coal

Wed, 2012-05-30 08:35Brendan DeMelle
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What Chesapeake Energy's Financial Scandals Mean For The Rest of Us

Given radioactive wastewater, earthquakes, and flammable tap water, one might think that drilling and fracking could not possibly have any more dirty secrets. But here’s the biggest secret of all: it’s expensive.

With natural gas at historic low prices – the Wall Street Journal ran a column recently suggesting that the price of gas might even sink to negative numbers, so that producers would need to pay buyers to take it off their hands – it may seem odd to think that fracking is costly. But it’s true. Not just in terms of its environmental footprint, but also in terms of its financial costs.

And everyone should care about how expensive gas is, especially those concerned about energy security and the environment, because the answer will determine the fate of renewables, the way we use land and water, and whether our nation’s energy policies are fundamentally sound.

To understand what’s going on, you need to look at Chesapeake Energy, the second largest producer of natural gas in the US, the company described by its founder and CEO Aubrey McClendon as the “biggest frackers in the world.”

For 19 of the past 21 years, the company has operated at what investors call “cash flow negative” – last year by $8.547 billion dollars – meaning that Chesapeake has consistently spent a whole lot more than it earned. For decades.

To fund all that fracking, the company has been flipping land, engaging in so many financial transactions that it’s been said to resemble a hedge fund more than a gas driller.

McClendon's company has become the environmental Enron, with Chesapeake's accountants creating some of the most labyrinthine and impenetrable books since Enron, according to some investors.

Thu, 2012-05-03 12:46Steve Horn
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B.C. Protest This Saturday to Stop Warren Buffett's BNSF Coal Trains

Warren Buffett, the third wealthiest man on the planet (net worth: $44 billion), often referred to as the “Oracle of Omaha,” is the target of a May 5 action called for by Stop Coal B.C. Well, not Buffett directly, but a rail company he owns through his massive holding company, Berkshire Hathaway: Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) Railway.

BNSF Railway is the second largest freight rail company in the United States and the exclusive carrier of thermal coal from coal basins in the northwestern U.S. to docks in British Columbia, where the dirty coal is exported to the global market, primarily to Asia.

The action calls for activists to blockade BNSF's four coal-loaded freight trains from reaching their final destination for the day and in the process, risk arrest. It is part of 350.org's broader “Connect the Dots” event taking place on Saturday, with actions planned throughout the world.

The Stop Coal B.C. call to action reads,

Thu, 2012-05-03 12:01Ben Jervey
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Exporting Coal: Struggling U.S. Coal Industry Trying to Stay Relevant By Shipping Through the Northwest

coal train exporting coal pacific northwest

U.S. coal companies are facing some tricky math these days. Production levels have remained more or less the same since 2005, according to the Energy Information Agency (EIA), but during that time domestic consumption has dropped nearly 11 percent.

Where is all that extra coal going? Some is piling up at power plants, but increasingly, more and more of it is being shipped overseas.

The coal industry is hoping to accelerate that export trend, but their ability to keep delivering steady volumes of coal is entirely dependant on their ability to open up new export terminals at coastal ports around the country, particularly in the Pacific Northwest where the dirty rock could be more directly shipped to the burgeoning Asian markets.  

Still, aside from some regional coverage and some incredible work from organizations like the Sightline Institute and Climate Solutions, these Northwest export terminals aren’t getting nearly the amount of attention from environmentalists and climate activists as, say, tar sands pipelines.

This post will serve as a basic overview of the current state of coal production and exports, and what the industry hopes to accomplish in coming years.

Fri, 2012-04-27 12:55Farron Cousins
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Coal Ash Sites Posing Increasing Dangers To Water Supplies, Public Health

The Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) has once again put together a fantastic report regarding water contamination near coal ash disposal sites.

Last year, the EIP released several reports showing that drinking water near coal ash disposal sites in states across America contained dangerous levels of heavy metals and other toxins, including arsenic. In total, last year’s report revealed 53 sites in the United States where coal ash had polluted drinking water supplies.

The new report has identified a total of 116 coal ash sites in America that are leaching deadly toxins into the environment.

The new EIP report resulted from a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the EPA, which revealed that 49 different coal-fired power plants acknowledged that their own testing showed that groundwater pollution around their disposal sites far exceeded the federally acceptable levels. Among the chemicals reported to exceed federal standards at the coal-fired plants’ disposal sites are:
  

Thu, 2012-04-26 05:45Ben Jervey
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Coal Train to Boardman: EPA Warns of "Significant" Public Health Threats in Northwest Coal Export Proposal

As demand for coal in the United States has cooled off in recent years, coal mining companies have been scrambling to deliver their dirty loads to customers abroad. But what does this mean for communities along the transportation routes, particularly at the ports and export terminals where the coal is offloaded from trains and onto boats?

The U.S. EPA, for one, is warning of the potential for “significant impacts to public health” in one such port town.

Coal exports have more than doubled over the past six years, and are at their highest levels in over two decades. According to an Associated Press evaluation of Energy Information Agency coal data, more than 107 million tons of coal were exported in 2011.

But that’s a small drop in the bucket (or lump in the stocking? sorry, couldn’t resist) of what coal companies hope to export in the very near future. (Farron Cousins covered the coal export trend here on DeSmogBlog earlier this year.)

Nowhere is the push to export coal being felt more than in the Pacific Northwest, where there are currently plans to ship more than 100 million tons each year, according to the Sightline Institute.

