I have lived on the fringe of the Allegheny Plateau's coal fields my entire life and have seen firsthand the best and worst of modern (and not so modern) coal mining. Just like every large scale energy production process, coal mining and burning brings trade-offs for the energy it ultimately yields. Coal has been a reliable, domestically produced source of power for a very long time. It has been valuable not just for electrical generation and industrial production but as the primary source of residential heating in the first half of the twentieth century. Mining of that coal, particularly, has also significantly impacted the regional economy.
Despite those many positives, the long-term costs of using coal, especially to make electricity, have been substantial. It seems that whenever anyone raises concerns over those legitimate problems or supports alternative energy sources they are vilified as job killers waging a "War on Coal." Some have argued that this has not been a politically motivated assault, but that market forces and multiple environmental liabilities have doomed coal to a much smaller role.
This change is remarkably similar to two energy transitions that have occurred over the last 150 years. More than two-thirds of our energy production came from wood in 1870. By the beginning of the twentieth century, two-thirds came from coal. Sixty years later, oil and natural gas grabbed a much larger market share, especially for space heating. In each case, profound economic, technological and environmental factors drove those changes.
These were not random changes but ones brought about by changes in energy needs and the ways we converted that energy for transportation, heating and manufacturing. Each of these transitions is marked by revolutionary changes in conversion technology, the steam engine, electrical generation technologies and the internal combustion engine being the most notable. Was there a "War on Wood" in 1900? Undoubtedly, those that depended on wood for their livelihood thought so and times would have been difficult for them as society changed. But people and business decided that coal had advantages and jobs would transition as the energy sources did the same.
Such changes are challenging but economic activities of all sorts are dynamic and jobs often move from one sector to another. The journal Energy Policy reported that while the coal industry lost 50,000 jobs from 2008 to 2012, natural gas gained 95,000 and wind and solar added 79,000. Meanwhile, the extraction of coal has caused serious long-term water pollution, sulfur-rich acid mine drainage degrading 3,000 miles of waterways in Pennsylvania. The volume of waste rock is staggering and mountain top removal mining has devastated 800,000 acres of forest land and the soil on which it grew. The sludge generated by the processing of coal and the ash left over from the burning of coal have caused their own set of serious problems throughout the Appalachians.
Even with the state-of-the-art emission controls, the burning of coal is the leading source of sulfur dioxide, produces half of the nation's mercury emissions and notable amounts of lead, arsenic, cadmium and volatile organic compounds (VOC). Coal may still have a place in America's energy future, but it seems clear it is one that is diminishing – and for many reasons.
A young mother pulled her massive white pickup truck up to the air pump and left the engine run as she inflated one of the large tires. She gathered up her young child and ran into the store. I waited a few moments to see how long the lady took before she returned to her still-running vehicle. Minutes passed and she was still nowhere to be found.
Sitting on the rocking chairs in front of a local eatery the weekend before, I watched a man leave the restaurant and drive his shiny club cab truck toward the entrance. He waited there, engine running as three other people from his party slowly returned over the next six or seven minutes. They talk and chuckle for a few more minutes. As we enter the restaurant, the group finally departs, never having turned the engine off for the nine or ten minutes we looked on.
Rain or shine, snow or balmy warmth, two well-intentioned parents drive their children (in a truck and SUV respectively) to the end of their thirty foot long driveways, waiting for the school bus. Both engines run until the bus arrives and, almost in unison, the two gas guzzlers back the thirty feet down the driveway. Thankfully, the children have been spared the long walk up that driveway, safe from any wild, carnivorous animals running about Blair County!
These most recent incidents happened on pleasant days when neither the heater nor air conditioners were needed. There was no logical reason (beyond the continued exercising of a bad habit) for any of these folks to let the vehicles idle. Depending on the size and fuel efficiency of your car or truck, every hour of idling burns a quarter to a half gallon of gas. It's estimated that Americans use nearly four million gallons of gas every day letting their engines idle unnecessarily. That also means an hour of idling emits up to ten pounds of carbon dioxide, giving off more than 75 million pounds of CO2 each year nationwide.
Beyond being oblivious to the downside of letting their cars and trucks run unceasingly, their preference for large, inefficient vehicles would indicate these folks are not concerned about fuel economy. Yet despite these tales of unawareness or apathy, there is good news. During the ten years that gasoline prices were high, fuel efficiency continued to increase, rising over six miles to the gallon during that time. Though truck and SUV sales have remained robust, more fuel efficient cars are easier to find and many Americans have responded by buying them.
