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Could Revoked West Virginia Coal Mine Permit Trigger a Renewable Energy Boom?

mountaintop removal mining

This week, the brutal business of mountaintop removal coal mining got some bad news when the EPA revoked its permit for Arch Coal’s Spruce No. 1 Mine, a West Virginia mine that would have blasted off mountaintops across 2,278 acres to get to the coal beneath. It was a smart move for the local environment—the project could have polluted streams, killed wildlife, and poisoned locals. But it may have a larger implication for dirty coal since the EPA revoked the permit after the fact using the Clean Water Act. That means other coal mines could get shut down too, leaving a big space in West Virginia for cleaner energy development.

The EPA doesn't take its powers of revocation lightly. In this past 40 years, the agency has only revoked a permit using the Clean Water Act twice. That's still concerning enough that the National Realtors Association, the American Road and Transportation Builders Association and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association wrote a letter to the White House appealing the decision.

According to the New York Times, the groups complained that "every similarly valid permit held by any entity—businesses, public works agencies and individual citizens—will be in increased regulatory limbo and potentially subject to the same unilateral, after-the-fact revocation. The implications could be staggering, reaching all areas of the U.S. economy including but not limited to the agriculture, home building, mining, transportation and energy sectors."

That's an exaggeration, to be sure, but would it really be so bad if the EPA at least took a stronger stance on damaging mining practices? It would hit an already economically depressed area hard, but continuing mining practices isn't doing any favors to the health and well-being of local residents.

"The concerns that led EPA to veto Spruce are going to reappear in other mines," says Jon Devine, a senior attorney in the Water Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "This and other actions that EPA has taken in the past couple years really signal better attention by the agency to the science of mountaintop removal coal mining."

In the event that the EPA does revoke more mining permits, West Virginia still has other clean energy options. A study from Southern Methodist University’s Geothermal Laboratory recently showed that the state has significant geothermal resources—up to 18,890 megawatts, which is more than the state’s current total power generation capacity of 16,350 megawatts.

So geothermal could provide more power for the state than coal, if the state—and geothermal startups—start drilling. If coal companies pull out of lucrative mountaintop removal projects because of permitting fears, it might just happen. After all, the EPA probably won't come running after clean energy projects in such a coal-heavy state.

Ariel Schwartz can be reached on Twitter or by email.

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  • Lord Mock

    A couple problems
    1. Telling coal companies to just switch to geothermal is like telling Intel to switch to making airplanes.
    2. these companies not only provide coal for the local grid they also ship it you can’t ship geothermal or solar.
    3. retooling power plants and power grids takes time and money both of which are scarce commodities.
    4. green energy may be cheaper but what will be the loss of revenue for the local economies if they lose the lower level mining jobs along with the influx of revenue brought in from the sale of coal to other areas?
    your comment here.

  • Sergey

    Geothermal energy is far from safe on industrial scale it prone to cause local earthquakes. There is no cheap or simple "Green" energy. We already saw quick-fix "green" solutions like gasoline from corn and hidrohenium cars. US lost golden opportunity to become Green innovation powerhouse during years of property. Today US economy is too fragile to penalize business for "old way" practices. Businesses are driven by greed rather than hunger for innovation. Unfortunately we have use incentives to see them moving in right direction.

  • mike

    your logic is flawed beyond repair.
    hate to point this out, but that "free" energy is VERY costly, and i dont mean dollars either.
    wind turbines cause many deaths to wild bird. birds have been flying free with out concern for a windmill for millions of years. now bald eagles, golden eagles, the recently restored peregrine and countless other birds die upon impact to the blades of the spinning windmills.

    So save the caribou migration routes!!! dont put oil lines in front of a caribou cause they arent smart enought to go around it!!
    but now we are literally putting blenders in the sky and killing endangerd and protected species.

    as for solar....
    you need miles and miles of solar cells to generate enough energy to power a small city!!!
    so now you are putting a road block to power a couple thousand homes!!!

    so where is thespace and cost savings at?
    there isnt!

  • scott dixon

    I am in the renewable energy field, concentrating on biomass to energy. I have also spent significant time in WV, especially touring mountain top removal sites. Though I haven't been to this one, they aren't all as bad as it is framed. I would also like to see verified your statement about power generation. If you are talking total current power generation from the standpoint of actual electricity produced within the state compared to the availability of geothermal then I agree. However, the way you worded it can be confusing; the math gets big, but suffice to say if WV for a recent year produced 161 million short tons of coal, that is significantly more energy than 16,350 MW.

  • James Washington

    It is a fact of life. People will continue to use more and more electricity. Alternate means of electricity production is the key. Wind and solar are our two main "free" sources and we are learning to harness these better every day. All it takes is for everyone to help out just a little bit. http://www.onlineambitenergy.c...