The high cost of coal

Just how much damage is being done by mountaintop removal coal mining? Unless we calculate an “environmental price tag,” researchers argue in PLOS ONE, policymakers can’t determine whether the economic benefits of coal are worth the landscape losses.

Mountaintop removal coal mining involves clearing forests and blasting away ridges. The resulting drainage can contaminate streams, and the area usually turns into grassland.

The study authors analyzed satellite images of 47 counties in West Virginia and Kentucky from 1985 to 2005 to determine where mining had occurred. They also collected data on coal production from those counties and estimated the effects on ecosystems.

To obtain one ton of coal, 0.87 square meters of land was disturbed and 0.25 centimeters of stream was damaged, the team reports. The conversion of forest to grassland also reduced carbon sequestration potential by 193 grams of carbon per year.

Those “may not sound like alarming environmental costs,” the authors write. But a different picture emerges when they consider total coal usage in the United States. Meeting the country’s current coal demand would require mining an area the size of Washington, DC every few months, the team says. And obtaining a one-year supply would result in 2,300 kilometers of stream damage and 185,000 metric tons of lost carbon sequestration per year. “Tremendous environmental capital is being spent to achieve what are only modest energy gains,” the researchers conclude. Roberta Kwok | 13 September 2013

Source: Lutz, B.D., E.S. Bernhardt, and W.H. Schlesinger. 2013. The environmental price tag on a ton of mountaintop removal coal. PLOS ONE doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0073203.

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