FT Big Read

At the coal face

Thursday, April 02, 2015

James Crabtree looks at the reality behind the vow of Indian prime minister Narendra Modi to double production at Coal India in five years as a looming energy crisis threatens his goal of turning the country into a manufacturing powerhouse.


The Takeaway

Future of Coal Industry Before Supreme Court

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The EPA says power plants that run on coal and oil emit too many harmful chemicals like mercury and arsenic. But industry backers say reducing emissions is too expensive. 

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The Takeaway

Massey Energy CEO Indicted in Deadly Mine Disaster

Friday, November 14, 2014

In 2010, an explosion at the Upper Big Branch Coal Mine in West Virginia killed 29 miners. Now the CEO of the company that owned the mine has been indicted.

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The Takeaway

South Unbound: The Battle for Hearts & Mines

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Washington Correspondent Todd Zwillich has been touring the South all week. His latest dispatch comes from coal country—he explains the battle for hearts and mines in Centertown, KY.


The Takeaway

The Public Health Consequences of Air Pollution

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Politicians often find it difficult to justify climate change legislation. Unlike climate change, air pollution seems to have specific and pressing consequences,  particularly for public health. 

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The Takeaway

China Announces 2016 Emissions Cap

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

It turns out that China's ready to compete with the U.S. on carbon, too. This week, a Chinese government advisor declared that China will limit total carbon emissions for the first time, with an absolute cap in place by 2016.

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The Takeaway

Coal Country Responds to Obama's Carbon Cuts

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

The border of Southeast Ohio and West Virginia has long been considered coal country. In the wake of President Obama's announcement that he plans to cut carbon emissions by 30 percent, Bob Vincenzo, the mayor of St. Clairsville, Ohio, is worried about the future of his town—and the region.

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The Takeaway

New Carbon Regulations May Provoke Political Fight

Monday, June 02, 2014

Today President Obama announces new rules on carbon emissions for existing, coal-fired power plants. The EPA’s proposals would cut carbon dioxide emissions by up to 30 percent, but not without a few lawsuits and political battles in the process.

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The Takeaway

Turkey Mourns After Coal Mine Disaster

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Today, Turkey is a nation in mourning after a coal mine suffered one of the worst mining disasters in the nation's history. More than 200 people have died in the explosion and fire that was followed by the mine collapse.


The Takeaway

Using Innovation to Fight Environmental Catastrophe

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Not everyone believes that we're doomed when it comes to climate change, and one of those hopeful few is Robert Bryce. He says that innovation is the key to future global prosperity, and eventually a cleaner environment for everybody.

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The Leonard Lopate Show

The Future of Big Coal

Friday, March 07, 2014

In 2012 U.S. coal consumption fell to its lowest level in 25 years, and as Wall Street looks toward more sustainable energy—and with the abundance of natural gas—coal mining companies are struggling. But the industry is not going down without a fight. Richard Martin, Fortune magazine contributor, writes about it in his article “Big Coal’s Last Stand.”

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Transportation Nation

Proposed Montana Coal Railroad Under Scrutiny

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

A coal train traveling near Billings, MT. Picture by Jackie Yamanaka.

(Billings, MT – YPR) – The federal Surface Transportation Board is hosting a series of public meetings this week in Montana on a proposed railroad that could expand coal mining and perhaps lead to more coal exports to Asia.

The meetings are part of an environmental review for the proposed Tongue River Railroad (TRR).

The proposed TRR route. Map provided by BNSF

The 83-mile line would extend from Miles City, MT to the proposed Otter Creek Coal tracts. The TRR developers estimate the railroad would haul up to 20 million tons of coal annually or about half of Montana’s current coal production.

The long-stalled proposal has faced decades of delays due to court and funding challenges.

Some southeastern Montana landowners and environmental groups have opposed the railroad, saying it will industrialize a rural agricultural area and the burning of coal will worsen climate change. The TRR backers say the project will boost the economy.

It now has new owners:  The Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, Arch Coal Inc., and billionaire Forrest Mars, Jr.

Arch Coal is seeking to build a coal mine at the southern end of the railroad, near Ashland, MT at Otter Creek.

The deadline for public comments on the TRR proposal is December 6, 2012.

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Transportation Nation

Coal for Asian Export Could Lead to Rail Traffic "Like We've Never Seen Before"

Monday, July 30, 2012

A coal train in the Laurel, MT rail yard. Picture by Jackie Yamanaka.

