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Coal Outside Appalachia

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I write a lot about coal here and one thing that repeatedly strikes me is how Appalachian-centric writing about coal remains today. There are of course historical reasons for this, but given how sharply production has shifted out of West Virginia and Kentucky over the last couple decades, public attention has really lagged. Here’s a couple of stories about coal in other parts of the country.

First is this Times exposé of the complete disaster of a clean coal plant in Mississippi that has suffered from its first moments from everyone involved having incentives to slow down the work so they can maximize govenrment money and because all the financial risks were shifted to the state’s taxpayers. From the get-go, it was a complete disaster. The silver lining here might be that finally policymakers give up on the idea that clean coal can be a thing. Because it can’t.

Meanwhile, story after story about the decline of coal in West Virginia talks about the transition of the industry to the West, especially Wyoming’s Powder River Basin, but hardly any stories actually follow the industry out there to examine its impact. This High Country News story details how coal jobs have rapidly declined in the West, really hurting towns relying on it and with no safety net. The latter point is typically of a whole history of the West’s boom and bust natural resource economies, with the remains of once prosperous mining towns scattered around the region.

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  • Denverite

    with the remains of once prosperous mining towns scattered around the region.

    http://www.ghosttowns.com/states/wy/jeffreycity.html

    This is my favorite. I drive through it on my way back from Riverton, WY. It seems like a decent-size (for Wyoming) town until you look closely and realize that all of the buildings are deserted.

    • CrunchyFrog

      I looked at that on Google Maps with Satellite. Fascinating. Most of the town still has the streets in place but like most such towns most of the homes were actually trailers so they are long gone. There are a few apparently abandoned tri-plexes. There is even an old two-tennis court facility built on Jackalope Drive (now *there* is a Wyoming name).

  • Matt McIrvin

    Obama’s advocacy for “clean coal”, which presumably followed from the significant coal industry in Illinois, was one of the few things that really bothered me about him in 2008. But I don’t recall him saying anything about the subject since then.

    • (((Hogan)))

      I do, however, recall his people in the EPA issuing regulations that have significantly reduced the use of coal in electricity generation. And I’ve heard an awful lot* about Obama’s war on coal (content note: article is better than headline makes it sound).

      * both in the sense that it’s really a lot, and in the sense that it’s awful

      • Matt McIrvin

        Indeed.

      • Pseudonym

        How much of that reduction in coal (and consequently CO₂) is due to the cheaper natural gas that’s extracted through fracking though?

        • delazeur

          Most of it. The changes that EPA’s coal regulations would have on the energy sector are basically identical to the changes we expect to see as a result of cheap natural gas.

    • skate

      Brian Schweitzer was flogging clean coal pretty hard back then. Wasn’t there even speculation about him as a potential VP candidate?

      • DrDick

        As a Montanan, that was one of many reasons I was never very enthusiastic about him. He gave good theater and his first term as governor was pretty good, but his second term was lackluster at best.

  • Vance Maverick

    Kevin Drum relays someone’s tweet that

    The Republican platform committee just voted to officially call coal a “clean” source of energy

    so soon no special plants will be required to make it so.

    • CrunchyFrog

      This is like the “Clean Diesel” scam that VW-Audi tried to pull on everyone.

  • kmannkoopa

    I definitely have a case of “both sides do it” with clean coal plant.

    New York is subisidizing the construction of a solar plant in Buffalo for a company that just went bankrupt, I am paying a large surcharge on my electrical bill to keep a Nuclear plant growing (about to be expanded to the rest of the state.

    Maybe Americans are attracted to the welfare-queen narrative because our businesses to do the same with Corporate Welfare.

    • CrunchyFrog

      Well, Democrats will take their money as happily as Republicans, they just need a good cover story to make it sound like they are sticking to their values. Hence Rheeism and Clean Coal, as two examples.

    • ExpatChad

      First time I read this, misread “growing” as “glowing”…

  • Peterr

    Illinois has had a long history of coal mining, but as EPA restrictions came into place, their high-sulfur coal had trouble finding a market.

