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A Plea To President Obama: End Mountaintop Coal Mining by James Hansen

by James Hansen

Tighter restrictions on mountaintop removal mining are simply not enough. Instead, a leading climate scientist argues, the Obama administration must prohibit this destructive practice, which is devastating vast stretches of Appalachia.

President Obama speaks of “a planet in peril.” The president and the brilliant people he appointed in energy and science know that we must move rapidly to carbon-free energy to avoid handing our children a planet that has passed climate tipping points.

The science is clear. Burning all fossil fuels will destroy the future of young people and the unborn. And the fossil fuel that we must stop burning is coal. Coal is the critical issue. Coal is the main cause of climate change. It is also the dirtiest fossil fuel — air pollution, arsenic, and mercury from coal have devastating effects on human health and cause birth defects.

Recently, the administration unveiled its new position on mountaintop coal mining and set out a number of new restrictions on the practice in six Appalachian states. These new rules will require tougher environmental review before blowing up mountains. But it’s a minimal step.

The Obama administration is being forced into a political compromise. It has sacrificed a strong position on mountaintop removal in order to ensure the support of coal-state legislators for a climate bill. The political pressures are very real. But this is an approach to coal that defeats the purpose of the administration’s larger efforts to fight climate change, a sad political bargain that will never get us the change we need on mountaintop removal, coal or the climate. Coal is the linchpin in mitigating global warming, and it’s senseless to allow cheap mountaintop-removal coal while the administration is simultaneously seeking policies to boost renewable energy.

Mountaintop removal, which provides a mere 7 percent of the nation’s coal, is done by clear-cutting forests, blowing the tops off of mountains, and then dumping the debris into streambeds — an undeniably catastrophic way of mining. This technique has buried more than 800 miles of Appalachian streams in mining debris and by 2012 will have serious damaged or destroyed an area larger than Delaware. Mountaintop removal also poisons water supplies and pollutes the air with coal and rock dust. Coal ash piles are so toxic and unstable that the Department of Homeland Security has declared that the location of the nation’s 44 most hazardous coal ash sites must be kept secret. They fear terrorists will find ways to spill the toxic substances. But storms and heavy rain can do the same. A recent collapse in Tennessee released 100 times more hazardous material than the Exxon-Valdez oil spill.

We must make clear that we the people want a move toward a rapid phase-out of coal emissions now.
If the Obama administration is unwilling or unable to stop the massive environmental destruction of historic mountain ranges and essential drinking water for a relatively tiny amount of coal, can we honestly believe they will be able to phase out coal emissions at the level necessary to stop climate change? The issue of mountaintop removal is so important that I and others concerned about this problem will engage in an act of civil disobedience on June 23 at a mountaintop removal site in Coal River Valley, West Virginia. [Editor's note: Hansen and 30 other protesters were arrested at the June 23 protest and charged with impeding traffic outside a Massey Energy coal site in Raleigh County, West Virginia.] Experts agree that energy efficiency and carbon-free energies can satisfy our energy needs. Coal left in the ground is useful. It holds up the mountains, which, left intact, are an ideal site for wind energy. In contrast, mountaintop removal and strip mining of coal is a shameful abomination. Mining jobs have shrunk to a small fraction of past levels. With clean energy, there could be far more, green-energy jobs, and the government could support the retraining of miners, to a brighter, cleaner future.

Politicians may have to make concessions on what is right for what is winnable. But as a scientist and a citizen, I believe the right course is very clear: The climate crisis demands a moratorium on new coal-fired power plants that do not capture and safely dispose of all emissions. And mountaintop removal, providing only a small fraction of our energy, should be permanently prohibited.

President Obama remains the best hope, perhaps the only hope, for real change. If the president uses his influence, his eloquence, and his bully pulpit, he could be the agent of real change. But he does need our help to overcome the political realities of compromise.

We must make clear to Congress, to the EPA, and to the Obama administration that we the people want mountaintop removal abolished and we want a move toward a rapid phase-out of coal emissions now. The time for half measures and caving in to polluting industries is over. It is time for citizens to demand — yes, we can.

This piece originally appeared in e360.

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The surest way to put an end to mountain top removal is to decrease the amount of coal that is burned in power plants. From mining to burning, coal leaves a dirty trail of soot, mercury (which causes birth defects), arsenic, and carbon dioxide emissions. The slurry at the mines and the ash at the power plants are stored in impoundments that can (and do) break, contaminating streams and land. Carbon dioxide from coal-fired power plants is one of the largest contributors to our over-heating environment.

Doing nothing is far more expensive than cutting carbon dioxide emissions. When the Republicans do their "math" they neglect the contribution of an over-heating planet to increased wild fires, stronger hurricanes, rising oceans (that will displace populations), more acidic oceans (which destroys reefs), increased insect populations in some areas, etc. The economics of the situation is that we must act and we must act now.

Posted by: Eleanor on 30 Jun 09

While I agree that practices such as these need to be stopped, I wonder what the most effective way of doing so is. There are many similar practices that have similarly deleterious effects on our environment, I worry that legislating against them one-by-one risks causing unintended consequences that outweigh the benefits of banning particular practices.

My opinion is that a robust cap-and-trade system is a far more effective way to prevent these practices, as it focuses on the problem (carbon emissions) and provides a more robust mechanism for dealing with them (monetizing the externalities). Bruce Schnier has made the following comments regarding privacy regulations which I think apply equally to environmental ones

1. Broad privacy regulations are better than narrow ones.

2. Simple and clear regulations are better than complex and confusing ones.

3. It's far better to regulate results than methodology.

4. Penalties for bad behavior need to be expensive enough to make good behavior the rational choice.

If emitting carbon is sufficiently 'expensive', practices such as mountaintop coal mining will no longer be economically rational, but other practices which have the same bad effects will *also* be economically irrational.

Posted by: Ryan on 30 Jun 09

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