“The way coal has been mined over the last 30 years is not going to happen anymore,” Joe Blackburn, director of the Lexington field office of the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, told the crowd during the afternoon session at the University of Kentucky.
Blackburn’s prediction was echoed, and elaborated upon, at the evening keynote session by Tom FitzGerald, right, director of the Kentucky Resources Council, who had just finished talks with Blackburn, state regulators, industry representatives, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Army Corps of Engineers, which issues Clean Water Act permits with EPA oversight -- which has recently become much tougher.
“The good news is we just finished a protocol that requires area mines to be returned to approximate original contour unless they get a variance,” FitzGerald said. The public often refers to area mines as mountaintop-removal mines, but the latter category requires a variance from the 1977 strip-mine law's mandate to return mined land to its approximate original contours. FitzGerald said that companies avoid that obstacle by calling their operations area mines, and regulators have often failed to enforce the original-contour rule. "It is a mockery of what Congress intended in 1977," when the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act was passed, he said. “Some coal industry people are sick and tired of having to defend some of the practices that are going on."
He said the new procedures will reduce the dumping of blasted and excavated material into heads of hollows, or narrow valleys, and require coal operators to use the material to restore the contour of nearby pre-1977 mine sites benches before placing the waste in a valley fill. He said the new plan is now in use by the Corps' Louisville District, which encompasses most of Kentucky's part of the Appalachian coalfield.
FitzGerald and Blackburn were among more than a dozen speakers at the Thursday forum, sponsored by the university's Department of Mining Engineering and the Center for Visualization and Virtual Environments in the College of Engineering. The event, billed by its organizers as “a balanced discussion regarding the past, present and future impacts of coal on our state’s economy and environment,” lived up to its mantra for the most part.
In the morning session, Pikeville College President Paul Patton, a two-term governor and also a former coal operator, asserted that cap-and-trade legislation to limit greenhouse-gas emissions and climate change is an attempt by Northeastern politicians to raise Midwestern energy prices to meet those in New England and maintain their region's economic competitiveness. “A lot of the debate against coal is purely regional economic selfishness,” Patton said.
FitzGerald had a rejoinder for that in the evening: “Now is not the time to claim a conspiracy to shift wealth to the coasts … Now is the time for engagement, for creativity," which he said would flower "Once you give the right price signal by truly valuing the cost of coal and the cost of other fuels,” including their environmental impacts.
Fred Palmer, senior vice president for government relations of Peabody Energy, the nation's largest coal producer, called that an abstract concept that has not worked in the past. He was echoed by Joseph W. Craft, president and chief executive officer of Alliance Resource Partners, Kentucky's largest producer, and they were challenged by Jeff Goodell, author of Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America’s Energy Future.
Craft, right, who made headlines by rounding up $7 million for a new men’s basketball team dormitory to be called Wildcat Coal Lodge, began his remarks with an allusion to the controversy and a reference to his attire, the team's colors of blue and white. “I love the University of Kentucky, I love the Cats,” Craft said. “I also love coal.” (Photo by Pablo Alcala, Lexington Herald-Leader)
The evening session developed into a debate about the merits and future of technology. All four panelists voiced optimism that carbon capture and storage technology would one day become viable, but Goodell was the most skeptical. "It's not clear human civilization is able to grapple with this kind of a problem at this scale with urgency," he said, adding that carbon-capture technology's complexity and high cost make it the antithesis of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who are looking to invest in "the Google of energy."
Palmer spoke often in terms that the technology was in the works and full-scale production was just around the corner. When Goodell challenged Palmer’s generalized faith in technology, Palmer retorted with a quote from President Obama, whom he called "green coal's advocate in chief:" “Yes we can.”
On a day that was often a competition of dueling PowerPoint presentations, Goodell’s emphasis on technology and innovation may have been the most intriguing. He argued that the rules governing coal are changing, whether industry officials admit it or not, and warned that if global warming causes a climate crisis, the industry will be public enemy No. 1 regardless of its real responsibility. Echoing the sentiment of new regulations mentioned by FitzGerald and Blackburn, Goodell concluded, “The new game starts today.”