22 Jun 2009

A Plea to President Obama: End Mountaintop Coal Mining

Tighter restrictions on mountaintop removal mining are simply not enough. Instead, a leading climate scientist argues, the Obama administration must prohibit this destructive practice, which is devastating vast stretches of Appalachia.
By james hansen

President Obama speaks of “a planet in peril.” The president and the brilliant people he appointed in energy and science know that we must move rapidly to carbon-free energy to avoid handing our children a planet that has passed climate tipping points.

The science is clear. Burning all fossil fuels will destroy the future of young people and the unborn. And the fossil fuel that we must stop burning is coal. Coal is the critical issue. Coal is the main cause of climate change. It is also the dirtiest fossil fuel — air pollution, arsenic, and mercury from coal have devastating effects on human health and cause birth defects.

Recently, the administration unveiled its new position on mountaintop coal mining and set out a number of new restrictions on the practice in six Appalachian states. These new rules will require tougher environmental review before blowing up mountains. But it’s a minimal step.

The Obama administration is being forced into a political compromise. It has sacrificed a strong position on mountaintop removal in order to ensure the support of coal-state legislators for a climate bill. The political pressures are very real. But this is an approach to coal that defeats the purpose of the administration’s larger efforts to fight climate change, a sad political bargain that will never get us the change we need on mountaintop removal, coal or the climate. Coal is the linchpin in mitigating global warming, and it’s senseless to allow cheap mountaintop-removal coal while the administration is simultaneously seeking policies to boost renewable energy.

Mountaintop removal, which provides a mere 7 percent of the nation’s coal, is done by clear-cutting forests, blowing the tops off of mountains, and then dumping the debris into streambeds — an undeniably catastrophic
We must make clear that we the people want a move toward a rapid phase-out of coal emissions now.
way of mining. This technique has buried more than 800 miles of Appalachian streams in mining debris and by 2012 will have serious damaged or destroyed an area larger than Delaware. Mountaintop removal also poisons water supplies and pollutes the air with coal and rock dust. Coal ash piles are so toxic and unstable that the Department of Homeland Security has declared that the location of the nation’s 44 most hazardous coal ash sites must be kept secret. They fear terrorists will find ways to spill the toxic substances. But storms and heavy rain can do the same. A recent collapse in Tennessee released 100 times more hazardous material than the Exxon-Valdez oil spill.

If the Obama administration is unwilling or unable to stop the massive environmental destruction of historic mountain ranges and essential drinking water for a relatively tiny amount of coal, can we honestly believe they will be able to phase out coal emissions at the level necessary to stop climate change? The issue of mountaintop removal is so important that I and others concerned about this problem will engage in an act of civil disobedience on June 23 at a mountaintop removal site in Coal River Valley, West Virginia. [Editor's note: Hansen and 30 other protesters were arrested at the June 23 protest and charged with impeding traffic outside a Massey Energy coal site in Raleigh County, West Virginia.]

Experts agree that energy efficiency and carbon-free energies can satisfy our energy needs. Coal left in the ground is useful. It holds up the

More from Yale e360

Click here for a recent report from Yale Environment 360 on mountaintop removal mining and the prospects of the Obama administration adopting new policies to control it.
mountains, which, left intact, are an ideal site for wind energy. In contrast, mountaintop removal and strip mining of coal is a shameful abomination. Mining jobs have shrunk to a small fraction of past levels. With clean energy, there could be far more, green-energy jobs, and the government could support the retraining of miners, to a brighter, cleaner future.

Politicians may have to make concessions on what is right for what is winnable. But as a scientist and a citizen, I believe the right course is very clear: The climate crisis demands a moratorium on new coal-fired power plants that do not capture and safely dispose of all emissions. And mountaintop removal, providing only a small fraction of our energy, should be permanently prohibited.

President Obama remains the best hope, perhaps the only hope, for real change. If the president uses his influence, his eloquence, and his bully pulpit, he could be the agent of real change. But he does need our help to overcome the political realities of compromise.

We must make clear to Congress, to the EPA, and to the Obama administration that we the people want mountaintop removal abolished and we want a move toward a rapid phase-out of coal emissions now. The time for half measures and caving in to polluting industries is over. It is time for citizens to demand — yes, we can.