Higher fuel prices have pushed us toward more efficient cars in much the same way the oil embargos of the mid and late seventies brought similar changes and greater energy conservation in general. In a recent conversation with Penn State Altoona Physics Professor and energy specialist Richard Flarend, I lamented our apparent slide backward in the eighties (when energy prices decreased). Flarend reminded me that improvements in efficiency and conservation continued even after prices went down. Despite some unenlightened souls, it would seem that many Americans respond to market forces that push us toward conservation. Let's hope that trend continues.
Passenger rail service in America – a railroad system that even Bulgaria would be ashamed of. Those were the words of author James Kuntsler speaking about his research and writings on urban sprawl and related transportation challenges in the United States several years ago. By most standards, rail transportation is woefully underfunded when compared to other modes of transportation in the United States. The emasculation of Amtrak had already helped reduce the number of trains between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg to a single trip each way per day. (Sixty passenger trains once passed through Altoona each day.) While the world is a vastly different place then, a recent resurgence has caused a re-examination of passenger rail's place in the American transportation system.
Passenger rail transportation remains the most efficient mechanized way to move people, about 45% more efficient than the private automobile. The dominant mode of transportation a century ago, rail had dipped to less than half a per cent of all passenger miles traveled in America. While the Northeast Corridor still manages to secure notable funding to maintain and enhance the busy part of the system that runs from Washington, through Philadelphia and on to New York. But Congress has persistently stuck the states with the tab for routes that were already in a tough spot and operating at the mercy of the freight lines that own the track on which they travel.
A number of places throughout the country have undertaken studies to explore rail's potential to fill important niches in our national transportation system. One such study, the Keystone West High Speed Rail study, is being done here in Pennsylvania to explore various options to improve service in these parts. The study, however, seemed to look for a complicated answer to a simple question. Rather than looking at the whole picture, the study focused more on the expensive, high-tech options to solve a problem that could be addressed by a change in policy and practices.
Many believe that the simple investment in more trains would do much more than spending billions on straightening out a dozen curves. Henry Posner III of Pittsburgh's Railroad Development Corporation, owner of several domestic and foreign freight railroads, believes that people are much less concerned about time because they can work or relax on the train. "Why not focus on what passengers really want, which is frequency, not speed?" Posner asked.
The most annoying delays are not caused by slow sections of tracks, but because Amtrak must share freight line right-of-ways. Common in Pennsylvania and most of the upper Midwest, the delays happen because Amtrak doesn't own its own track. After tolerating a three and half hour delay on the Lakeshore Limited last fall, a passenger interviewed by the Cleveland Plain Dealer called the Amtrak timetable more of a "wish list" than a schedule.
Despite limited options and frequent delays, people still ride the trains. Over 58,000 passengers get on or off the train in Johnstown, Altoona, Tyrone or Huntingdon in an average year. Ridership is up six per cent since 2010, despite the fact that the trains are old, the tracks are designed for freight trains and it takes less time to drive. The single daily train means that arrivals and departures are inconvenient for business travelers, forcing people to make overnight stays if they use the train.
Based on the national average of 1.5 passengers per car, the train is keeping 32,000 cars off the road each year, even here in the more lightly traveled Central Pennsylvania region between Huntingdon and Johnstown. Besides being a much more environmentally sound way to travel, it is an important option for many people that have limited access to an automobile. In addition to older and lower income people, that group also includes many college-aged individuals. As Penn State Altoona continues its amazing growth as Penn State's most requested campus after University Park, that student access is important.
Limited mass transit options inordinately penalize those that can least afford it. Federal and state spending on railroads remains a tiny fraction of what we spend on highways and airports. Passenger rail in America is running much less frequently, struggling to keep thirty year old trains running, using lines owned by freight lines that don't want them on their tracks. It sure seems like a funny way to run a railroad.
Energy, economics and politics have made strange bedfellows for centuries. The peculiar dynamics among the three have historically been especially interesting in this part of the United States. Though the details and sources of energy are different, the struggles and special interests that drive the debates persist.
When Native Americans were the sole human occupants of Pennsylvania, man's impact on the environment was nearly inconsequential. Their modest numbers and general respect for the local resources on which they depended translated into a less destructive relationship with the natural world. Even many of the first European immigrants lived lightly on the land. After all, like the Native Americans, when they damaged their local environment, they endangered their own survival. But as soon as powerful economic interests became part of the equation, environmental exploitation became commonplace.
It was lumber that began this tale of extraction and environmental destruction. Once covered from end to end with forests, most parts of Pennsylvania were stripped naked at least once from the late eighteenth until the early twentieth century. This sometimes insatiable desire for lumber made the Appalachian Mountains look like a desert landscape (and photos taken after 1850 document the damage). But making charcoal for the iron furnaces was time consuming and it took massive amounts of wood to power a train.