    The St. Louis Post-Dispatch had a story two days ago by columnist Pat Gauen about the Illinois coal mining history that opened like this:

    Exasperated with dangerous conditions at the Centralia No. 5 coal mine in which they worked, four miners took their fears directly to Illinois Gov. Dwight H. Green in a 1946 letter imploring him to “please save our lives” with tighter safety enforcement.

    In the same era, the Post-Dispatch reported on a cozy relationship in which the Green administration was soliciting political contributions from mine owners.

    Fifty-five weeks after the letter, on March 25, 1947, those four miners were in the tunnels of No. 5 when a massive explosion killed three of them plus 108 others.

    The letter’s lone surviving author wired Green not to bother to come to the scene. “No, governor, it’s too late, “ the cable said.

    The reason for the story’s appearance now comes later on in the piece:

    While the owners at Centralia walked away after paying a fine that would amount to about $11,000 in today’s money, the CEO of Massey Energy, the owner of Upper Big Branch, was sentenced in April to federal prison for a year, and fined $250,000.

    That CEO, Don Blankenship, is appealing his conviction for conspiracy to violate safety laws. This week, the Illinois Coal Association joined its counterparts in Ohio and West Virginia in expressing concerns about it to the 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.

    It’s not that they support Blankenship, exactly. But it appears that some members worry about becoming his cellmates if failure to follow the law can be applied that far up the management line in an industry with so many safety regulations.

    A boy can dream . . .

  • Jackdaw

    Worth noting that it is not just the coal industry directly which is affected; there are other related industries suffering as well. Namely, railroads:
    Cuts to coal cost local railroad jobs

    And also all manner of government services are suffering cutbacks too; Wyoming’s state government has relied for years on severance taxes from the mining companies and that revenue is plummeting:
    Gov. Matt Mead says $248 million in budget cuts “painful”

    In my Wyoming hometown this is all mainly blamed on Obama’s “War on Coal”.

    • CrunchyFrog

      Well of course it’s Obama’s fault. There is nothing that wingnuts don’t blame on Obama.

      But we’ve definitely seen a reduction in coal trains from the PRB coming down the UP-BNSF joint line in the past year or two. It used to be they would queue up 3 and 4 deep to get access to the single track segment from Palmer Lake to downtown Springs, and you rarely saw any train that wasn’t coal (the liquor store on the north end of the downtown yard is called Coaltrain Liquors for a reason). Now we get all kinds of mixed freight trains – and even the occasional train hauling parts of the giant windmills going up now in Texas and Oklahoma. The coal plants are slowing operations or shutting because the costs of operations are now higher than other forms of electric generation after incentives, etc., are factored in.

      • Michael Cain

        I live a couple hundred yards from a rail line that is/was used to bring coal from western Colorado and NE Utah to this side of the Divide. The drop-off in the number of coal trains per day over the last 28 years has been dramatic.

    • Amanda in the South Bay

      I think the freight railroads have, in their own ways, been declining since the early 80s, and coal is just a part of it. I think 40 years ago there was much, much more trackage in this country that was in use compared to today. I think it parallels the decline of American industry in general (exacerbated by Reagan).

      • CrunchyFrog

        Actually, no. Quite the opposite. Oh, trackage has gone down but tons shipped has increased a huge amount.

        The reason trackage has gone down is that originally railroads were the only way to move goods, so any business which shipped or received goods in any quantity had do be connected directly to rails. A lot of low-use branch lines were kept in place just for a few customers, usually at a loss to the railroads but as required by the USRA (US Railroad Administration). In the last half of the 20th century most of those lightly-used lines were decommissioned and the land sold off or given away for purposes like trails. Today a few still exist where the shipping traffic justifies them. But in most cases those lines are operated by small short-line companies – often literally mom & pop shops (look up Progressive Rail, for example) – or by smaller regionals. The smaller railroads are able to provide the kind of customized service to their smaller customers that the big class 1 railroads simply can’t offer.

