Thursday, October 21, 2010

Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining

In October 2010 I traveled to eastern Kentucky to learn about the effects of mountaintop removal (MTR) mining on the community.  We were fortunate to be able to tour an ICG coal mine in Hazard, KY, and to meet with some prominent opponents of MTR, including Tom Fitzgerald, director of the Kentucky Resources Council, and Erik Reece, author of "Lost Mountain."  Most of the community clearly supported coal mining, but a vocal minority of opponents included people like Beverly May who had to fight coal companies to save their homes.  After saving her neighborhood from MTR coal mining, Beverly became an activist with Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and was featured in the documentary "Deep Down."  Her story made me wonder if coal supporters would become opponents like Beverly if coal companies threatened their homes.  Why are people willing to let corporations destroy their neighbors homes and write it off as "progress?"
The devastating effects of MTR mining became apparent when we toured the property of Daymon Morgan, an army veteran who has been fighting for decades to prevent a coal company from destroying his land. Because he is too old to walk through his forested backyard, he hopped in his ATV to take us for a tour.  He showed us the herbs and trees that grow in the wild.  Then he took us over the ridge to see his neighbor's property: it was a bald patch of rock and dirt, with rubble strewn along its length.  The contrast between the beauty of Daymon's forest and the horror of the coal mine was so overwhelming that a student started crying.
Traveling through Hazard, KY made me realize the scale of MTR mining.  When I started teaching Geology, I would tell amazed students that the 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens blew 1300 feet of rock from its top. In Hazard alone I must have seen ten mountains that had that much rock removed from their tops.  Humans have exceeded nature in destructive capacity.
Perhaps we could live with MTR mining if coal companies returned mine tailings to their original location at the top of the mountain rather than dumping them into stream valleys where they contaminate the water.  If coal companies restored the land surface to its "approximate original contour" and then replaced the soil and planted new trees, the environmental and aesthetic objections would mostly disappear.  However, coal companies insist on using the cheapest mining methods, and don't view "restoring the land" as part of their job.  Thus, they continue to turn much of Appalachia, one of the most beautiful areas I've ever seen, into a wasteland.

Peak Oil: Background

Climate says we should change, but peak oil says we will be forced to change (Hopkins 2008).

Oil is an amazing liquid, and an ephemeral, invaluable gift[i]. It has been the world's most important source of energy since the mid-1950s. But evidence suggests that demand for oil will soon outstrip supply, and in the face of shortages of energy, especially for transportation, we will be forced to change our lifestyles.

Oil is effectively a non-renewable resource because it forms much more slowly than we consume it. Thus, by definition our dependence on oil is unsustainable. Oil will become a “scarce,” expensive resource when the world production rate reaches a maximum, an event called peak oil. After that peak, oil production will decline and oil prices and the cost of living will begin a long-term increase.

Currently we have no adequate substitutes for oil. It is the only high energy density liquid that can fuel our current forms of transportation. Coal is used to produce electricity, natural gas for power and heating, but there is no substitute for oil for transportation. The only other liquid fuels that could potentially substitute for oil are hydrogen and biofuels, and both have significant drawbacks. Hydrogen is not a source of energy but a carrier of energy. Hydrogen production requires other forms of energy, usually fossil fuels, and hydrogen vehicles are not energy efficient (MacKay 2009). Biofuel production requires large amounts of land because the efficiency of photosynthesis is low. In most countries biofuel can only be produced by converting land for food to land for fuel, but even if we converted all agricultural land to biofuel production it still could not meet our transportation fuel needs. For example, if Britain converted all of its agricultural land to biofuel production, it still would not supply enough energy (36 kWh/d per person) to meet demand from cars (40 kWh/d per person - see (MacKay 2009) pp. 43-4). After peak oil, we will think twice before hopping in the car for joyrides or frivolous errands; those activities will be too expensive to continue.

Besides its importance for transportation, oil a critically important part of our industrial agriculture system, and is the raw material for many chemical products, including pharmaceuticals, solvents, fertilizers, pesticides, and plastics; the 16% not used for energy production is converted into these other materials. Peak oil advocates such as Deffeyes argue that we should save our remaining oil for more valuable applications than burning it up in our cars. For example, we can’t make most plastics without oil. An oil shortage could cause shortages in all these materials:

Table 4.1: Things we may have to do without* after Peak Oil

* or fall back on less adequate or more expensive substitutes

  • Most forms of plastic including PVC and polycarbonates
  • Wax
  • Asphalt used to make roads
  • Tar
  • Many lubricants
  • Many solvents
  • Many detergents
  • Many adhesives
  • Resins and epoxies
  • Fibers (polyester, acrylics, nylon, etc.)
  • Synthetic rubber
  • Agrochemicals: Fertilizers, Pesticides, Herbicides
  • engine coolant and aircraft deicer fluid (propylene glycol)
  • Styrofoam
  • Many personal care products including perfumes, cosmetics,
  • Oil-based paints including polyurethanes
  • Materials for electronics (electrical insulation, capacitors, transformers)
  • Many inks and dyes
  • Many food additives including flavorings, colorings, and fragrances
  • Many pharmaceuticals

Thus, an oil shortage could have a major impact on the way we live. In the next post we will explore the evidence for peak oil.


Hopkins, R. (2008). The Transition Handbook: from oil dependency to local resilience, Chelsea Green Publishing.

MacKay, D. J. C. (2009). Sustainable Energy - without the hot air. Cambridge, England, UIT Cambridge Ltd.

[i] Note that we use the term “oil” synonymously with petroleum