It was coal that brought the concentration of energy needed to power the most revolutionary part of the Industrial Revolution. The legacy of the mining that began in the middle of the nineteenth century still haunts us today here in central Pennsylvania. Only a few miles from home we can find acid mine drainage fouling our streams and wells, toxic piles of mine waste, and barren strip mines that can't support the hardiest of trees. The careless way we have mined coal still curses us environmentally and economically many years after the coal was burned. Though natural gas and wind power are unquestionably much cleaner sources of energy than coal, they, too, may bring future cleanup costs that we still don't recognize.
This energy economic tom-foolery doesn't end with postponement of cleanup costs either. For we have given preferential treatment or subsidized (in one way or another) nearly every source of energy at one time or another. Yet contrary to some of the political rhetoric, the subsidies for the coal, oil and nuclear industries have far exceeded those given to solar and wind energy. (Visit Energy Fact Checks for details.)
Economic benefits are often exaggerated, too, as has been the case with the Keystone XL Pipeline. Several reports have concluded that less than fifty permanent jobs would ultimately be created by the construction of the pipeline. Recently, waste-to-energy and nuclear power advocates have embarked upon a rewrite of the economic history of their industries. No matter how you may feel about the issues surrounding incinerators and nuclear reactors, it has been the overwhelming economic challenges of those two sources of electrical generation that have discouraged investment over the last quarter century. Incinerators and reactors are ungodly expensive to build and operate.
It turns out that modest local investments (recycling facilities instead of incinerators, many rooftop solar systems instead of a large nuclear power plant) are not only good environmental investments but smart economic ones.
Both good and bad news seems to be coming from the Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling industry. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection recently announced a $1.8 million dollar fine against Halliburton Energy Services for the illegal storage, transportation and processing of hydrochloric acid. The chemical had been part of hydraulic fracturing done in Indiana County. Interestingly, this is the same Halliburton from which the nickname "Halliburton Loophole" originated when the industry was exempted from Safe Drinking Water Act regulations in 2005.
The federal Energy Policy Act, among other things, defined chemicals used in the fracking process as "Tools" rather than potential pollutants. Water and sand make up the largest portion of the fracking liquid, but several other groups of chemicals are used in smaller amounts to help fracture the rocks and encourage the gas to flow more easily. The next three most used chemical groups are gelling agents (to thicken the water), acids (to dissolve rocks), corrosion inhibitors (to extend the life of the pipes) and friction reducers. Some (like the thickener guar gum) is relatively harmless, but others (like the petroleum distillate used as a solvent and the hydrochloric acid used to dissolve minerals) are quite toxic. (Visit Frac Focus for a listing of fracking chemicals.)
The industry has made three claims to dispel concerns over the toxic stew used to hydraulically fracture rocks and release natural gas. The chemicals are only one per cent of the total fluid going into the ground. Much of the water is being recycled and the injections are done far below aquifers used for drinking water. Critics contend that one percent is actually a high number for toxic water pollutants. One percent translates into 10,000 parts per million, which is considered to be a high number for many toxins found in water or air. Opponents also protest that, while the Marcellus is usually extremely deep, the wells must go through drinking water aquifers to get to the deep rocks. Though Pennsylvania requires casing of gas wells below the depths from which we draw our water supplies, contamination has remained a concern.
While Pennsylvania is not taxing the industry as highly as detractors would like, it would appear that our home state is doing a more rigorous job of regulating the industry than many other states. Some companies have fairly good compliance records, others have been very bad. In addition to the Halliburton fine, Chesapeake Appalachia has been fined $1.4 million over 400 violations at their 752 wells. (Visit NPR for a listing of violations.)
But there is good news. Pollution standards for fracking water in Pennsylvania has encouraged much more recycling of fracking water than we see in many other places. Not all recycling connected to the gas drilling industry has enjoyed similar success. The 80,000 tons of plastic liner used for pad liners, containment and water impoundments at drill sites has, to this point, been landfilled. In response to this, plastic recycler Ultra-Poly developed a cost effective recycling process for the recovery of the material but the industry has not embraced the practice. Clearly, old, established habits and practices seem to die hard.
Nuclear energy and waste incinerators have recently been in the news and advocates have touted them as environmentally friendly sources of energy. The darling of the energy generation industry forty years ago, the economic realities of nuclear energy slowed industry growth to a crawl over the last quarter century. When the National Regulatory Commission (NRC) approved the Vogtle nuclear reactors in Georgia last February, it marked the first permit approval since 1978, a year before the Three Mile Island accident.