Wed, 2012-04-25 15:46Farron Cousins
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American Lung Association Releases 2012 State of the Air Report

The American Lung Association (ALA) released their annual State of the Air report today, followed by a live discussion on Twitter where the organization answered questions. While the report offers some positive news for American citizens, it also shows us that the Clean Air Act is under attack from the dirty energy industry.

Here are the highlights from this year’s report:
  

More than 4 in 10 people (41 %) in the United States live in counties that have unhealthful levels of either ozone or particle pollution. Over 127.2 million Americans live in the 235 counties where they are exposed to unhealthful levels of air pollution in the form of either ozone or short-term or year-round levels of particles.

Over 5.7 million people (1.9%) in the United States live in six counties with unhealthful levels of all three: ozone and short-term and year-round particle pollution: ozone and short-term and year-round particle pollution.

The strongest improvement came in reducing ozone smog levels across the nation. More than half of the country’s most-smog-polluted cities experienced their best year yet. Twenty two of the 25 cities with the most ozone pollution improved their air quality over the past year’s report. More than half of the country’s most smog-polluted cities experienced their best year yet. Still, nearly four in ten people in the U.S.(37.8%) live in areas with unhealthful levels of ozone pollution.
 

The ALA also lists the health effects of this year’s two biggest pollutants – ozone and particle pollution:

Sat, 2012-04-07 11:57Laurel Whitney
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Spruce Mine Mountaintop Removal Coal Permit Restored

In late March, a federal court ruled to open the Spruce No. 1 mine in Logan County, WV, to mountaintop removal coal mining. The EPA had originally vetoed the permit back in January of 2011, explaining that the destructive practices of mountaintop removal would endanger communities' health and access to clean water.

The permit authorizes the largest single mountaintop removal site in West Virginia's history.

Federal Judge Amy Berman Jackson ruled that the EPA overreached when it tried to revoke the permit using the laws of the Clean Water Act. Berman declared,

It posits a scenario involving the automatic self-destruction of a written permit issued by an entirely separate federal agency after years of study and consideration. Not only is this nonrevocation-revocation logistically complicated, but the possibility that it could happen would leave permittees in the untenable position of being unable to rely upon the sole statutory touchstone for measuring their Clean Water Act compliance: the permit.”

Tue, 2012-03-27 17:16Brendan DeMelle
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Sierra Club Launches "Mr. Coal" Video Campaign to Mock Dirty Coal PR

The Sierra Club launched a funny new ”Mr. Coal“ video campaign this week in its ongoing 'Beyond Coal' effort to shut down coal plants throughout the United States.

The campaign will feature a steady stream of satirical TV commercials mocking the coal industry's incessant and incredulous claims about job creation, “clean coal,” and many other dirty PR tricks pitched by King Coal time and time again.

Feast your eyes on one of the ads below:

The Club has teamed up with Mekanism, a San Francisco, CA-based creative campaign agency, to push out these commercials.

Wed, 2012-02-08 12:28Farron Cousins
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The Business of Risk – Insuring Against Climate Change

When it comes to assessing risk, the insurance industry is one of the leaders in the field. Whether it is health insurance, car insurance, or homeowner’s insurance, the industry is forced to analyze every possible scenario for a given person or structure, and impose a fee based on the likelihood of events for the situation. So when an entire industry that bases their profitability on reducing risk starts factoring climate change into their equations, it's probably a good idea to pay attention.

Earlier this month, insurance commissioners in three separate U.S. states began mandating that insurance providers include the risk of climate change disasters in their risk equations, and develop and disclose their plans to deal with climate-related catastrophes. These plans will be laid out in surveys that insurance companies will provide to insurance commissioners in their respective states.

The three states that have made these new rules are California, New York, and Washington State. Previously, many states had only required the largest insurance companies to have climate plans, but the new rules, which could spread across the United States to climate change-vulnerable places like Florida and Texas, require all insurers to adjust for climate change disasters.

The New York Times lays out why the industry is taking on climate change issues:

Thu, 2012-02-02 12:21Farron Cousins
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Exporting Emissions: Coal Supplies Heading Overseas, But Pollution Will Hurt Everyone

The coal industry in the United States has found a way to increase their profits, while at the same time avoiding the cumbersome environmental standards in place to protect American citizens from coal emissions – they can just ship their filthy products overseas where regulations are scarce. As coal consumption in the U.S. has fallen in recent years, the dirty energy industry has hardly noticed, thanks to the increased demand from foreign buyers.

While the fact that the U.S. is burning less and less coal is a good thing, shipping the excess coal to foreign countries could more than negate the emissions reductions in the U.S. As Ezra Klein from The Washington Post points out:

The U.S. is burning less and less coal each year, thanks to cheap natural gas and new pollution rules. From a climate perspective, that’s a huge deal — less coal means less carbon. But here’s the catch: if the U.S. just exports its unused coal abroad, the end result could actually be more carbon…

So here’s one possible future: If we’re not going to burn our coal, someone else will. One Tokyo shipping company, Daiichi Chuo Kisen Kaisha, says that U.S. coal exports could double in the next three or four years. In Washington state, coal companies are proposing two large export terminals that would help ship tens of millions of tons of coal from the Powder River Basin to countries like China. That, in turn, could make coal even cheaper in places like China — which might spur the country to build even more coal power plants than its current, already hectic pace. And, since carbon-dioxide heats up the planet no matter where it’s burned, this outcome could cancel out many of the global-warming benefits of the U.S. coal decline. (emphasis added.)

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