Coal has its defenders, detractors

Posted September 2, 2013

Rick Shrum

This is the second of two articles on the energy revolution in the region.

Coal accounts for more than one-third of national electricity generation, more than any other energy source. It also is a polarizing subject, staunchly defended on one side, condemned on the other.

Consider the stances of Dan Kane and Patrick Grenter.

“Coal can have a good future if we use our heads,” said Kane, international secretary-treasurer of the United Mine Workers of America. “It remains our most abundant resource and has been a stable resource in this country for over 100 years. It’s still one of our greatest sources of electricity.”

Grenter has a different perspective. He is executive director of the Center for Coalfield Justice, a watchdog organization in downtown Washington that addresses environmental issues related to fossil fuel extraction.

“Clean coal is a myth. It does not exist,” he said. “Coal companies say extracting coal is good for all of us. Again, I think that’s a myth.”

A heating source for more than two centuries, coal continues to burn brightly in the region, in the nation and around the world. But because of increasingly stringent environmental regulations, the high cost of implementing emissions controls at older plants, and the rapid development of the shale gas industry, the flame is flickering a little.

Just a few years ago, coal generated about 45 percent of U.S. energy, well ahead of other sources. It’s now 37 percent. Natural gas – with environmental issues less extreme than coal – is at 30 percent and closing rapidly.

Yet, despite a reputation darker than a clump of the mineral substance itself, coal remains a vital source of employment and tax revenue in Greene County and, to a lesser extent, Washington County.

“Our region is the largest coal-producing area in the state,” said state Sen. Tim Solobay, D-Canonsburg. “A lot of jobs are affected, directly and indirectly, by what happens with the industry.”

Coal’s impact

Pennsylvania, in 2011, was the fourth-largest coal-producing state with 57.4 million short tons, according to an Ernst & Young analysis commissioned by the National Mining Association. That was slightly more than half of what third-place Kentucky (103.3 million) yielded.


West Virginia was second (131.2 million), amazingly less than one-third of front-running Wyoming (437.8 million).

So, yes, a lot of jobs within a 90-minute drive of downtown Washington will be affected by what transpires in the world of energy generation. And those positions would not only be in the coalfields.

Some companies have closed or plan to close coal-fired power plants. FirstEnergy Corp. announced in July that it plans to shut two in the area Oct. 9, impacting 380 employees: Mitchell Power Station in Union Township and Hatfield’s Ferry Power Station in Monongahela Township, near Carmichaels.

Hatfield’s Ferry is in peril even though Allegheny Power, FirstEnergy’s predecessor, invested $650 million there to install scrubbers to remove sulfur dioxide and mercury from the emissions. The scrubbers went online in late 2009. Tougher government regulations on emissions are anticipated, which would require further technology at a greater corporate cost.

President Barack Obama is such a staunch advocate for natural gas that a number of observers say he has declared a “war on coal.”

Burning coal cleanly has been a longtime issue. The process today is as clean as the new technologies allow, but it is not a perfect process.

“There’s no question coal is getting a lot of regulatory attention from the (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency),” said Steve Winberg, vice president of research and development for Consol Energy Inc., the largest diversified energy producer in the Appalachian Basin. Consol is prominent in the natural gas industry, working in the Marcellus and Utica shales, and operates the world’s largest underground coal mine, Bailey Mine in Greene County.

While touring the National Energy and Technology Laboratory in Morgantown W.Va., Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said last month that development of new technology for carbon storage and sequestration probably will be the key to ensuring coal’s future.

Carbon capture technology is considered vital to reducing greenhouse gas released by coal-fired power plants.

Sequestration is a new, expensive technology that separates carbon from emissions and stores it deep beneath the Earth’s surface.

“I think it’s critical for this country to continue to improve clean initiatives, like carbon capture and sequestration, and develop other technologies that can help the environment and still leave coal in the mix in our economy,” said Kane, a former miner who works at the UMWA headquarters in Triangle, Va., but lives in Ebensburg, Cambria County.

The importance of new technology may very well extend beyond the coal industry. It will likely have a worldwide impact.

Coal demand up

“Coal consumption is down right now, but its obituary shouldn’t be written,” Karen Alderman Harbert said at the fourth annual Washington County Energy Symposium on Aug. 1 at the Hilton Garden Inn, Southpointe.