        But on the main lines the trend the last 20 years has been to increase volume. The trend in the 50s-70s was to single-track many of the double-track mainlines to save money because a) the loss of passenger rail meant that the volume of traffic reduced and b) computerized track control systems made single track much more efficient than it was in the old train-order-and-time-table days. However, the trend in the past 20 years has been to convert the single track back to double track due to dramatic increase in volume.

        Four major changes helped. First, in 1976 Congress for the first time allowed railroads to offer creative pricing to entice shippers to use the rails, such as charging discounted rates for single-unit trains, such as a train of only coal cars or only refrigerated citrus cars. Congress had historically tightly regulated rail shipment rates due to massive abuses in the 1800s (“we’ll charge what the market will bear” the robber baron’s said, forcing customers in one-railroad towns to pay exorbitant rates). This was huge – the new rates suddenly brought back customers who had gone to truck shipments. But in addition, single unit trains bypassed the biggest bottleneck on the railroad – the car sorting at the freight yard, speeding up shipments.

        Second, the wave of bankruptcies in the 60s-80s – ending symbolically with the collapse of the Rock Island line in 1982 – forced railroad management to get rid of some old style thinking and old style practices. To be fair, a lot of this had to do with inflexible union contracts, but a lot of it had to do with plain pigheadedness. Like Norfolk & Western clinging to steam until 1971, or the Rock Island not adopting any of the efficiency measures of the industry leaders.

        Third, intermodal really took off after years of holding great promise. For a long time they’d been shipping trailers on flat cars (TOFC) which was a way to get goods trailers a short distance by truck from a shipper to a rail yard, then via rail over a long distance, then via truck again a short distance to the destination. But the 40′ container becoming standard on trans-oceanic ships was trigger that brought intermodal into the mainstream. Once the shipping industry learned to optimize around the transport of those containers it was simple to start shipping more stuff domestically by container – and even more so after 45′, then 48′, and finally 53′ extra height containers were established. Now almost half of railroad shipments are containers – and mostly stuff that used to be driven by truck.

        Fourth, as with everything else in the world, technology allowed railroads to be far, far more efficient than before. Everything from track maintenance to dispatching costs less and gets more done.

        It’s common to state that US railroads are way behind those in the rest of the developed world, and in terms of passenger travel that is completely true. But for freight movement, Canada and the US are the state of the art. In 1966 the US Postal Service stopped shipping via rail due to cost and slow deliveries. But this century package shipments have returned to rail – UPS ships everything that is designated coast-to-coast and is not 2-day or less shipment time via rail – the UPS train is really something to watch, as it travels on rails that allow for speeds of 80 mph and higher and is given priority throughout the system. Another example of past traffic returning to rails is shipments of new automobiles. These never really stopped, but by the mid-1970s more and more new cars were shipped via truck even all the way across country – in part due to very slow shipment times and the problems railroads had when switching auto rack cars in rail yards (damage often ensued). Today, with single-unit trains speeding shipment and reducing switching most new cars are again shipped via rail. Most cities now have a special yard somewhere in which auto racks deliver new cars for local transportation via truck to local auto dealers. Even Tesla last year achieved enough volume to justify sending new Teslas via rail around the country and across the country to the east coast for ocean transport to Europe. As you are in the south bay you have the opportunity to see all of those auto rack cars being shipped north and south via the old Southern Pacific lines – they are parked in Milpitas just south of the Fremont Tesla plant.

        Unfortunately, most of the US network is not electrified, as you really need heavy passenger volume to justify that kind of capital cost, but the latest US-built freight engines meet the toughest environmental and efficiency standards in the world.

        Of course, if you’re not observing a class 1 railroad but instead are watching a local short line you’ll may find the track itself has lots of signs of deferred maintenance and the locomotive may date from the 1950s – some of them are like that, while others are much more modern. But on the whole the freight network is heavily used, in excellent health, and growing.

        • Thank you!

        • Michael Cain

          Do UPS trains somehow bypass the ungodly morass that is Chicago?

