Archive for June, 2013

Ison Rock Ridge and Coal’s Decline

In February, the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Engineering denied A&G Coal Corporation a surface mine permit for Ison Rock Ridge, a decision that was upheld just over a week ago after appeals by the company. This denial preserves a solitary peak whose neighbors have been mined, and protects the air, water and health of communities in Wise County who are literally surrounded by mountaintop removal coal mining.

  Mined areas are shown in bright red.

A&G’s permit application was originally approved by the DMME in May of 2010, but was halted by concern that the mine would violate water quality standards for surrounding streams. The company also failed to resolve outstanding mine permit violations in other states, which was a condition of the DMME’s approval. The company is free to submit another permit, of course, but it may be another several years of waiting before yet another denial for A&G. I’m reminded in this instance of the fight against the Surry Coal Plant, where delay proved so powerful. The permitting process can, from time to time, show kindness to environmentalists by way of delay. If current energy trends in the United States continue, these delays may become more and more significant for the coal industry.

Mountaintop removal, the form of strip mining used throughout most of Appalachia, is a way for coal companies to get more bang for their buck; in the mountaintop removal process, the tops of mountains are blown off with dynamite, which greatly reduces the demand for miners. Though it has proved a more cost-effective way to exploit coal seams, the practice may soon be economically as well as environmentally and socially indefensible. The New York Times reported recently that coal’s contribution to the American energy sector has dropped from 50 to under 40 percent in the last decade. Last summer, the Washington Post reported an array of coal-related statistics demonstrating the industry’s decline in the United States:

Regulation is only partly to blame in this case. The EPA has released more stringent rules on air pollution which has made the approval of new coal plants nearly impossible, and has made older, less efficient plants even less economical to operate. However, it is the simultaneous deregulation of the natural gas industry that bears the rest of the responsibility. Following the discovery of huge reserves of shale gas in the eastern United States, and the widespread of the controversial hydraulic fracturing process to exploit them, the natural gas industry has skyrocketed. Science has just recently turned its microscope to hydraulic fracturing’s health effects, and the industry has faced regulatory roadblocks in New York State, but the industry’s progress in states like Pennsylvania has not been stymied.

The story of coal’s decline grows more complicated when we consider energy markets outside the United States. Coal may be on the decline in America, but what about international markets? According to a June 13th article in the New York Times, energy exports, particularly to markets in Asia, represent the coal industry’s only hope for survival. The Times reports that coal company Cloud Peak is planning the expansion of their ports in the Pacific Northwest, and increased coal mining in Montana, to facilitate these exports.

Cloud Peak has made arrangements with the Crow Nation in Montana, which is situated on top of major coal reserves. For the Crow Nation, which struggles with poverty and unemployment, the coal industry seems to present the only chance for economic development. Other Pacific Northwest tribes oppose the mining of the coal from an environmental perspective, and many environmental groups are rallying against the increased coal transport across the state. (Kudos to the Times for keeping up with environmental reporting after the dissolution of their environmental desk, which I discussed a few weeks ago. You can read the Times’ article on the coal conflict in Montana at their website.

This entrenched conflict between economic interests and environmental concerns is present in the communities surrounding Ison Rock Ridge, as well. The coal industry has long existed as a monoeconomy in Appalachia; no one is sure, quite yet, what would take the throne following King Coal’s demise. Groups like the Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards, who are based in the town of Appalachia and have been fighting the Ison Rock Ridge permit for the past four years, are fighting for the diversification of Appalachian economies in the face of a failing coal industry. What they and many other groups recognize – and what, hopefully, our legislators will come to learn as well – is that rather than being in diametric opposition, economic and environmental sustainability can, and must, go hand in hand. The Ison Rock Ridge Permit denial is an important step towards this sustainable future for Appalachia.

-Sharon Hartzell
Originally published at

June 24th, 2013

Black and White and Green All Over

Though environmental issues are growing in prevalence and pertinence on a national and international scale, they seem to be losing their footing in the mainstream media. In March, the New York Times announced the cancelation of their Green Blog, which was designed to provide news and commentary and foster discussion surrounding energy and environmental topics. This announcement came just months after the Times dissolved their environment desk, a team of two editors and seven reporters who have since been assigned to other departments. In the wake of these events, many creators and consumers of environmental news are wondering what impact the Times‘ decisions will have on the landscape of environmental reporting.

