Monday, September 28, 2009

New blog coming up

Beginning next weekend, I'll be writing another blog -- this one attached to the's Greenspot, the online environmental section of the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader.

The blog will chronicle my upcoming trip to Denmark to explore the environmental infrastructure and culture there, and see how some of that technology and mindset might be adapted to Appalachia.

"Going Green in Denmark" will be in the blog list on the right side of Greenspot, just below Easy Being Green and The Kentucky Pride Blog.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Turning the Black Gold Economy Green

Five years.

2,000 jobs.

175,000 acres.

125,000,000 trees.

628,868,602 pounds of carbon.

It’s a pretty simple equation, really. Maybe too simple for people to wrap their heads around. It sounds like a con – like it couldn’t really be that easy.

But it is.

Plant an acre of hardwood trees, and in six to ten years, they’ll take at least 1.63 metric tons of carbon a year out of the air. Plant 175,000 acres of trees, take 285,250 metric tons of carbon out of the air every year, create 2,000 jobs, and reforest a seventh of the land left treeless by strip mining in Appalachia.

The Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative, which includes the U.S. Office of Surface Mining, state mining agencies in the seven Appalachian coal states, universities, environmental groups, citizens and industry representatives, is talking about just such a project. And the White House is at least considering it.

The beauty of the project is that it doesn’t require an argument about the appropriateness of mountain top removal mining, a hot-button issue that has led to violence and arrests, particularly in the West Virginia coalfields. This is something we can do for the environment and for the economy now. We don’t have to wait for a fight to play out in Congress or the courts.

This project, known as a Green Forest Works for Appalachia, deals only with formerly mined lands that are in a state of arrested natural succession. In plain language, land that isn’t growing trees.

In order to prevent landslides, regulators required coal companies to compact mine spoils. While it was the best science at the time, we now know that the combination of 200-ton trucks running repeatedly over the ground and bulldozers “tracking in” the rock and dirt creates a runoff coefficient roughly equivalent to a shopping center parking lot. That makes it impossible for tree roots to penetrate the soil, and contributes to erosion.

Add to that the fact that coal companies can hydroseed aggressive grasses, achieve the required percentage of ground cover and recover their bonds quickly, and it’s little wonder that Appalachia has ended up with somewhere between 500,000 and a million acres of barren grasslands with nary a tree in sight.

But several years of research has proven that trees will grow on those old, overly compacted sites, if they’re properly prepared. That means plowing the rocky ground at least four feet deep with a hook mounted on the back of a bulldozer.

Sites planted this spring by ARRI and its partner, the Appalachian Coal Country Watershed Team, have a 90-percent survival rate after six months. The projects also proved that both coal companies and environmentalists will turn out to plant trees on abandoned mine lands. The projects were so successful that the two in Kentucky won ARRI and the ACCWT the Governor’s Environmental Leadership Award.

There are the obvious environmental benefits to the project, including reduction of erosion, reduced flooding risks, habitat improvement and carbon sequestration, but there are also economic benefits. Unlike previous tree plantings on strip mines, the current project plants a variety of high-value native hardwoods – oak, hickory, ash, persimmon, beech, black cherry. For owners willing to wait – land companies for example – those trees could represent a managed forest resource that will provide a future stream of income when the coal is gone.

And then there are the jobs.

Under the plan now proposed, 2,000 local workers would be hired by the fifth year, planting trees up and down the mountain range, but with most of the work centered in the central Appalachians – Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia – where the bulk of strip mining has taken place. And these jobs would not be limited to manual laborers with dibble bars and tree bags. The project would require heavy equipment operators, foresters, surveyors and administrative personnel. It would pump money into transportation, tree nursery operations, and local service industries ranging from restaurants and hotels to equipment rentals.

Will planting trees replace coal mining? No. But it is a piece of the puzzle.

An industry that provides 2,000 jobs is at least a start, particularly since many of the skills required are transferable from the coal industry, where jobs will be lost in the coming years. There is also a push to get active mines to adopt the Forestry Reclamation Approach. That method leaves the top four-feet of rock and soil uncompacted, negating the need to plow the land, but still creating a demand for skilled tree planters, nursery workers, and foresters.

While none of this addresses the energy problem, it does leave room for other solutions.

Wind and solar will become more in demand in the future, and where better to build those facilities than on mine sites that can’t be reforested? And if we are building that infrastructure on abandoned mine sites, why can’t we build the components on the mine sites that were reclaimed as industrial sites?

The coal production curve turns downward in 10 years, and our challenge is to replace coal with a sustainable economy before that happens. One question remains: Is 10 years long enough to turn an economy based on black gold green?

Monday, September 07, 2009

When the coal runs out

When coal companies began moving into central Appalachia a hundred or so years ago, jobs came with them. And that is how coal companies have framed the debate over mining practices ever since.

Now environmental groups opposing mountain top removal and coal-fueled power plants are trying to frame the debate in terms of the environment. There is the loss of miles of streams, the destruction of viewsheds, the loss of habitat and species, the increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, mercury in fish tissue, coal ash spills, the danger of slurry ponds.

Coal companies are fighting back with the same argument they’ve made for a century, and all over the region, people scared by the possibility of coal jobs going away are wearing “Coal, our future” t-shirts, and the state of Kentucky has even issued a “Friends of Coal” car license tag that pumps money into the industry advocacy group.

Guess which argument is resonating with the majority of Appalachian residents?

As James Carvel famously wrote on the wall of Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign headquarters, “It’s the economy, stupid.”

Well, what if it really is about the economy?

And what if the economic outlook for coal isn’t as rosy as the industry would have us believe?

We have been told repeatedly that there are 200 years of coal left in the Appalachians, but so far not one industry advocate I’ve heard has said what that estimate assumes. For one thing, it assumes all coal, not just economically mineable coal. For another, it makes no distinction between low-sulfur and high-sulfur coal.

According to the industry, the equation is very simple: Coal production good; environmentalists bad.

But what if the real danger to coal mining jobs isn’t environmentalists?

What if the real enemy is increased coal production?

What if 200 years is a fantasy, and what if we really have a tenth that long?

What if I’m not making this up?

The U.S. Geological Survey released the National Coal Assessment in July. That report says that coal companies in Appalachia can increase production levels for only 10 more years. That’s when economic coal reserves in the most heavily mined counties run out, and the production curve turns downward.


Production is expected to drop to less than a third of current levels before the end of the century.

What then?

There are undeniable economic truths in the coal industry. Coal is a boom or bust industry. When demand goes up, price goes up and the coal economy booms. Production goes up and employment goes up.

Up until now, the downside of that cycle was that companies tend to over-produce, causing market gluts, followed by declines in production and employment. But if the USGS report is right, we are about to enter a different kind bust cycle.

And this bust cycle won’t end with the next cold winter. It will continue until the coal runs out.

Demand will go up, price will go up, production will go up, and employment will go up, in the short term, but then the supplies will begin to dwindle. Price will continue to go up because supply will not be able to keep pace with demand. This time, production will be hamstrung by the lack of mineable coal. Employment will go down because there isn’t enough coal to warrant a large workforce.

Given this equation, coal becomes more than just an environmental emergency, it becomes an economic and an energy emergency.

We have to address these issues. If production continues to rise, jobs will run out.

As coal production declines, energy will become more and more expensive.

It’s only a matter of time – and less time than anyone is willing to admit publicly.

The question then, is what alternatives do we have? I’ll explore some options in the coming weeks, from reforestation to wind, to alternative mining techniques.