          • CrunchyFrog

            Yes, when I last researched they were routed either through the south and up the coast or over the old national road route. However, there are priority routes through Chicago starting at Rockford. There still are enough active rail lines in Chicagoland that some lines can be designated priority and others for local traffic.

            • CrunchyFrog

              Ok, need to amend that. The last time I read up on the UPS train – and that may have been over 10 years ago – it was a coast to coast operation. I did some on-line research and the UPS has greatly expanded use of rail. They have a hub in the south- western suburbs of Chicago (Willow Springs) that processes 10% of all packages shipped in the US, and half of those are shipped by rail. This article says that in general anything over 400 miles goes by rail:

              http://www.progressiverailroading.com/intermodal/article/UPS-relies-heavily-on-railroads-to-keep-the-giant-Chicago-Area-Consolidation-Hub-on-schedule–37645

              400 miles is THE key metric in the rail vs truck decision because 400 miles is what you expect one trucker is likely to be able to achieve before taking a legally mandated rest. Once you’re over 400 miles the trucking costs go way up and the speed of delivery goes way down.

              This is really impressive, but demonstrates the power of railroading versus truck shipments once the infrastructure is created to support faster shipments. The fuel and labor required to ship via rail is a small fraction of the same required for the same shipment via truck. Historically the issue was speed and reliability of delivery. But this UPS example demonstrates the continued growth of railroads.

              By the way, the location of the hub is just about ideal. If they must ship via truck they have access to 55 and 294, each of which connects with many other freeways not far away. But even better, for rail they have direct access to every class 1 carrier except Kansas City Southern and Canadian Pacific, which means even faster shipments as most shipments can stick to one railroad all the way.

        • Amanda in the South Bay

          Fascinating! Thanks for the info. My own experiences were mainly based around rural Northwestern Oregon and the Portland burbs. Lots and lots of abandoned trackage there.

          • CrunchyFrog

            Oh, I love the old Oregon railroad history. But you’re right, most of that has withered away. Even the old Southern Pacific mainline through Ashland, Medford, and Roseville is now a lightly used regional line as the mainline traffic is now routed through Klamath Falls and Oakridge. You can still see a lot of mainline railroading in Oregon, but generally just the lines from Eugene to Portland and along the Columbia River to the east.

  • TM1

    Obama actually IS waging a War on Coal and this is manifestly a good thing. It’s time to leave coal as an energy source in the 19th Century where it belongs. The future is solar, wind, and nuclear.

  • Mike in DC

    Coal is the easiest of the three fossil fuels to replace. And it is being replaced with relative swiftness. Oil will take longer as electric cars slowly develop market share. Natural gas may hang around longer, being the least problematic(relatively speaking; fracking is obviously terrible).

    • DrDick

      Coal mining here in Montana is still going pretty strong, but has been shedding jobs for decades.

    • TM1

      I’ll still take fracking over blowing off mountaintops. I’d like to crucify the motherfuckers that ruin natural scenery like that and destroy ecosystems.

      • (((Malaclypse)))

        You seem to have overlooked answering this question. I’m a helpful fellow, so I wanted to be sure you didn’t accidentally miss the question. I imagine many posters here can be equally helpful.

        • TM1

          Answered. I named them off the top of my head, there may be more I forgot about.

  • mainerobinson

    That HCN piece is great. I see another consequence out here in the middle that stems from the media not following the industry west — it inhibits the green-labor coalition building that Erik talks about. That is, rank and file western enviros don’t necessarily realize that their anti-coal position is perceived as an attack on the livelihood and stability of their rural neighbors. And of course, resentment not alliances follow.

  • Gwen

    The sad thing for Wyoming is this: I don’t really see other industries that can take over where coal leaves off.

    Appalachia is of course struggling, but has always had a somewhat diversified economy, whether it be farming, transport, etc.

