ENVIRONMENT: GLOBAL WARMING AND CLIMATE CHANGE :
COAL MINING :
COAL AS FUEL :
UNITED STATES: STATES: WEST VIRGINIA :
A Curious Plan to Fight Climate Change: Buy Mines, Sell Coal
A Curious Plan to Fight Climate Change: Buy Mines, Sell Coal
Tom Clarke, a nursing home owner, concocted a strategy to cut carbon emissions by gaining control of millions of tons of coal reserves and multiple mines.
By MICHAEL CORKERY and MICHAEL WINES
October 1, 2016
New York Times
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When Patriot filed for bankruptcy in 2015 its second time in three years environmentalists and regulators were prepared for the company to figure out ways to shunt liabilities and maximize returns. But no one could have envisioned what happened next.
Patriot handed over millions of dollars of environmental obligations to a nonprofit company run by a man named Tom Clarke, who owned a chain of nursing homes and a tourist attraction that had fallen behind on its bills. Until that day in April, Mr. Clarke, 61, had never been in a coal mine.
Patriot sold not only the troubled Federal mine to Mr. Clarke, but also several other mines that were no longer in operation, including a sprawling surface mine carved from the top of a mountain in southern West Virginia. Mr. Clarkes new company agreed to clean up the shuttered mines and reclaim the land that had been ravaged.
As part of the deal, the miners union invested $10 million in the Federal mine operation, which was supposed to keep producing coal for Mr. Clarke to sell. But the mine has struggled from low coal prices.
It was a spectacular deal for Patriot, said Patrick McGinley, a law professor at West Virginia University who has been involved in cases against coal companies since 1970s. This company has had complete success in divesting itself of all liabilities of every kind, including environmental liabilities, which are the hardest to shed.
Why then, would someone like Mr. Clarke want to take over a troubled mine and the environmental obligations that Patriot Coal was seeking to get rid of? As improbable as it may seem, Mr. Clarke said the Patriot deal had played to his advantage helping start his grand plan to remake coal mining into a greener industry.
He is not only reclaiming Patriots mines that are no longer in use. He has come up with a model, he said, for how the industry can keep producing coal, while reducing its impact on the climate.
The plan involves creating pollution credits by planting or preserving trees around the world to offset the carbon emitted from burning coal. For every ton of coal he sells, Mr. Clarke attaches some of the credits.
Mr. Clarke has had trouble, however, persuading buyers of his coal, like utilities and steel companies, to pay extra for the credits.
Mr. Clarke hoped electric utilities would be able to count his green-coal credits toward the carbon-emissions goals that the Obama administration has set for states in its Clean Power Plan, now before a federal court. But administration officials have effectively ruled that out.
That hasnt stopped Mr. Clarkes company from acquiring more mines. In addition to Patriot, Mr. Clarke has made deals over the last 11 months with several other struggling coal companies, gaining control of multiple underground mines, millions of tons of coal reserves and thousands of acres of surface mines.
He has even tried bidding on steel mills to create a captive buyer for his coal bundled with carbon credits. Now he is in the market for utilities, for the same reason.
While the Federal mine has cut back on production, some of his other mines are poised for a rebound. Demand for metallurgical coal which is used for making steel has roared back in recent months. One of the companies he founded with a longtime coal executive, ERP Compliant Fuels, is now one of the largest producers of metallurgical coal in North America.
I am the guy that is trying to work from within, Mr. Clarke said. The goal is to have a big enough footprint to drive our environmental philosophy home.
If this were a movie about the American coal industry, Mr. Clarke would be the character who goes completely off script.
For decades, the battle lines around coal have been clear. The companies are fighting to protect their diminishing business. Many environmentalists, meanwhile, are trying to limit coal production permanently and force the industry to clean up the damage it has inflicted on forests, rivers and lakes.
The debate over coal on the campaign trail is also predictable Donald J. Trump has vowed to bring back lost mining jobs and roll back overzealous environmental regulations, and Hillary Clinton is promising to help mining communities transition out of coal and into new industries.
Environmental groups can almost smell victory. Many of the nations largest coal companies have filed for bankruptcy. Natural gas is pulling even and may surpass coal as the top power source in the United States.
The industrys decline is forcing states to deal with how to clean up the mines and who should pay for it. In West Virginia alone, 300,000 acres of forest an area half the size of Rhode Island have been damaged by mountaintop mining, by one estimate.
After some challenges, Mr. Clarkes reclamation work has been meeting regulatory standards and even exceeding expectations by some measures, one West Virginia official said.
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