James Hansen is the director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and adjunct professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University. Since 1988, he has warned about the threats of heat-trapping emissions, including carbon dioxide, that result from burning fossil fuels. A member of the National Academy of Sciences, he received the Heinz Environment Award in 2001 for his climate research. In 2006, was named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People.

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It is almost unAmerican to ask the government to stop raping, exploiting, destroying, ruining and demolishing the world! Look what your greed has done to the "Tar Sands" area in Canada! Oil rose a few bucks and American demand destroyed a whole ecosystem, and deserted the area , left it unrepaired, unrestored, and ugly, just as soon as the Arabs dropped the price of oil!
Posted by Uncle B on 22 Jun 2009

"The science is clear. Burning all fossil fuels will destroy the future of young people and the unborn"....

Hmmm, why do the chicken littles always claim the science is clear when even a little bit of homework will show the average person its anything but clear?
Posted by juandos on 22 Jun 2009

Your engagement in political advocacy under color of you official title is illegal, Sir.

You should decide whether you want to be a scientist or a politician. I believe you've already done that, but continued to draw a paycheck as a scientist anyway. That makes you a con man.

Resign, before the Eddy minimum makes a complete fool of you and your organization.

Posted by Bob Kutz on 22 Jun 2009

Politicians: Defying logic and reason for millennia.

At least they'll still hold office when people are
getting around New York in rowboats.
Posted by The Author on 22 Jun 2009

From Jim Hansen's text above:

"The issue of mountaintop removal is so important that I and others concerned about this problem will engage in an act of civil disobedience on June 23rd at a mountaintop removal site in Coal River Valley, West Virginia… We must make clear to Congress, to the EPA, and to the Obama administration that we the people want mountaintop removal abolished and we want a move toward a rapid phase-out of coal emissions now. The time for half measures and caving in to polluting industries is over. It is time for citizens to demand — yes, we can."

Al Gore is holding a listen-in conference call at 8pm on Tuesday. Will his words amplify Hansen's?
Posted by Paulina on 22 Jun 2009

This is very disturbing - and it seems incredible that such activity is allowed.

One interesting aspect is that there is so little public recognition of the companies responsible for this kind of activity. You don't mention them in your article, but surely there should be a public campaign against them?!

By the way, in our survey conducted at the end of last year, the public (particularly those concerned about climate change - 'Climate Citizens') are very aware of the bad activities of the big oil companies, and the car companies - but there is really no awareness of the bad activities of the coal companies.

The open-ended question asked, of nationally representative samples of people from Canada, England and the USA was:

Q. 34b ‘And also, very briefly, are there any companies you disapprove of for
their stance and actions regarding climate change?’

Peter Winters, President, Haddock Research
Posted by Peter Winters on 22 Jun 2009

It took a lot of guts for Dr. Hansen to get out front on this issue. He deserves attention and appreciation for what he's doing.
Posted by Alan Freund on 22 Jun 2009

This article sounds like the (usual) over-the-top exaggeration of the ills of coal mining. Lets face it, it has been bad in the past and there is always room for improvement. BUT, the trend for a long time has been improvement, and while there is always more to be done, its hard to argue its not happening, and improving at a decent pace. The problem with the likes of James Hansen is they pretty much want to destroy our entire system, thinking it will improve things. I’d suggest anyone who agrees with him look at places like Haiti, Mali, Bangladesh, Burma: places that go for the low technology lifestyle. I don’t think their environments are better than we have in the Western World.

I have a better idea: lets NOT dismantle our energy systems and plunge our economies into chaos. Instead, lets keep on doing what we have been doing, which is to keep on improving on them. If mining slag is an issue, let's make sure its cleaned up, and if the wholesale pollution of mountain rivers is occurring, let's either change our mining methods or shut down the offenders.

Posted by Rathtyen on 22 Jun 2009

I used to be a general supporter of green activities, and regularly donated to Greenpeace. But this CO2 issue has caused me to completely re-align my thinking. I have watched as intelligent commentary has been smeared because it does not come to the 'correct' conclusions, and as major gaps have started to appear in the 'science' of global warming there has been no attempt to address them.

