybe Kinda Regulated Phase Out, or Perhaps Deliberate Steps Toward Abolishing the Most Egregious Human Rights and Environmental Betrayal of Our Times?

With three million pounds of ammonium nitrate fuel oil explosives ripping apart our continent's most diverse and ancient mountains and adjacent historic communities every day, the EPA and Department of Interior have issued a series of murky, almost contradictory announcements to either review, regulate or stop mountaintop removal operations in Appalachia--500 destroyed mountains and 30 years after this betrayal was sanctioned.

Specifically, on March 24, the EPA had to clarify an earlier announcement to place more scrutiny on mountaintop removal permits. The EPA did everything to sidestep any controversy, stating:

"The Environmental Protection Agency is not halting, holding or placing a moratorium on any of the mining permit applications. Plain and simple. EPA has issued comments on two pending permit applications to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers expressing serious concerns about the need to reduce the potential harmful impacts on water quality. EPA will take a close look at other permits that have been held back because of the 4th Circuit litigation. We fully anticipate that the bulk of these pending permit applications will not raise environmental concerns."

On April 8th, however, in the same area that a boulder broke loose from a mountaintop removal operation and killed a 3-year-old boy in his home in 2004, the EPA directed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to revoke "nationwide 21" mining permits in southwest Virginia.

On April 27th, DOI chief Ken Salazar announced the Obama administration's intention to reverse the Bush's administration change of a poorly enforced 1983 buffer zone rule that supposedly prevented coal companies from dumping waste within 100 feet of a stream.

The response from the Appalachian coalfields was cautious.

"Interior Secretary Ken Salazar made it clear at his press conference that the 1983 rule would continue to be implemented as it has in the past - meaning it will not be enforced against waste dumping. He stated that coal production would not be affected and that current coal operations would not be affected and was vague with respect to future actions," said attorney Joe Lovett, from the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment. "Therefore, Interior's action will not provide the protection essential for Appalachian mountain streams under the surface mining law or the Clean Water Act."

"The stream buffer zone rule is a decades-old regulation that has prohibited surface and coal-mining activities from disturbing areas within 100 feet of streams. For years the agency has ignored the law and allowed thousands of miles of headwater and perennial streams in Appalachia to be permanently buried by coal companies under millions of tons of waste generated by mountaintop removal coal mining."

7) Congress With a Mountain Backbone: The Clean Water Protection Act: Or, Lamar Alexander, Benjamin Carden, Frank Pallone, John Yarmuth and Dave Reichert Are True American Heroes March 24, 2009

If the EPA and DOI ultimately drag their feet in the muck of the machinations and compromises of the coal industry on the mountaintop removal issue, a growing movement in Congress introduced the Clean Water Protection Act this spring to amend the Clean Water Act and prevent the dumping of toxic mining waste from mountaintop removal coal mining into headwater streams and rivers. Coal state senators Alexander (R-TN) and Carden (D-MD) and coal state representative Yarmuth (D-KY) have shown particular vision and courage.

"It is not necessary to destroy our mountaintops in order to have enough coal," said Senator Alexander. "Millions of tourists spend tens of millions of dollars in Tennessee every year to enjoy the natural beauty of our mountains - a beauty that, for me, and I believe for most Tennesseans, makes us proud to live here."

8) Who Killed the Miners' Jobs? Massey Foresaw Layoffs in February, Long Before the EPA or other Environmental Decisions. February 4, 2009

As part of their 4th quarter 2008 Earnings Call to financial analysts, mountaintop removal giant Massey Energy executives crowed that "2008 was a very exciting and successful year for Massey, by many measures, the most successful in our history. As you know, we undertook a very aggressive expansion plan in late 2007, and our members executed that plan almost to perfection in 2008."

And then, in answering a question that 2010 guidance could produce 10% less, and have an impact the high head count, a Massey executive simply responded with the bottom line of profiteers: "I think the answer would be that we will be able to reduce the workforce with attrition fairly markedly," and, "we also will cut back on salaries."

Bottom line: More coal mining jobs have been lost to the volatile energy markets and profit margins of multinational corporations like Massey or Peabody Energy, which recorded an 8-fold increase in profits in its 2008 4th quarter, than any environmental laws.

9) Georgia On My Mind: Coal-fired Plant Converting to Biomass; Salazar on Offshore Wind; FERC Chair Jon Wellinghoff March 26, 2009, April 6, 2009 and April 22, 2009

As the BioFuels Digest reported this spring: "In Georgia, the state Public Service Commission (PSC) approved Georgia Power Company's request to convert the Plant Mitchell Unit 3 to a 96 MW biomass power plant, from coal. The unit will utilize wood biomass drawn from a 100 mile radius around the plant, and is scheduled to complete conversion by 2012. In other biomass-to-power news, Xcel Energy filed to add a biomass gasification to its Ashland, Wisconsin plant. The plant would become the largest biomass-based power generator in the Midwest upon completion in 2012."

Along the same lines of conversion, DOI head Ken Salazar made all of those gamblers in Atlantic City, New Jersey look up as he touted the possibilities of offshore wind in replacing coal-fired plants this April:

"The idea that wind energy has the potential to replace most of our coal-burning power today is a very real possibility," Salazar said. "It is not technology that is pie-in-the sky; it is here and now."

FERC Chair Jon Wellinghoff wins the prize for the most honest words, when he announced at the U.S. Energy Association forum that "We may not need any, ever," new coal-fired plants. Wellinghoff hailed renewables like wind, solar and biomass as the needed energy to meet baseload capacity and future energy demands.

10) Why the Coal Mining Means Job Argument is Over, Done, Finished, Bogus: Green Jobs, and Coal River Wind Operation Appalachian Spring, 2009

In the face of a 6,000 acre mountaintop removal strip mine, an extraordinary community of coalfield residents and coal mining families in the Coal River Mountain area of West Virginia have drawn up a proposal for an industrial wind farm that has permanently changed the coal-equals-jobs stranglehold. The proposed Coal River Mountain wind farm, consisting of 164 wind turbines and generating 328 megawatts of electricity, would create 200 jobs, provide over $1.74 million in annual property taxes to Raleigh County; and coal severance taxes related to proposed mountaintop removal mining, by comparison, would provide the county with only $36,000 per year. That's 200 jobs for life versus a similar amount of stripping jobs for only 14 years or so of coal.

The Coal River Wind Project, atop a mountain range that is currently being destroyed by strip mining, is the ultimate ground zero in the clean energy debate. The reality of its success or death, like that of the coalfields across Appalachia and the Midwest, now hinges on the intervention of President Obama and his administration.

In the meantime, facing a broad and slightly bizarre Temporary Restraining Order--for "all other persons allied, associated, confederating, conspiring, or acting in concert with them"-- a growing civil disobedience movement to block mountaintop removal operations by Massey Energy has emerged in the Coal River Mountain area to remind the nation of the urgency of the moment.

Let's hope the next 100 days bring us a real green jobs package for the coalfields, a Coal Miners G.I. bill for retraining and education, more coal-fired plant conversions, and a resolution to the murkiness in the Waxman-Markey climate change bill that will effectively shift us away from the destruction of extracting coal, transporting coal, burning coal, storing coal ash, and the chimera of burying CO2 in the earth.

In the meantime, wunderkind cellist Ben Sollee from Kentucky asks for a few honest words:

Jeff Biggers

Jeff Biggers is the author of The United States of Appalachia, and more recently, Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland (The Nation/Basic Books). Follow him on twitter: @JeffRBiggers

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