While environmentalists were protesting that the energy source was environmentally undesirable, it was the economics that was torpedoing the industry. Interestingly, it was Forbes magazine, not an environmental organization that described the struggles of the industry in 1985. "The failure of the U.S. nuclear power program ranks as the largest managerial disaster in business history, a disaster on a monumental scale…only the blind, or the biased, can now think that the money has been well spent." Alternative energy and conservation advocate Amory Lovins notes that one in five nuclear plants "were permanently and prematurely closed due to reliability or cost problems…"
Beyond those operational difficulties and the financial troubles they bring, many critics believe that the greatest cost is a long term one. The legacy costs associated with the storage of the very toxic and radioactive waste are unknown. The costs of the long term damage from nuclear accidents are also proving to be overwhelming. Japanese scientists fear that the radioactivity from the Fukushima power plant will make the fish near the plant inedible for a decade. Many of the 80,000 refugees evacuated from their homes near the facility remain in legal limbo. Cleanup of eleven nearby towns, originally projected to be completed next March, has been indefinitely postponed.
More than a quarter century after the Chernobyl accident in Ukraine, towns 25 miles away are still. Even the closure of facility that has operated without incident is expensive. The San Onofre plant in California will cost $4 billion and it's uncertain who will foot the bill. Though not as astronomically expensive as nuclear power plants, waste-to-energy (WTE) trash incinerators still require a substantial capital investment. The WTE industry has experienced the same sorts of financial challenges as nuclear power. WTE was an attractive waste management and energy producing option in the seventies and eighties and many counties and waste authorities built the expensive plants in those years. But like nuclear, the boom passed, the financial risks became evident and plant construction nearly ceased. Annual debt service on WTE plants can be over $10 million and it takes a great deal of waste to feed such a beast.
The Harrisburg, PA incinerator long plagued by chronic emission problems (like many older WTE plants) had been one of the dirtiest in the country. Meanwhile, the plant has lost millions of dollars, helping to drive Harrisburg to financially distressed status. WTE opponents, like those fighting a facility in Frederick County, MD believe that they could develop a top-notch recycling system for a fraction of the money of the incinerator. Greener energy and better recycling would make environmental sense. It would seem it might also make economic sense.
Americans have long been in denial that their extraction and use of energy causes environmental problems. We have managed to rationalize the acid mine drainage that has befouled 5,000 miles of Pennsylvania's waterways, rendering the water undrinkable and destroying aquatic ecosystems. We excuse the childhood asthma, elderly respiratory disease and premature deaths caused by the polluted air. We have discounted the risks of shipping nuclear wastes across the country and long term storage of those wastes because we "need" the electricity.
We accept the mental impairment of a half million children caused by the lead and mercury emitted from the burning of coal. We lament oil spills in sensitive marine environments but still ignore "best practices" when drilling in such regions. We deny that that the carbon dioxide we emit is warming the planet. So we look for other options and alternatives that reduce those pollutants and risks. Solar, wind and natural gas seem to be common sense alternatives that avoid some of the worst environmental problems connected with fossil fuels. Unfortunately, the initial investments for solar and wind energy have been quite expensive compared to the often subsidized fossil fuels.
Many are particularly concerned about the potential impacts of natural gas drilling and windmills. Yet a number of ardent environmentalists also see the gas from Marcellus Shale and the electricity generated by windmills as two answers to an uncertain energy future. It is the classic environmental conundrum – a seemingly unsolvable dilemma, a question without a clear answer. Clearly, we would be much better off environmentally if we used more natural gas and less coal. Yet serious uncertainties still surround fracking for natural gas. Despite these questions, the practice has been given preferential regulatory treatment, being exempted from the underground injection control program of the Safe Water Drinking Act and provisions of the Clean Water Act.
The fourteen biggest fracking companies in the United States use more than a quarter trillion liters of fracking fluid. The fluids are a well kept secret in the industry and a source of great concern to opponents of hydraulic fracturing. More than two dozen of the chemicals that are believed to be used in the process are known or suspected human carcinogens. The amount of water used in the process is significant as well. Most of the Great Lakes states have waived restrictions on the amount of water that can be withdrawn from both ground and surface water for fracking.
The noise, habitat destruction and aesthetic degradation connected with windmills has brought opposition to wind energy, despite its many advantages. It would seem that, like so many other industries, there are good and bad actors in the wind energy business. Poorly planned, sited and maintained wind farms can be liabilities to the communities in which they are developed. Even the most responsible wind energy companies and natural gas drillers must be tempered by the interests and wishes of local residents. There are places where such development might be very appropriate and widely accepted by the host communities. Clearly, there are also places where water, aesthetics, forest resources and the expectations of the people should be put first.