University of Wyoming Extension News

UW professor part of study identifying major issues facing coal production

George Vance, a University of Wyoming J.E. Warren Distinguished Professor of Energy and the Environment, was a member of a National Commission on Energy Policy (NCEP) study that identified seven major issues facing the future of coal production in the United States.

Vance, who specializes in soil and environmental science in the College of Agriculture’s Department of Renewable Resources, was one of five expert members of the group.

A final report, “Meeting Projected Coal Production in the USA: Upstream Issues, Challenges, and Strategies” has been published as a 258-page book as well as a summary brochure that contains a pdf of the report.

The report will be distributed to federal legislators and will become available for free download at the Virginia Center for Coal and Energy Research Web page www.energy.vt.edu/.

As the only member from west of the Mississippi River, Vance was invited to be on the committee to evaluate environmental issues confronting future coal production.

“Our report involved surveying past and present coal activities in order to provide an assessment of some issues confronting the coal industry and various recommendations for the industry to be successful in the future,” said Vance. “If policy is made, we wanted to provide information that could be used for science-based decisions.”

The focus of the report is to address what the industry calls upstream issues; a focus Vance said has not been addressed adequately in previous studies. Upstream issues concentrate on concerns related to initiation of the coal mining process to delivery, and they include the entire coal sector involving government, equipment suppliers, academic institutions, communities near coal mining, environmental groups and others.

Downstream issues are those that deal specifically with the effects of coal combustion such as carbon dioxide emissions.

The major upstream issues identified in the report are:

* A need for better and timelier data related to all aspects of the coal sector,

* Development and adoption of better technologies in all facets of the upstream cycle,

* Changes needed in the culture of the coal sector to one that focuses on beyond-compliance approaches to dealing with regulations and public trust,

* Addressing economic uncertainty, avoiding supply interruptions and promoting production stability,

* Identifying and addressing potentially significant workforce shortfalls,

* Improving education and training,

* Addressing societal acceptance of coal mining and use.

The NCEP contracted for the study with the Virginia Center for Coal and Energy Research at Virginia Tech.

The effort began in 2007 with kickoff meetings in Washington, D.C., and Denver. The study team, including the expert committee members and staff and the NCEP, met several times in Washington, D.C., and once in Charleston, W.V.

Whether the upstream as well as downstream issues are addressed may play an important role in coal production projections. Based on information from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration, projected 2030 coal production will increase from current levels of 1.16 billion tons to 1.6 billion tons.

“Will future coal production levels drop? That’s a good question,” Vance said. He believes future coal production is probably going to be affected based on legislative directives.

“We currently need coal, and I don’t envision the nation giving up electricity since coal is used to produce more than 50 percent of our electricity. It’s a question of acceptability. We have changed administrations, and I think we will see more emphasis placed on environmental regulations. It could be a lot more expensive to produce coal in the future.”

Each committee member contributed a chapter in the final report. Vance wrote Chapter 6 “Environmental Protection, Practices, and Standards.”

Vance said he entered the project expecting extensive data production.

“That was not the real focus of the project,” he said. “My thought process on the use of coal changed as I went through the project. I didn’t understand some of the issues associated with coal resources versus reserves, the different mining techniques, coal processing, and the problems related to these operations, and the many health and safety issues. I am much more aware of what it takes to mine coal and have a better appreciation of both positive and negative environmental consequences that come with upstream coal production issues.”

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