When the environment desk closed, New York Times editors insisted that they remained as committed as ever to covering the environment. Now that the Green Blog has also met its end, they are echoing the same defense. In their announcement, the New York Times asserted that they planned to “forge ahead with our aggressive reporting on environmental and energy topics, including climate change, land use, threatened ecosystems, government policy, the fossil fuel industries, the growing renewables sector and consumer choices.”

In an editorial for the Columbia Journalism Review, Curtis Brainard excoriated the Times for their abandonment of the environmental beat and their lack of commitment to covering some of the most pressing issues of our time. Brainard, whose sentiments have been echoed by other environmental news consumers and writers, believes that the canceling of the environment desk and the Green Blog reflects a lack of interest in the environment on the part of the Times, and that the continued commitment they speak of in their press releases is just media posturing.

It’s entirely possible that the cancelation of the desk and blog reflect a genuine disinterest and lack of prioritization on the part of the Times. It’s really too early to say. However, I would suggest that these events might reflect less the views of the Times‘ editors, and more those of the Times‘ general readership. I would also argue that, if the Times follows through on their proclaimed commitment, dissolving the environmental desk and blog and integrating their content into the rest of the paper could be a step forward, not backward, for environmental reporting.

Anyone familiar with my writing here, at Hark Upon the Green, or in The Dog Street Journal is aware that I believe in the crucial importance of writing about the environment. At the same time, writing for an “environment section” of a newspaper strikes me as strangely analogous to writing for the “people section.” This “people section” would be ludicrous, if it existed. Aren’t all stories about people, in some way? Similarly, the environment is central and foundational to all of our actions. It underlies and surrounds everything that we do as individuals, as communities, as countries. I firmly believe that environmental issues, and therefore environmental news, cannot be extricated from the social, the political and the economic.

Dean Baquet, the managing editor for news operations at the New York Times, spoke with Inside Climate News about the decision to close the environment desk. When the environment desk was founded, he said, the environmental beat was “singular and isolated.” Today, Baquet stated, environmental topics are highly interdisciplinary, “partly business, economic, national or local, among other subjects…they are more complex.” Embracing this complexity, and emphasizing the crossover between the environmental beat and other news sections, may point the way forward for environmental reporting.

Among the disappointed commentators on articles about the Green Blog’s demise, some pointed out that the blog did not draw a great number of reader comments. Maybe the Times did not ruthlessly slash this news beat as much as they laid to rest an already dying section. Perhaps, as much as environmental advocates might wish differently, the environment is simply not at the top of the average citizen’s list of concerns.

A poll by the research consultancy GlobeScan asked participants how serious they considered various environmental issues to be. The issues included air pollution, water pollution, species loss, automobile emissions, fresh water shortages, and climate change. Results of the survey demonstrated that concern about all of these issues, save climate change, had reached its lowest point since tracking began 20 years ago. Environmental issues worldwide may have been supplanted in recent years by more immediate economic and political concerns. In the United States, we may simply be too distracted by the economic crisis and political debates on health care reform, immigration and gun control to give a second thought to the environment, or to seek out environmental news in the “Green” section of the paper. For many of us, “Green” translates to “Things that can wait. Things that happen slowly. Things I don’t have to think about right now.”

Perhaps, in isolating and sequestering “the environment” from the rest of the news, we encourage this nonchalant attitude towards the environment. Perhaps we are also missing the opportunity to connect the environment to values that are held closely to people’s hearts – health, economic security, and human rights, to name a few. A story about climate change could just as easily go in the New York Times‘s “World” or “Health” sections. Hydraulic fracturing might find a home in the “Business” beat, while news on alternative energy sources would fit naturally under “Technology.” By deleting the environmental section of their paper, the New York Times may simply be moving environmental coverage from the bottom rung of the interest ladder and into realms that garner more public attention. All issues are connected, anyway. The environment belongs with the other social issues of our day as much as it merits its own category. To quote Audre Lorde, “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.”

Still, it will take a concerted effort on the part of news organizations and journalists to make sure the environment has a place in this interdisciplinary vision of journalism. Without the space to fill in newspapers and on web pages, environmental stories, and those who write them, will have to fight for their space in the media. On the upside, this fight will likely force environmental stories to adapt, and therefore to improve – to become more integrated, relatable, and human than ever before.

-Sharon Hartzell
Originally published at

June 8th, 2013


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