    The “heart of Appalachia” from Tennessee up through West Virginia and Maryland is very strategically located for transportation, manufacturing, and I was just thinking today that the region’s low cost of living, access to electricity, and (relative) proximity to major urban centers ought to make Appalachia really ideal for things like data centers and e-commerce in the next few decades. I know there are already call centers in Gray, Tennessee and Google and Apple I think have data centers in the Carolinas.

    • Gwen

      Although some infrastructure investment is sorely needed to bring broadband to some areas.

    • NonyNony

      The sad thing for Wyoming is this: I don’t really see other industries that can take over where coal leaves off.

      Other than tourism there aren’t any. The state is the lowest populated state in the country for a reason. Once all of the resources are extracted from the state there’s really nothing left for it – even for ranchers it’s a miserable existence trying to scrape by on land that isn’t meant to raise sheep or cattle in large numbers.

      I am related to plenty of folks who live there and it’s sad and I hate it. But there just isn’t anything there and nothing to build on. The national parks in the state, some lingering industry around Cheyenne, and catering to wealthy assholes in Jackson are going to end up being the only jobs left in the state when the resource extraction industries have chewed it all up and spat it back out.

      (Even wind farms or solar farms are a dead letter in Wyoming – the infrastructure needed to transport the power would require more investment than similar facilities in Arizona, and in Arizona they don’t have to worry about Wyoming winters.)

      • CrunchyFrog

        On the last point, there may be an opportunity for wind if there are any coal-powered electrical plants that send electricity long distances over dedicated power lines. There are plenty of those in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado (I know of one in particular a bit east of Craig, not far from the Wyoming border). If those ever lose economic viability the same power lines can be used instead for wind (I’m not sure that solar would be viable on a large scale given how north Wyoming is, but the winds in the eastern part of the state are amongst the most intense on the continent).

        However, otherwise you are right. You have the national parks on the western border for tourism, but except for that nothing but extraction. There are some pretty, but not spectacular, areas that are too far away from anything to attract anyone. Cheyenne gets by on the few remaining railroad jobs (the UP chose North Platte for their major division yard leaving Cheyenne as only a local yard) and a lot of federally-funded jobs from the air base and various government offices and medical facilities. No growth there.

      • bender

        Would buffalo, elk, antelope ranching be less miserable than sheep or cattle grazing, since those species are perhaps hardier and would fetch more of a premium price for their meat and hides?

        Might this be combined with support for larger scale production and sale of the Native American handicrafts formerly traditional in the region, and derivative products? Folklife villages as a twenty-first century version of the dude ranch? Draw some German tourists and ecotourism to the region.

      • I’m daydreaming of course, but I dream of a day when every windmill in the country is hooked up to “sequesterator” which is a word I just made up to describe a refrigeration unit that would cool the air enough to freeze out CO2, then electrically separate it into carbon and oxygen. The carbon could be dumped anywhere it wouldn’t be burned, and the water that condenses out before the CO2 freezes could be used for drinking or for agriculture. They would only be turned on when the wind power produced exceeds demand, and in the winter, they’d even run better, as when the air is below freezing already, there wouldn’t be near as much water condensation. Now I know that the amount of carbon that needs to be removed from the air is some mind-crushingly huge number, but from the “finding something to do with excess capacity” standpoint as well as the “here’s a whole bunch of cheap fresh water” standpoint, I think the idea has at least some merit.

      • Michael Cain

        Even wind farms or solar farms are a dead letter in Wyoming – the infrastructure needed…

        So you don’t think the Transwest Express HVDC line will be finished? I’m thinking that with Diablo Canyon now scheduled for retirement, Southern California will be thinking hard about investing in the outflow from the South Pass gap. Getting reliability out of renewables takes diversity, both in sources and in geography.

  • Warren Terra

    At least according to some tweep or other, we need no longer worry about coal causing any problems:

    The Republican platform committee just voted to officially call coal a “clean” source of energy

    I understand it’s also a nutritious breakfast, an effective launder detergent, and a promising low-calorie sweetener.

    • ExpatChad

      Not to mention aphrodisiac.

      • ExpatChad

        OH!, Wait, Republican….

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