Here we are, barely two months into the Backyard Climate Blog, and things are getting complicated. I was hoping we could put this off, but I can’t get the mountain out of my mind. I’m talking about the mountain that I killed, but there might have been more than one. To put it another way, I’ve been having trouble with electricity.
Half of the electricity generated in the United States and nearly one-third of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions come from burning coal, and both of those numbers are predicted to rise, according to Department of Energy projections. Coal burning in the U.S. releases two billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere each year. And some of that coal is obtained through a radical strip mining process called mountaintop removal.
The Blue Ridge Mountains, North Carolina
The environmental devastation caused by mountaintop removal came to my attention four years ago when Erik Reece published “Death of a Mountain," a Harper’s Magazine article about radical strip mining in the Appalachian mountains, where thousands of acres of forested ridgelines older than the Himalayas have been cut and flattened into “staggered gray shelves where grass struggles to grow in crushed rock and shale.” In the fall of 2003, Reece hiked up a mountain destined for removal, following its trails and stream beds, and observed the exquisite diversity of living things in this uniquely rich habitat, from wildflowers to tulip poplars, wild turkey to white-tailed deer. He revisited the site over the following eight months as it was carved and blasted until it was no longer a living mountain but “a hideous wedding cake, a series of black and gray ledges that lead up to the summit, now only a rocky knob… My throat tightens and my breath becomes suddenly short. I cannot see one living thing.” (Reece published a book, Lost Mountain in 2006.)
Mountaintop removal is a quick, cheap, and highly destructive method of coal extraction. It has poisoned the wildlife and people of Appalachia and decimated entire ecosystems. It also compounds the damage to the climate caused by burning coal, since it destroys forests that serve as carbon sinks. And it’s not even necessary; this form of strip mining accounted for less than 5 percent of U.S. coal production as recently as 2001, according to the EPA.
If you want to know whether your electricity comes from radical strip mining in Appalachia (the source of 60 percent of the country’s coal), go to this site and enter your zip code.
Since Maryland gets 57 percent of its energy from coal, I was not surprised to learn that two power plants on my grid burn coal excavated from strip mines. So I can’t deny it: One of the knives in the heart of the mountain was mine.
Is Change Coming to the Mountain?
As Reece describes in “Lost Mountain,” radical strip mining could not have continued virtually unchecked over the last 30 years, destroying hundreds of thousands of acres of forest and nearly 2,000 miles of streams, without the collaboration of local, state, and federal governments, primarily through a failure to enforce laws intended to protect the environment. During its last weeks in office, the administration of George W. Bush pushed through a rule allowing coal companies to dump millions of tons of rock and dirt produced by mountaintop removal – everything but the coal – into the valleys and streams below, a practice that had been illegal since the Reagan era.
Mountaintop removal site
Lately, however, the tide has started to turn. The Obama administration is in the process of reversing eleventh-hour Bush administration regulations weakening environmental protection. This March, the EPA put hundreds of permits for coal mines using mountaintop removal on hold until it could evaluate the projects’ ecological impact. March also saw the introduction of two companion bills in the U.S. Congress: the Clean Water Protection Act in the House of Representatives and the Appalachia Restoration Act in the Senate, both designed to prevent mine debris from being dumped in waterways. Then in April, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers did something unheard of during the previous administration – it revoked the permit for a coal mine in Virginia due to objections based on environmental and health concerns raised by neighboring communities. Meanwhile, legislators in eight states have introduced bills banning the use of coal obtained by mountaintop removal. Click here to see if your state is on the list, and then click your state’s name to learn precisely what is being done on the political front to end radical strip mining.
Power To The People
As individuals, we can influence the type of energy used to generate our electricity now and in the future, and we need to exercise this power to spur the growth of renewable energy sources. Each one of us now has the ability to choose where to purchase our energy. It doesn’t require shelling out big bucks for solar panels or living off the grid – all it involves is a little bit of knowledge and a conscious decision regarding what type of energy we wish to purchase. My next blog post will explain how to switch your energy source from coal to renewables and save the mountains without leaving a footprint.
There are many sources on the internet for information about coal mining and the role of coal in U.S. energy production. An October 2008 report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, Coal Power in a Warming World, provides a well-researched overview of the problem and possible solutions.
“Clean Coal” refers to Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS) and related technologies that could prevent coal-plant-generated CO2 from entering the atmosphere. Such technologies are desperately needed in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to the level necessary to prevent the worst effects of global warming. However, none of the roughly 600 plants burning coal for electricity in the U.S. capture their greenhouse gas emissions; virtually no new plants on the drawing board will capture emissions; and the technology has yet to be demonstrated at a commercial scale. A national climate policy that sets technology standards for new coal plants and assigns a cost to CO2 emissions is essential in order to speed development and use of CCS. The Pew Center on Global Climate Change publishes briefs designed to walk lawmakers through important policy design choices. This brief outlines the ways in which different types of legislation could drive a reduction in CO2 emissions from coal plants.
Carol Berkower is a mathematician and molecular biologist living in Baltimore.
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