The Permian extinction event was the biggest shake-up of life that Earth has ever seen: in the “Great Dying” that took place 250 million years ago, more than 90 percent of marine species were killed and about 70 percent of land animals vanished. The cause of this catastrophe has been debated for years, but new research suggests that volcanic eruptions triggered massive coal fires that pumped pollution into the air, eventually poisoning the planet.
The study, published in Nature Geoscience, is based on new findings from arctic rocks that date back to the Permian period, when all of the planet’s land masses formed a supercontinent called Pangaea. When the researchers analyzed the rocks, they found signs of a coal-based apocalypse.
Besides the usual miniscule clumps of organic matter, they also found tiny bubble-filled particles called cenospheres. These frothy little blobs form only when molten coal spews into the atmosphere, the researchers say…. [The cenospheres] must have been created when massive amounts of molten rock—more than 1 trillion metric tons—erupted through overlying coal deposits in Siberia to form lava deposits known as the Siberian Traps. [ScienceNOW]
Relations have been more testy than usual between the Environmental Protection Agency and mountaintop removal coal miners since last April, when EPA issued new rules to crack down on the practice. This week the agency went one step further—a step has never taken before. EPA revoked an already-approved permit for a mountaintop removal coal mine in West Virginia.
The decision to revoke the permit for Arch Coal Inc.’s Spruce Mine No. 1 in West Virginia’s rural Logan County marks the first time the EPA has withdrawn a water permit for a mining project that had previously been issued. It’s also only the second time in the 39-year history of the federal Clean Water Act that the agency has canceled a water permit for a project of any kind after it was issued, according to the agency. [Wall Street Journal]
The mine, located south of the West Virginia capital of Charleston, has been fighting to begin operation for more than a dozen years.
The Obama EPA began looking more closely at the Spruce Mine in September 2009. But debate over the proposed operation dates back to the late 1990s, when then-U.S. District Judge Charles H. Haden II issued an injunction that blocked the mine, which then was proposed for more than 3,000 acres. After the Haden ruling, the company reduced the size of its proposal and the operation underwent much more intense scrutiny, in the form of a full-blown Environmental Impact Statement by the Corps of Engineers, which approved the new mining configuration in January 2007 [Charleston Gazette].
When the Environmental Protection Agency issued new rules in April attempting to crack down on mountaintop removal coal mining, you knew it was only a matter of time before the major push-back arrived. With elections looming and politicians looking to score some points at home, that time is now.
Joe Manchin, the Democratic governor of coal-rich West Virginia, says his state will sue the EPA and ask a U.S. District Court to throw out the agency’s strict new guidelines. For Mr. Manchin, the timing is certainly good:
Mr. Manchin is running for the U.S. Senate seat, formerly held by the late Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd, against Republican businessman John Raese, who has pulled ahead in some polls. The EPA’s policies on mining and climate change are controversial in West Virginia, where coal mining is a major industry supporting thousands of jobs. [Wall Street Journal]
Last year, when DISCOVER covered the FutureGen carbon capture and storage (CCS) project as one of our top 100 stories of 2009, we noted the nickname some opponents had bestowed on the big-budget experiment: “NeverGen.” That moniker feels even more appropriate now, as the Department of Energy has changed plans and now says it will overhaul the FutureGen idea and build it in a totally different way.
The FutureGen scheme called for building a new CCS demonstration coal plant in Mattoon, Illinois, about 180 miles south of Chicago. The Bush Administration quashed FutureGen because of its hefty budget, but President Obama revived the project with $1 billion in stimulus funding. Now, though, the government says it wants to retrofit an existing power plant across the state in a town called Meredosia rather than build a new one from scratch.
In the new design, the plant would be fed pure oxygen and burn coal, and the exhaust gas would consist of almost pure carbon dioxide. That carbon dioxide would then be piped 170 miles east to Mattoon and injected underground, possibly along with contributions from an ethanol plant in Decatur, Ill., and other industrial plants along the way [The New York Times].
This week it’s green for green: On Tuesday, we mentioned that the Department of Energy was giving out loans totaling $2 billion for two big solar panel projects. Now, the DOE has offered $67 million for research on carbon capture, in hopes of propelling nascent carbon capture and storage projects.
Carbon capture, as its name suggests, requires trapping carbon dioxide from fossil fuel-burners like coal power plants before it enters the air. It isn’t easy. For one, you have to figure out what to do with all the CO2 once you capture it. The first power plant to try out carbon sequestration has found that its neighbors aren’t keen on having CO2 pumped deep into the earth below their town.
