Coal is at the center of a geopolitical struggle between China and the US, according to the New York Times. Mongolia holds the world’s largest untapped coal deposit, enough to feed the huge Chinese market for fifty years. The question is, who gets to develop it? While South Korea, Japan and Russia all want in on the action, the main contenders are a Chinese state-owned company and the multinational Peabody Energy, based in St. Louis. Mongolia is an independent nation but, with only three million people, and sandwiched between China and Russia, it’s fearful of getting swallowed up by its powerful neighbors. The US is playing on that fear, positioning itself as Mongolia’s ally—and pushing Mongolia to award the coal rights to Peabody. Mongolians also fear outsiders getting control of their vast mineral wealth. That has already happened to some extent; there has been a lot of mining there but most Mongolians have not benefited. Mongolian nationalists say they don’t want a future of working to dig someone else’s coal. It’s a concern Appalachians can understand.
The coal industry lost another legal round last week when a US Court of Appeals upheld the government’s right to limit greenhouse gas emissions. The main greenhouse gas is carbon dioxide, which most scientists believe contributes to global warming. The Environmental Protection Agency argues that carbon dioxide is a “pollutant” of the air and, as such, comes under the Clean Air Act which requires EPA to limit pollutants. A 3-judge panel of the US Court of Appeals in Washington unanimously agreed, calling the EPA’s judgment “unambiguously correct.” If this stands, it will allow EPA rules that will limit the amount of carbon dioxide power plants can emit—a standard that coal plants will mostly not be able to meet. The website Energybiz.com writes that the coal industry will likely appeal to the US Supreme Court, but says that—based on past Court rulings—they are likely to lose there as well. The best way forward for coal, say many analysts, is to stop fighting losing legal battles and instead invest in new technologies that will make the slogan “clean coal” a reality. Those technologies exist, but at present they’re expensive. A lot of money and perhaps ten years’ time could change that and make coal competitive again.
The financial rating service S&P last week lowered the credit rating of Alpha Natural Resources from “stable” to “negative,” based on weak demand for coal for both electricity and steelmaking. Continuing the drumbeat of bad news, Consol announced 300 layoffs from its West Virginia operations. According to the West Virginia State Journal, that state has lost some 2,000 mining jobs so far this year. On the other side of the ledger, Peabody Energy announced it has leased 700 million tons of coal that lies beneath government land in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming. The company controls 4 billion tons of low-sulfur coal in the region, according to the Wall street Journal.
Historic preservationists around the world are up in arms over a coal mine that threatens one of Africa’s cultural treasures. The site is Mapungubwe, in the northern section of South Africa. It’s the location of a city-state that flourished in the 1200’s, one of the outstanding examples of Africa’s ancient civilizations. It’s a national park and recognized by the United Nations as a World Heritage Site. But a big open-pit mine nearby threatens the ruins, say archaeologists, and worldwide protests are flooding in. The company, Coal of Africa, says it will be able to mine without damaging the historical treasure.
Two members of the House of Representatives are asking a trio of Kentucky coal operators just when they plan to pay overdue safety fines of one and a half million dollars. The Courier Journal reports the question comes from George Miller—a longtime mine safety advocate—and Lynn Woolsey, both Democrats from California. It’s directed to three men who between them ran Kentucky Darby Coal Company when an explosion killed five men in 2006, and now run K&D Mining. The newspaper reports the two companies have not paid fines and penalties that have accumulated for years. The two lawmakers said they issued the public question because of their concern safety conditions might be deteriorating in the active K&D mine. The operators could not be reached for comment.
The Associated Press reports that Kentucky’s B&D Coal Company, a Harlan County operation, was ordered by a federal judge to pay $1.6 million in safety fines. The company had failed to defend itself against over1200 safety violations. It was not clear from news reports whether B&D Coal and K&D Mining are connected with each other.