Rather, those persons exposing the gaps have been attacked and villified. A kind of millennial panic is being set up, and those who do not contribute to it are labeled 'deniers'. There are now huge scientific problems with the CO2 warming hypothesis, but Hansen and his ilk ignore these, preferring to create a political panic, which is used to justify the suppression of any criticism.

Can Hansen, Gore and the rest not see that this course of action is indistinguishable from fascism? Surely, if there really is an environmental danger, we should be encouraging all studies into climate, not suppressing those which do not agree with our prejudices? Why is raw climate data not made available to the world's scientific community until it has been 'corrected'? What kind of a world are we building in the name of 'environmentalism'?
Posted by T Massingham on 23 Jun 2009

I've gotten so tired of reading climate deniers' posts on these websites that I no longer even care about the issue. Let the whole world burn so these people can't have children.
Posted by Plainview on 23 Jun 2009

I live in a valley not far from the destruction of the mountains on Coal River. When it storms now, the thunder rumbles like God is so upset that he can't find his mountains to stop the wind from tearing everything going up the river. It is very saddening that the people that live here are so ignorant to the end result just to get a dollar in their pocket, they don't understand it's not coal mining in general that the tree huggers are against, it's the destruction of the mountains, streams, all the black bear dens that Massey covered over with dozers, and ginseng that could have made more money than the coal mined.

Thanks to Dr Hansen who obviously wants us to be around a little longer.
Posted by Coal River Resident on 23 Jun 2009

I feel a sad respect for Dr Hansen---sad that the one scientist willing to take extreme action appropriate to the crisis, must endure the abuse of the ignorant both in forums like this one, and yesterday in Coal River. Yes, I was there, and saw the equipment operators and their wives--working for Massey Energy, to name the name someone asked for, a company roundly hated by almost everyone including their own workers--disrupted the rally Dr Hansen attended with air horns and motorcycle engines and shouting, two of the women physically attacked female protesters, and you can well imagine that local people, among the poorest in the country, keep their mouths shut. They drink water that stinks and is brown and they have astronomical rates of certain cancers. Their children sleep dressed whenever it rains a lot, as the flooding there violates the law of averages. These "acts of God" cause "hundred-year floods" sometimes twice in a year. But the "miners" who blow up the mountains are making $70,000 a year with high-school educations--they will fight to maintain their jobs, and they fight "for the sake of their kids." What an ugly realization it will be, thirty years from now, when these very kids turn on them to ask "how could you do this to us? Why must we live in this ugly, impoverished, stripped-down world, where we must struggle just to survive year by year? And we, we must hide the fact that our own fathers contributed so greatly to the assault!"
Posted by Mary on 24 Jun 2009

Mountaintop removal is not the only devastating practice of removal. Our county in Illinois is going to be longwalled to get the coal. That means that our flat, fertile, farmland will be subsided and turned into swamps, never to be productive again. We cannot eat coal! We need to stop this for our children before it is too late.
Posted by Paula Shelton on 24 Jun 2009

I appreciate Dr. Hansen's scholarship and action to help prune this low hanging lump of coal. The sooner energy corporations account for the currently socialized costs of mining and burning coal, the healthier they can grow. Then, when the warming becomes undeniable, like a high fever in a child, and the realistic costs to mitigate pollution are included in market prices, the more advanced producers will prevail. I hope US corporations are amongst the global winners.

President Theodore Roosevelt said: "Defenders of the short-sighted men, who in their greed and selfishness will, if permitted, rob our country of half its charm by their reckless extermination of all useful and beautiful wild things, sometimes seek to champion them by saying 'the game belongs to the people.' So it does; and not merely to the people now alive, but to the unborn people. The 'greatest good for the greatest number' applies to the number within the womb of time, compared to which those now alive form but an insignificant fraction. Our duty to the whole, including the unborn generations, bids us restrain an unprincipled present-day minority from wasting the heritage of these unborn generations. The movement for the conservation of wild life, and the larger movement for the conservation of all our natural resources, are essentially democratic in spirit, purpose, and method." (1916)
Posted by Nigel Strafford on 24 Jun 2009

In 50 years people are going to look back and consider those who practiced mountain top removal insane and evil. There is no doubt in my mind. They will go down in history as villains and the worst of the worst.

TG for James Hansen and the other protesters against this evil.