(Billings, MT – YPR) An additional 60 trains of coal could roll through the Northwest rail network every day headed across the Pacific if forecasts are correct. Two manufacturing firms signed deals last week to build 20 new barges to increase export capacity, a sign of optimism from coal exporter Ambre Energy that port redevelopment proposals will gain approval.

Terminal developers are eying the lucrative Asian market, hungry for energy -- coal from Montana and Wyoming's Powder River Basin -- to fuel its economic engine. For example, Australian-based Ambre Energy is involved in two proposals to expand the Pacific Northwest port. Exports are constricted because of limited port capacity.

An expansion won't come easy though, considering the chorus of critics citing environmental, traffic, human health, and community concerns with coal shipping, export and even coal use. But in these tight economic times, coal shipping expansion remains popular with the general public, according to one recent survey.

An interim Montana legislative committee became the latest to weigh in on whether the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers should expand an environmental review for Pacific Northwest port projects with a mixed response to the idea, which would slow redevelopment.

The Sierra Club is leading an effort called the Beyond Coal campaign that includes stopping coal exports. Among the concerns cited: the global impacts of coal-fired power plants, the impact of coal dust on human health, and the increase in freight rail traffic that can snarl traffic in local communities.

The Sierra Club,  affiliates of the Billings, Mont.-based Northern Plains Resource Council, and local governments like Missoula, Mont. are among those asking the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to expand its environmental reviews beyond just the port terminals projects and look at broader environmental areas and issues.

Letters from interested parties have become the weather vane revealing which way the winds of legislative oversight are blowing. The railroad BNSF's Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Matthew Rose recently wrote a letter to Wash. Governor Christine Gregoire to address concerns about the port projects. The Energy and Telecommunications Interim Committee (ETIC) of the Montana Legislature sent a letter of it's own to the Corp’s office in Portland, Oregon also opposing an expanded environmental review.

During a recent hearing, the panel heard from proponents, opponents and informational witnesses on the issue before voting on whether to send a letter to the Corps.

All of this back and forth follows a dramatic forecast released in a report by the Western Organization of Resource Councils called Heavy Traffic Ahead.

“Make no mistake about it,” says Terry Whiteside, a transportation consultant and co-author of the report. “This is a huge, huge increase in volume like we’ve never seen before in this part of the world.”

Whiteside projects an additional 27-to-63 trains per day could be the result of increased coal exports to Asia. He calculated that figure based on the export projections of 75 million tons of coal/day by 2017; up to 170 million tons of coal/day by 2022.

“The problem with the study is that it wrongfully assumes that BNSF would originate 100 percent of the Powder River Basin coal,” says spokeswoman Suann Lundberg in Fort Worth, TX. “That’s just not logical. The Powder River Basin is accessed by both the Union Pacific and the BNSF on what we call the ‘joint line.’ 50 percent of it moves on Union Pacific and 50 percent of it moves on BNSF. “

Lundberg says BNSF was not contacted by the authors of the study. She adds the railroad would only have access to one of the proposed six port terminals and the others are either located on other railroads or served jointly among railroads.

Whiteside says he did not contact the railroads, instead he looked at the empirical data and “forced it back on the system.” He adds the study wasn’t designed to be a debate about what the railroad wants.

“I don’t think its any secret that railroads are forecasting the volumes (rail) are going to grow,” says Jim Lewis of Montana Rail Link (MRL), which owns the track between Billings, Mont. and Sand Point, Idaho.

He says there are many reasons, including population and consumption growth for consumer goods, as well as high diesel prices and the semi-driver shortage facing the trucking industry. Lewis says the increase in rail freight traffic is driven by market demands, which can change. He says that’s happening now with the decrease in corn and other agricultural commodities because of the drought and it’s happening with coal.

“I find it kinda ironic that we’re talking about the potential for increased coal traffic in a year when we are forecasting our coal traffic will be below or flat to 2011 volumes,” Lewis says.

He says he also wasn’t contacted for the WORC study. As for the study’s projected increase in rail traffic number, Lewis says they’re not possible given MRL’s capacity constraints. There’s only a single track tunnels over the pass near Bozeman, Mont. and at the Continental Divide. “It would be very costly to try to expand upon that capacity in those two areas,” he says.

