New Mining Criteria Will Reduce Causes of Climate Change

Whether the world wins or loses the fight against climate change will likely be defined by how countries like the United States deal with their vast reserves of coal. The most carbon intensive of all fossil fuels when burned, coal is responsible for 80% of US electric utility carbon emissions. If all or most of the coal deposits in the United States are mined and burned, there’s virtually no chance of avoiding the most catastrophic effects of climate change. The best way to fight climate change is to keep coal reserves in the ground. This week marked a stepping stone on the path to victory for those trying to slow rampant extraction of coal in the US.

On Thursday, the US Army Corps of Engineers unveiled a decision to suspend a fast-track approval process for mountaintop removal coal mines in six Appalachian states: Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. The approval mechanism in question, known as Nationwide Permit 21 (NWP 21) formerly made it relatively easy for coal mining companies to get approval for projects that involve dumping large amounts of mining fill material into streams. Most projects of this type are mountaintop removal mines: sites where the tops of mountains are literally blown off to expose coal seams, and rubble from the mountaintop is dumped into a nearby valley or stream. Environmental groups have long considered mountaintop removal to be one of the most environmentally destructive mining processes in the country.

Thursday’s announcement by the Army Corps of Engineers means companies that want to engage in mountaintop removal must undergo a more thorough review of their projects, which will include a public comment period. Coal companies can no longer count on their mining proposals being rubber-stamped by industry-friendly federal agencies. Organizations concerned about the health and environmental impacts of dumping mine debris into streams that feed the drinking supplies of Appalachian communities will have more opportunities to interject in the approval of new mines. Indeed the increased scrutiny combined with growing public awareness of the effects of this mining practice could mean few if any new mountaintop removal projects are approved while the new rule remains in place.

No doubt communities throughout Appalachia which are working to protect their water supplies will breathe a sigh of relief at this decision. Yet if approval of new mines really does slow down, the biggest winner of all may be the climate. Every ton of coal that stays buried in the Appalachian Mountains is a ton that won’t be burned for fuel, releasing carbon emissions into the atmosphere that contribute to climate change. The United States sits on nearly 30% of the world’s coal reserves, meaning this country’s policies on coal extraction have a huge effect on the causes of climate change. Much work remains to be done to keep US coal reserves in the ground: Thursday’s Army Corps announcement doesn’t affect existing mountaintop removal mines, or applications for other types of coal mining projects throughout the country. But it is a step in the right direction. Every new regulation that makes it more difficult or expensive to mine for coal is a victory against catastrophic climate change.

Federal regulators must continue to increase environmental protections for communities affected by coal mining. Steps taken so far to reduce the impacts of mountaintop removal should be merely the first nudge toward a national policy that makes coal companies pay for the true costs of their mining activity. Only by leaving coal in the ground can US can reduce one of the most important causes of climate change, and prevent the enormous carbon emissions that come from burning coal for electricity.

Photo credit: Mountain Near Kirk, WV