Also, capturing the greenhouse gas requires energy, adding 80 percent to the cost of electricity for a new pulverized coal plant and around 35 percent for a high-tech coal gasification plant. The goal, the DOE says in the award announcement, is to reduce these costs to less than 30 percent and 10 percent, respectively.
Are we finally going to clean the skies of smog-causing nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide? The Environmental Protection Agency proposes new rules this week that would force power plants in 31 states, mostly in the East, to cut emissions of both to more than half of their 2005 levels by 2014.
The new rules take advantage of the “good neighbor” provision of the Clear Air Act to cut interstate transport—not cars and trucks, but the drift of air pollutants across state borders. (Air pollution, not unlike oil spills, does not respect the lines of the map) [TIME].
The Bush Administration tried to adopt a similar rule, but two years ago a U.S. Court of Appeals said the EPA had overstepped its bounds and nixed the regulations.
As a result, many power companies scaled back their investments in pollution controls. Now those companies will have to decide whether it is more cost-effective to retrofit their dirtiest power plants or shut them down [Los Angeles Times].
When it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, any fossil fuel looks bad compared to wind, solar, and even nuclear power sources. But how do fossil fuels stack up against one another? Natural gas is a lot better emissions-wise compared to coal, according to a new report, and may serve as a temporary coal stand-in over the coming decades, until the cost of alternative energy sources comes down.
The MIT Energy Initiative drafted an 83-page report that looked both at the United States’ natural gas supply and the fuel’s possibility to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Over the past two years, the MIT group discussed natural gas use with industry leaders, environmental groups, and government officials. They presented their findings and recommendations to legislators and senior administration officials in Washington last week.
“Much has been said about natural gas as a bridge to a low-carbon future, with little underlying analysis to back up this contention. The analysis in this study provides the confirmation—natural gas truly is a bridge to a low-carbon future,” said MITEI Director Ernest J. Moniz in introducing the report. [MIT News]
The report’s main points:
The West Virginia coal mining accident yesterday killed at least 25, and hope is starting to fade for finding the four missing miners alive. It’s the deadliest mining accident in the United States in more than a quarter-century.
A methane explosion appears to be the cause. Normally when DISCOVER covers methane scares, it has to do with the potent greenhouse gas leaking from permafrost or the ocean. But for coal miners, methane represents a more clear and present danger: Underground mines can fill up with the flammable gas, and a stray spark can light it and cause an explosion. As a result, mines are required to have giant fans that blow methane out of the working area.
Methane not only appears to have caused the accident, it also held up the rescue effort. Operations had to be suspended because of a build-up of methane in the mine. It’s hoped that they can resume later today — but it will require drilling about 1,000 feet, through two coal seams, to get to where the men might have been able to find shelter [NPR].
Methane is ubiquitous in coal mines. The gas, like coal, is a molecule made of hydrogen and carbon, and it is produced from the same raw material as coal, ancient piles of biological material, by the same processes. Much of the natural gas sold in the United States is drawn from coal seams. In undisturbed coal deposits, the methane is kept loosely attached to the coal molecules by compression; when the area is opened up by miners, the pressure is reduced and the methane bubbles out [The New York Times].
Over the weekend a huge Chinese freighter loaded down with coal and fuel oil crashed into part of the Great Barrier Reef off the Australian coast. Today, salvage teams are still struggling with how to extricate the Shen Neng 1 without dumping any more of its dirty cargo into the delicate marine ecosystem.
The ship had left the port of Gladstone just a few hours before striking the reef in Douglas Shoal. It ran aground in a restricted zone of the marine park, almost 30km [18.6 miles] from the authorised shipping channels it should have been using [Sydney Morning Herald]. Both the main engine and the rudders sustained serious damage. While rescuers debate how to orchestrate a salvage operation, the Shen Neng 1 has slid another 20 or 30 yards along the reef, destroying more coral in its path.
It’s been a busy week for President Obama and energy. Two days ago his administration rolled out plans to expand millions of new acres of ocean off the U.S. coastline for oil and gas drilling; after we posted on it, many DISCOVER fans expressed their disdain for Obama’s move on our Facebook page. Today, though, there’s good news for the environmentalists: Obama‘s EPA said today it will put stricter restrictions on mountaintop removal coal mining.
At “mountaintop removal” mines, which are unique to Appalachian states, miners blast the peaks off mountains to reach coal seams inside and then pile vast quantities of rubble in surrounding valleys [Washington Post]. The chemicals that result from decapitating a mountain and mining coal tend to run off into the the valleys and pollute rivers and streams, however. So when 80beats last left mountaintop removal, a group of scientists had taken a public stance in the journal Science calling for a complete end to this kind of mining.