Posted by Shelly Thomas on 24 Jun 2009

The oil price will be keep checked as long as coal still playing its pivotal role in energy output.
Simply urging to stop coal mining is obviously not a smart move, to advocate CCS is. As a neo-environmentalist, I don't buy into that CO2 is the major cause of Global Warming, the true cause of Global Warming is not yet clear!! But I do believe coal ultimately will fade away since it is a non-renewable energy. However, it is not wise to stop using coal, we need time to transit, we have to make a trade-off between environment and economy.
Posted by Feng Wang on 25 Jun 2009

There are a lot of reasons to ban mountain top removal. Hansen has articulated the Co2 one very well and he has been right on the climate change issue so far. I see no problem with his science and his activism. His studies are subject to peer review and so far I have not heard much objection from them and God knows there is plenty of money, powerful people and corporations that would love to shoot holes in his climate change model.
I am one who believes that has too many environment negatives. I think we need to make dramatic changes in our energy policy and we are not going to advance by tinkering with little improvements in the status quo.
Posted by Chris Pratt on 25 Jun 2009

I know Dr. Hansen, and I have read key papers of his, and heard him lecture to distinguished audiences of 15, 100, 300 and 5000 people. His scientific insights and reasoning have never been proven lacking, and his stature among the globe's climate scientists only grows over time. He is not only America's most famous climate scientist, he is the most eminent.

Perhaps he was ahead of the crowd---and even ahead of the science---when he first testified to Congress in 1988. But now he is smack in the mainstream. But he speaks with passion uncharacteristic of science when he tells you what the data says: namely, that we have a very small window and a low percentage opportunity to avoid catastrophic climate disruption, and only if we phase out coal over the next couple decades, unless it can capture and bury its CO2.

Increasingly, over several years he has become vocal that coal plant construction must stop if we are to retain the modicum of hope that our own children may inherit from us a stable livable climatic world. On new coal plant construction, he has testified to public decision-makers in IA and elsewhere, written to numerous governors and EU prime ministers, and made us all aware and uncomfortable with what it means if we fail to agree to reach stabilization at 350ppm. To hear him tell it, is to suspend your view "that can't be right."

On the national carbon cap bill, he is a heretic, indeed, a royal pain. I believe he refers to cap and trade as the "temple of doom." Calling to scrap it and start over with a carbon tax is not particularly helpful or insightful in a world of politics and economics. I have been critical of his decision to put his policy judgment up without the caveat that his expertise is the science, not the solutions.

Having laid out this glowing encomium and this harsh critique back to back, on the subject of blowing up mountains for coal, he is both outside his expertise, and he is right. He is a courageous hero to the many who want this American disgrace stopped. It is his humanity and his courage that allows him to stand up to the villainy of Massey Coal and its CEO. It is his humanity and courage that brought him to civil disobedience and arrest yesterday.

The story is covered in the 6/29 edition of the New Yorker, beautifully told by a great reporter, writer and a clarion climate voice herself, Elizabeth Kolbert.

Posted by Michael Noble on 25 Jun 2009

To weigh in on scientific questions one needs to be a scientist. To offer an opinion on whether to take the top off a mountain you qualify by being a citizen in the democracy. As far as the cap and trade versus taxes, expert opinion abound on both sides and we can all express our opinions without having to disclose our particular bias.
Posted by Chris Pratt on 25 Jun 2009

Just as we have to pick the low-hanging fruit
first in seeking solutions, the cheapest and
simplest methods first, we also have to bear
down politically and close down the industries
which cause the most damage for the least

In Canada we do not have such mountain top
removal schemes running - yet. There is a
serious proposal being floated for a mountain
top removal mine in the upper Flathead Valley,
SE portion of British Columbia. The steadiest
opposition comes from people in the US -

Really, the issue is for companies responsible to
pay for the damage they cause. If the coal
industry were to actually pay for the cost of
ruined valleys, destroyed rivers, rare cancers,
polluted air, how long would they survive
economically? Just have them deal with ONE of
the problems that they cause - mercury
poisoning on the East Coast US, for one - and
they would be less enthusiastic about their

This is a very important issue: calls to "balance"
the economy and the environment, aka Mr.
Wang above, conveniently leave out the
calculation of these "external" costs. I support
whole heartedly the whole idea of supporting
business in a search for the best way of doing
stuff - but not the idea that we should continue
to allow damage without accounting for it. Let
the price for coal be set, not by political tricks or
economic slight of hand, but by accounting for
the real cost of clean-up.
Posted by kd brown on 25 Jun 2009

I know Dr. Hansen. He's a hero of the century.