Harbert is president and chief executive officer of the Institute for 21st Century Energy, an initiative of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Her prognosis for coal is downright sunny.

“The good news is global coal demand is way up,” she said. “Coal exports to Europe are up 27 percent and 80 percent to China. By 2020, coal will be bigger than oil.

“We have to invest in technologies and infrastructure and (process coal) more cleanly now.”

Jim Grech, executive vice president and chief commercial officer at Consol, said at the symposium that the demand for coal will increase 20 percent in the U.S. and 55 percent worldwide.

“(Pennsylvania has) some of the most vaulable coal in the world, and other parts of the world see it that way,” said Consol’s Winberg, whose company exports that resource to Europe, China and India.

“The rest of the world gets it. The rest of the world is looking at coal,” said John Pippy, chief executive officer of the Pennsylvania Coal Alliance and a former state legislator. “Coal is cheap, reliable and abundant. Without coal, most cities would be dark.”

Unwanted consequences

The state House isn’t the only house that concerns Rep. Pam Snyder. She is worried about the homes of employees and other direct and trickle-down effects that may occur if the power plant closures do occur.

“There would be the lost jobs, then you would lose clients who need coal, you’d have layoffs at coal mines, and it would affect businesses that rely on these customers,” said Snyder, a Democrat from Jefferson Borough. “This has the ability to be devastating to a region economically.”

A Greene County commissioner for nine years before being elected to the Legislature, Snyder is well-versed in the machinations of municipal and county governments. She said 40 percent of her county’s revenue comes from taxes on coal, and that towns and school districts there rely on it.

It’s no surprise Snyder participated in a late July rally protesting FirstEnergy’s intention to shutter the Hatfield’s and Mitchell power stations. She is an advocate for jobs and for Greene’s traditional fuel source.

“Clean coal technology has come a long way,” she said. “I think we can use coal in a clean, environmentally safe manner. And I think it can go hand in hand with natural gas. One way to clean our country is to use natural gas to fuel our vehicles.”

That source also has become a force in Greene. A record 1.4 trillion cubic feet of natural gas was produced in the Pennsylvania portion of Marcellus Shale during the first six months of 2013. Greene was fourth in the state – and first in Southwestern Pennsylvania – with 154.7 million cubic feet during that time frame, just ahead of Washington (115.8) in both categories.

Gas and coal are coexisting, and thriving, in Greene County. Coal is the one in need of friends, though – and Snyder is proving to be a loyal one.

‘Grand experiment’

The mission of the Center for Coalfield Justice, according to its website (, “is to educate and to lead, coordinate and assist citizens’ efforts to defend their rights, to protect the environment, and to improve and enforce laws and public policy regarding the mining and use of coal.”

It organizes town meetings on a variety of issues, often pertaining to longwall mining and related issues such as subsidence and drainage. Coalfield Justice is diligent in its work and fulfilling its objectives.

Grenter said his organization also is concerned about the ever-emerging shale gas industry, which is playing out in close proximity to abandoned mines.

“We’re in the crosshairs of a grand energy experiment,” he said. “You have longwall coal mining with long, established environmental and public health costs associated with it, and hydraulic fracturing, which no one can tell the costs on the environment yet.

“You have two industries operating on top of each other, making residents subjects of this grand experiment.”

Fossil fuels, he added, “are a thing of the past. Renewables are the thing of the future.”

Kane disagrees.

“There are a number of people whose focus is on renewables,” he said. “The problem is they are not as reliable as coal. Coal is always there. You can’t make the country reliant on wind power and solar power without having coal as a base.”

Coal isn’t the hazardous base it is perceived to be, Kane added.

“I think the view of coal has been unfair in a number of quarters. Some groups have openly announced that their mission is to end the burning of coal. But nothing is there to replace it yet.

“Coal-fired plants are cleaner and more efficient than ever. (Plant shutdowns happen) when you put ideology over practicality.”

For better or worse, richer or poorer, the nation is married to coal – at least in the foreseeable future, but probably longer.

“It’s taken us 130 years to build this electrical infrastructure, and coal is the base of that infrastructure,” Consol’s Johnson said. “You can’t dismantle it in the next 20 or 30 years.

“Coal will be around for a long time.”

Copyright 2012 Observer Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.