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Mountaintop Coal Falls As Renewables, Natural Gas Rise

Coal country in West Virginia and eastern Kentucky is riddled with flattened mountain tops and valleys filled in with the rocks and debris that once formed the peaks high above. Mountains blasted from the central Appalachian landscape are signs that the coal industry is at work supplying fuel for electric power plants throughout the region.

But that kind of coal production, known as mountaintop removal coal mining, has declined 62 percent since 2008, new U.S. Energy Information Administration data show. It is being displaced by natural gas, wind and solar power and other renewables that are becoming the favored choices for electric power generation.

A mountaintop removal coal mining operation in Wise County, Va.
Credit: biotour13/flickr

At the same time, local and federal environmental and climate policies have begun to disfavor coal, the globe’s largest driver of global warming, according to the EIA report.

The overall trend away from coal is expected to continue if the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, which would limit carbon dioxide emissions from existing coal-fired power plants, is finalized and survives court challenges. The EIA, which is part of the Department of Energy, expects the plan to slash the amount of electricity produced from coal in the U.S. by half over the next 25 years.

The switch to other energy sources, and the policies limiting pollution, has sharply reduced the demand for coal. Central Appalachia, one of the largest coal-producing regions in the U.S., saw its shipments to electric power plants drop from 138 million short tons of coal in 2009 to 23.8 million short tons in 2014, EIA analyst JenAlyse Arena said.

Nationwide, all coal production fell 15 percent from 2008 to 2014, EIA data show. While coal produced from surface mines fell 21 percent in that period, coal produced at mines that have permits for lopping off the tops of mountains in Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia fell 62 percent. (Some mines with permits do not produce all their coal with mountaintop removal techniques.)

Click image to enlarge. Credit: EIA

Arena said the EIA has no information about why mountaintop removal coal mining is declining faster than other forms of coal mining. The EIA has not conducted such an analysis, she said.

Mountaintop removal coal mining occurs in six Appalachian states and is among the most destructive and landscape-altering methods of mining used in the U.S. Energy companies blast away mountain tops to expose coal seams, then fill the valleys below with the “overburden,” the rock that once was part of the mountain.

According to a Congressional Research Service report released in April, mountaintop removal coal mining has buried about 1,200 miles of Appalachian streams since 1992 and has resulted in deforestation, an increase in catastrophic flooding risk and greater harm to both aquatic and human life.

The Environmental Protection Agency says mountaintop removal is a major water polluter in Appalachian states, increasing the fragmentation of forests, harming wildlife and increasing levels of zinc, sodium, selenium and sulfates in surface water, damaging habitat for aquatic life.

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