On March 2nd of this year, I risked arrest with him, Bill McKibben, and thousands of others, as we protested the burning of coal at the power plant that supplies energy to the U.S. Congress in Washington, DC. As a result, Congress has promised, as a first step, to stop the coal use.

As Dr. Hansen often says, there is a huge gap between what the climate scientists know about climate change, and what the public (and many congressmen) know. It's all spelled out from billions in U.S. research over several decades at, but folks feel it is up to their govenment to automatically protect them.

Yet, because we've never faced a threat with such a unique, slow, relentless, Venus fly-trap-like stealth (where the fly doesn't know it's in trouble until it's too late), the systems we've evolved for self protection aren't working well.

We need President Obama to go on national, prime-time TV (the only way to get through to most citizens), to help close the gap to which Hansen refers. Truth be known, a key challenge will be for Obama to balance our urgent need for action now, against a need to avoid creating a feeling of outrage that so little has been done!

Dr. Hansen, and the others who put there bodies on the line, deserve our heartfelt thanks, our full respect, and broad re-telling of what they have selflessly done on behalf of us, and our climate.

Please tell your family, your friends, and more.
Posted by Roger Shamel on 25 Jun 2009

My wife is a climate scientist, and therefore I have an insiders view on this. All I can say is that Climate Change, and the Coal issue are very real. Scientists, like Dr. Hansen have dedicated their whole careers to the research. The arrogance of those who do not believe the science without ever doing any research of their own is astonishing to me. The truth is that those ignorant critics are really terrified, and try and cover it up with an air of detachment and skepticism. From an insiders view, all I want to say is that we need to believe what dedicated scientists like Dr. Hansen are saying, and we need to change our ways, NOW.
Posted by Mike on 25 Jun 2009

I am more concerned about health care reform than climate change right now because it appears that spineless Democratic senators are sabotaging our effosrts to get affordable, universal, single-payer, not-for-profit health care. However, I know that unless we do something about climate change, the need for health care will be moot.
Posted by Garry Kelly on 25 Jun 2009

Coal is not a true energy resource. It is a mined material resource. The difference in definition creates profound enlightenment. For example, energy efficiency becomes zero by definition. For those who insist on stale (or corrupted)efficiency and economic definitions of the past, taking the original source of energy into account (photosynthesis at about 0.5% terrestrial radiant to chemical conversion) we still find electric plant efficiency just above zero.

The destruction of mountains, people's lives, air quality, health and the ecosphere is tragic. Despite Dr. Hansen's struggles to affect sustainable energy policy and politics, he is a hero for his science leadership. Thank you sir.
Posted by James Newberry on 26 Jun 2009

My heartfelt THANKS go out to Dr. Hansen and the others who risked physical assault, ridicule, and the chance of serious legal charges last Tuesday. I'm a West Virginia native, with 8 generations of family history in the mountains of Boone, Co., WV. I was there on Tuesday and marched with "the rest of the crowd" to support Dr. Hansen, Ken Hechler, Judy Bonds and the others who bravely approached a crowd that would gladly have beaten them bloody, just so they can keep their jobs blowing up the same mountains they claim as home. The majority of us in the crowd were Central Appalachian residents, not outsiders, and we were very grateful for the advocacy and solidarity of Dr. Hansen, Darryll Hannah and others.
To all readers of this site: This IS happening in the United States, folks, and we are ALL complicit, which means we ALL must do something to end it.
Posted by Robin Blakeman on 28 Jun 2009

Nigel Strafford quotes president Theodore Roosevelt above. Roosevelt advances a principle "the greatest good for the greatest number." However, this is a utilitarian argument. Therefore it is vulnerable to the same criticism as any utilitarian argument.

One problem with the utilitarianism is that it gives an arbitrary definition to what is meant by "good." President Roosevelt seems to have said that we have duties towards future generations. The same idea clearly is behind professor Hansen´s words as he says that "we must avoid handing our children a planet that has passed climate tipping points." If we must do that and if we have such duties as Roosevelt urged, does this mean that the future generations have rights?

