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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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