Lewis says currently on average, about 19 trains pass through Billings each day, some are MRL traffic, most is BNSF. He says some freight trains terminate at the Laurel, MT rail yards, about 15 miles west of Billings with the remaining 15 continuing west. Lewis estimates the maximum freight rail capacity on the MRL portion of track is about 30 trains/day.

BNSF is investing in its infrastructure. Since 2000, the railroad has spent over $36 billion on maintaining current lines, laying new track, and buying locomotives.

Lundsberg says in Montana, BNSF is spending $111 million in 2012  on infrastructure. She says these capital expenditures, however, are not aimed solely at forecasts of a growing Asian export market for coal.

“Freight traffic will increase with or without coal exports,” she says. “And that means additional traffic and we’re preparing for that.”

That has caused a face-off between groups like the Montana and Billings Chamber of Commerce and environmental organizations like WORC. Economic developers argue Montana and the rest of the country needs the jobs, tax revenue, and infrastructure that increased coal mining and the railroads bring to the region. Conservation groups worry it will be local communities and citizens who will bear the burden of paying for under- and over-passes to re-route traffic past this projected increase in train traffic while corporations are making millions of dollars and should be the ones to pay that cost.

The one thing all sides agree upon is why now is the time for the railroads to have discussions with local governments and citizens about coal, the proposed export terminals, and ways to mitigate the expected growth in rail traffic and resulting traffic jam issues.

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The Takeaway

Controversy Over Northwest Coal

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Northwest has long been a major source of exports. Timber and paper once dominated the Northwest market; these days, it's all about coal. Demand for coal has dropped in the United States, but the clamor for coal in Asia's growing markets has American companies lobbying for controversial coal terminals along the train tracks in Washington and Oregon to transport coal mined in Montana. Explaining this coal controversy is Ashley Ahearn, an environmental reporter for KUOW in Seattle, and a contributor to their "Coal in the Northwest" series.

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The Leonard Lopate Show

Backstory: The EPA's New Rule for Coal-Fired Power Plants

Thursday, March 29, 2012

On Tuesday, the Environmental Protection Agency issued the first limits on greenhouse gas emissions from newly constructed power plants. On today’s Backstory, Washington Post environment reporter Juliet Eilperin discusses why many are saying that the rule, which was years in the making, will mean the end of new coal-fired power plants.

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The Empire

Bloomberg's philanthropy group gives $50 million to Sierra Club anti-coal campaign

Thursday, July 21, 2011

(Courtesy of the Sierra Club)

The Sierra Club announced this morning that Mayor Bloomberg's charitable arm is donating $50 million to the environmental groups "Beyond Coal" campaign to shut down a third of America's coal fleet by 2020.


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The Takeaway

Supporters of Kentucky Coal Mining Fight EPA Regulations

Monday, June 13, 2011

The battle over environmental regulations has reached a fever pitch in Kentucky. The EPA is proposing a package of major policy rules aimed at curbing emissions from coal-fired plants, drawing widespread opposition from business interests. Backers of the Kentucky's coal mining industry are fighting the EPA over regulations, with some going so far as saying Kentucky should be a "sanctuary," protected from all EPA regulations.

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The Takeaway

Report: Massey Energy to Blame for West Virginia Mining Disaster

Friday, May 20, 2011

Investigations into last year’s coal mine disaster in West Virginia that killed 29 people have found the mine owner squarely responsible. The former federal mine safety chief Davitt McAteer led the investigation into the worst American mining disaster in 40 years. Jessica Lilly, reporter for West Virginia Public Radio shares the on the community's reaction.

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Slate Culture Gabfest

Slate: The Culture Gabfest Debonair Counterspy Edition

Monday, April 04, 2011

In this week's Culture Gabfest, our critics discuss AMC’s new murder mystery The Killing and Spike’s reality series Coal. For their final segment, they’re joined by The New Yorker’s David Grann to discuss his report on the murder of Rodrigo Rosenb


It's A Free Country ®

Where We're Starting on Domestic Energy: Coal

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

As President Obama laid out his vision for domestic energy production in the future, calling for a drop of one-third in our oil imports, it's worth noting where we're starting from.

President Obama only mentioned "coal" once in his speech, but last year, it made up the largest share of domestic energy production at 45 percent, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Only one percent of domestic energy production came from petroleum, 24 percent was natural gas, and nuclear made up 20 percent of domestic energy.