By Jeremy Borden and Jim Morris
Big coal is hardly in retrenchment mode. Four of the nation's five biggest coal companies saw sales rise in 2010, even as the Obama administration blocks expansion of coal mines and focuses on greener energy.
Most of the 1 billion tons of coal produced every year is used to generate electricity in the United States, said Carol Raulston, a spokeswoman for the National Mining Association, a trade group. Growth in production from 2009 to 2010 is attributed to an improving economy, which creates greater demand for electricity -- and, therefore, coal.
"Coal is a critical component of America's comprehensive energy portfolio," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said March 22 when announcing the opening of acreage in Wyoming to new mining.
Even so, the coal industry says it is concerned about the criticism of coal and efforts by the administration to block its expansion.The Environmental Protection Agency, Raulston said, has not allowed new mines to be built or old ones to be expanded since Obama took office in 2009. The industry has sued the EPA over about 200 permits that have been held up.
"There is still active mining going on, but it's very hard to expand a mine," she said, adding that proposed greenhouse gas regulations and other rules have the industry worried.
President Obama regularly sings the praises of cleaner alternative forms of energy and electric cars, sometimes offending groups such as the National Mining Association, which says the president has "overlooked coal's potential." Meanwhile, Obama has underscored a place for "clean coal."
Such mixed messages from the White House took fresh form in recent days.
On April 14, environmentalists hailed an agreement between the EPA and the Tennessee Valley Authority requiring the TVA to phase out 18 especially dirty coal-fired units in the Southeast by 2018 and install updated pollution-control equipment on another three dozen units.
The agreement, which stemmed from a lawsuit filed by the Sierra Club and two other organizations, is "a game-changer for how we power our homes and businesses in the Southeast," Mary Anne Hitt, director of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign, said in a press release.
Just a few weeks earlier, environmentalists lamented the Interior Department's decision to open up 7,400 acres of public land in Wyoming's Powder River Basin to coal mining. The Natural Resources Defense Council said an estimated 758 million tons of coal could be extracted as a result of the decision, producing an estimated 1.4 billion tons of carbon dioxide when it is burned. That's about 62 percent of the total CO2 emitted from burning coal in 2008, the NRDC said.
A spokeswoman for the Bureau of Land Management, part of the Interior Department, said coal is a staple of America's energy diet and will remain so until the U.S. can develop other energy sources. The BLM's rules reflect that reality, said the spokeswoman, Beverly Gorny.
"According to the law, we will offer coal for mining when it [is] requested by a company to be mined," Gorny said. "We've done what we're required to do to meet the needs of the American public."
Tom Kenworthy, a senior fellow with the Center for American Progress who specializes in natural resource issues, said a sizable portion of the Wyoming coal may be destined for countries such as China and India.
In a new report, the left-leaning think tank questions the wisdom of plans to build a major coal export terminal in the Pacific Northwest to serve the growing Asian market for U.S. coal.
If "the United States is serious about combating the perils of climate change through economic and environmental transformation, should we really be encouraging the export of American coal to Asian markets?" Kenworthy and co-author Kate Gordon wrote.
In an interview, Kenworthy said the argument can be made that China and India are going to buy coal anyway, so they might as well buy it from the U.S. "I guess my response to that is that just because the meth addict on the corner is going to buy meth from somewhere doesn't mean we should sell it to him," he said.
Coal mines, meanwhile, continue to take a sizable human toll in the U.S. On April 22, The Charleston Gazette reported that the FBI had sent letters to families of the 29 miners killed in an explosion last year at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia, confirming that the bureau was attempting to determine "whether any federal crimes occurred." A few days earlier, NPR reported that the mine's owner, Massey Energy, was offering litigation settlements of $3 million per family.
The top five U.S. coal producers (2009 and 2010 sales):
Peabody Energy Corp: 244 million tons sold in 2009; 246 million tons in 2010
Arch Coal Inc.: 126 million tons sold in 2009; 163 million tons in 2010
Cloud Peak Energy: 103 million tons sold in 2009; 97 million tons in 2010
Alpha Natural Resources LLC: 47 million tons sold in 2009; 85 million tons in 2010
CONSOL Energy Inc.: 58 million tons sold in 2009; 64 million tons in 2010