It seems problematic to assume that potential beings should have rights. Can something that does not actually exist have rights? (see Ben Mepham: Introduction to Bioethics). If we decide that future generations have rights, does this only apply to the future human generations or to all life? Clearly the latter cannot be the case, since the future physical conditions will determine what kind of life will be best adapted to live on the Earth.

In other words, even those life forms that might evolve in case of a drastic change in the climate of the Earth should have rights. But if we reject the principle that all potential life has rights, by the same token we must reject the principle that all potential human life has rights. And to look at the matter more closely, surely the reproductive capacity of all human beings is greater than the number of offspring that each human actually reproduces.

We are left with a dubitable principle that only the actual future generations have rights. But clearly, the concept of "actual future generations" is self-contradictory.

Paradoxically, even dead people can have some rights as is shown by the fact that their wills are appreciated after their deaths. So a non-existing person can have certain rights in some cases. But the real problem with the future generations is that they are potential persons without a personal history. Their only link to the reality is the fact that they might come to existence.
Posted by Sami Jansson on 30 Jun 2009

Thank you Dr. Hansen. I cant believe a society would be so blind, so selfish, and unwilling to see the truth that they would condone the bombing of the Appalachians so they could have a 200amp service in their home and drive a large SUV. Conservation over loosing our mountains is a good start. think about it... Coal wont last forever are we going to destroy America for a temporary energy solution.
Posted by Peggy Miniard on 26 Jul 2009

I am a native West Virginian and I want to thank Dr. Hansen, his concerned group and the courageous people of the mountains that have fought this battle on a daily basis for many years.

The damage of mountaintop removal is much like the incest of children: for it to continue, good people must turn their heads and pretend to be blind!

Where is the voice of Senator Robert Byrd? Where is the outrage from Senator Jay Rockefeller? Their failure to take a clear and courageous position has made them wholly responsible for the incest of our people and our land. I ask that you write them and tell them so.
Posted by Randolph F. on 12 Aug 2009

Nothing will 'change' - coal company executives met in 'secret' with administration and TA DAH - mountain top goes on.

Byrd and Rockefeller are accomplices in this horrific destruction. Why do they care/ their mansions are far from the sound of HUGE mountain top machines/blasting! This is WHY I think that any and all talk about (SOB) caring for the environment is a JOKE.

For those who think this is an 'exaggeration' I suggest that you inform yourselves and check out photos of mountain top removal and the many other sites. Al Gore is a joke/ making a fortune now on Cap and Trade rip off. Where's HE on this destruction - and ZERO on the media.

Oh I forgot, these are po' folk - its not Wyoming where they stopped an incinerator from being built in Idaho least the WIND drift their way.
Posted by Jude Moriarty on 14 Aug 2009

We need coal jobs in eastern Kentucky. We are all about to starve out people.

Posted by drema on 01 Feb 2010

We need coal jobs in eastern Kentucky. We are all about to starve out people.

My heart goes out to you. I am a native Kentuckian. My family has always worked in coal, for generations. still do. I grew up in a home with no running water, an out house, no insulation, coal heat, dirt road, and two drawers in a dresser held my clothes. the local chruch was run by missionaries and if it hadnt of been for them my christmas holidays would have been a little bleaker. as it was I quit believing in Santa at age 5 becaue I knew I couldnt be that bad. I hate Beans and corn bread every day, and 3 new outfits a year for school was something to be excited about. the coal business has never done anything for us and they still dont. my mother allowed a coal company on her property and now her property is flooding. she doesnt want money from them, just for them to avert the water from her house, correct the conditions they created, and fix the rock wall they cracked. they dont want to do that. the so called reclamation they do? you have got to be kidding me. people need to wake up! the cost of coal wont seem so cheap, when its you thats affected...when you dont have clean water.

Posted by Peggy on 14 Mar 2010

the idea of digging underneath the earth and uplifting all these heavy metals that are toxic along with the radioactive elements and then these elements are forever loose on the surface of the planet and causing havoc.

It is not confined to the Appalachian Mountains- a loon in Maine can stop breeding due to Mercury poisoning... ecology: what comes around goes around...

Posted by on 03 Oct 2010



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