State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Good News from EPA – No Fooling

Recently, the Obama administration has been getting harsh reviews from some environmentalists for its decision to open several new areas of the US to offshore drilling.  Putting this admittedly odd decision aside though,  the Thursday April 1 (April Fool’s Day) decision to roll out tough new water quality standards that could severely limit some of the most destructive coal mining tactics is a huge boon, not only to environmentalists,  but to anyone concerned with  the health of the nations waterways, and by extension the health of our people.   The new rules will make it much more difficult for mining companies to get permits for the extraordinarily aggressive technique of mountaintop removal mining.

Mountaintop removal mine in southwest Virginia

Think about that name for a moment: “mountaintop removal mining”.  Unfortunately, mountaintop removal mining (sometimes called MTR) is pretty much what it sounds like.  Even the Wall Street Journal  says MTR “involves blasting off the tops of mountains and dumping unused rock and dirt into valleys. As water runs through the porous valley fill, it often picks up metals and minerals increasing conductivity in streams, which has been shown to adversely affect fish and plant life.”  A technique that involves blasting off the top of mountains in order to access the coal underneath?  Isn’t it self-evident that this is the type of technique that should be heavily regulated, if allowed at all?

One would think so, although representatives from the National Mining Association were offended by the new policy, claiming that the government hadn’t allowed for sufficient public comment, (in spite of the fact that it resulted from 15 months of work, synthesized the opinions of thousands of scientists and will be open to continued comment during implementation). The mining industry also warned that up to 27,000 jobs could be lost.  This last point is disingenuous at best mine owners thshifted to MTR in the first place partly because it is cheaper and less labor intensive than excavation. If anything, shifting back to excavation will result in more jobs, not less.

I consider myself to be a realist about energy use.  I recognize that coal plays a critical part in our nation’s economy and provides a crucial source of energy.  Like it or not, coal needs to be part of any serious discussion about t the nation’s energy future. At the same time though, that doesn’t mean coal mining should be free-for-all, with virtually any technique, no matter how destructive, allowed in order to access the black gold. Burning coal is dirty enough. We don’t also have to allow for horribly destructive techniques of accessing that coal – techniques that have devastating effects on water quality.

A frequent topic on this blog is the water and energy nexus. Here we have an interesting example of that issue. In many cases, it’s clear that huge amounts of water are embedded in energy consumption. In this case, the issue is primarily one of how water quality relates to energy. By rolling out new water quality standards, the Obama administration is severely restricting some of the dirtiest techniques for accessing coal. That’s good water policy, and good energy policy – and that’s no fooling.

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