A conservationist in Virginia has put himself in the peculiar position of selling coal.
Tom Clarke, the president of a healthcare company who considers himself an environmentalist, announced earlier this month that his nonprofit, the Virginia Conservation Legacy Fund (VCLF), will acquire assets from Patriot Coal Corp., one of several coal companies that recently filed for bankruptcy.
As part of the deal, Clarke will assume control of two operational coal mines in West Virginia and 153 mining permits. The nonprofit will form a new affiliate called ERP Compliant Fuels and commit $109 million for pension and health benefit obligations and assume $400 million in liabilities. Clarke said one of the mines will be closed and the other will continue producing coal.
To offset the carbon emissions from burning coal, Clarke plans to plant trees both on the mine property and elsewhere in Appalachia. He will then bundle the carbon credits from planting trees with the coal and sell it to utilities for a profit.
"We inset the carbon with the coal and so when the train arrives at the power station, it also has cancelled [carbon credit] certificates," said Clarke. "We're creating a new product."
But the "new" product involves the very old, and polluting, business of producing and burning coal, the dirtiest of the fossil fuels. The carbon credits are supposed to account for about 30 percent of the emissions from burning the coal.
The idea isn't altogether new. Renewable energy credits are sometimes sold bundled with the underlying energy source. This proposal's radical difference is that it comes from someone who says he is a climate activist––who wants to keep coal mines open. He is also president of Kissito Healthcare in Roanoke, Va., which specializes in care for the elderly.
VCLF is also affiliated with Kissito, and on its website, it states: "The relationship between health, nutrition, and our natural environment is well documented, and VCLF and Kissito seek to blend these three disciplines to improve the quality of life for the people of Virginia while sustaining our natural resources."
That doesn't seem to jibe with Clarke's plans to run a coal mine.
"It's a very utopian view of coal," said Tarence Ray, a field coordinator at Appalachian Voices, an environmental group based in North Carolina. "It's really ignorant of the way coal is actually mined, processed and burned."
Ray pointed out that coal production and use is an inherently dirty process. Coal-fired power plants generate millions of tons of coal ash—a gray, powdery remnant of burning coal—every year. Typically stored in large lagoons—often the size of 200 Olympic-size swimming pools—the ash can spill into rivers or leak into the groundwater, contaminating it. Last year, 39,000 tons of coal ash from a Duke Energy impoundment spilled, coating 70 miles of the Dan River in North Carolina with sludge. Wastewater produced during mining also poses the threat of leaking or spilling into nearby bodies of water, as in the case of the Animas River spill in Colorado earlier this month.
In addition, coal miners breathe in silica dust while working, and may develop black lung. Burning coal also generates toxic pollutants such as nitrous oxide and sulfur dioxide, which pollute the air, contribute to smog and increase rates of asthma and other pulmonary diseases in people who live close to coal plants.
These risks can't be addressed by offsetting coal's carbon footprint, Ray said.
'We Have to Take Bold Risk'
Clarke's proposal stands in stark contrast against the stance taken by other environmental groups that have been fighting to shut down coal plants and mines. Seizing on a trifecta of low natural gas prices, dwindling supplies of easy-to-access coal and a slew of environmental regulations, the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign and other groups have waged court battles and organized grassroots movements to shut coal out.
But Clarke insists that while those efforts will help reduce carbon pollution, coal will still continue to generate power for the next few decades. During that time, he believes it is prudent to use tree-planting to offset at least some of the coal emissions.
Clarke contends that environmental groups have to be directly involved in the coal market. By selling coal and doing it in a way that reduces carbon emissions, it will push the market to use cleaner fuel sources, he said.
"We've got to do everything," Clarke said. "We've got to push all of the solutions simultaneously ... We have to take bold risk."
The plan will also keep jobs in the region and help the Appalachian economy slowly transition away from one that is heavily dependent on coal, according to Clarke. The mine and other reclamation work will employ 683 people, he said.
The two mines that Clarke's organization have taken over are a relatively minor part of Patriot Coal's operations. The company entered into an agreement to sell most of its remaining mines to Blackhawk Mining in June.
Earlier this year Clarke became involved with another troubled mining giant, Southern Coal. The company was facing millions of dollars in fines for health, safety and environmental violations, as well as lawsuits by former employees alleging they had been unfairly fired. Clarke initially mounted a public campaign against the company, but later decided to join as an unpaid consultant to create a compliance strategy.
Clarke's ties to Southern Coal, a company with a poor environmental track record, call his credentials into question, said Ray.
Another significant issue looms on the horizon: It is unclear whether utilities can use Clarke's coal to fulfill their requirements under the Obama administration's carbon regulations. The Clean Power Plan mandates a 32 percent reduction in carbon emissions from power plants nationwide by 2030. If the Environmental Protection Agency disallows a compliance strategy based on attaching carbon credits to fossil fuels, utilities would lose an incentive to purchase coal from Clarke.
"Approval of this 'compliant fuel' strategy is likely to be a difficult challenge," said Ken Colburn, head of U.S. operations at the Regulatory Assistance Project, a nonprofit that provides technical assistance on energy and environment issues. The regulations require utilities to reduce emissions from power plants. Offsetting emissions elsewhere by planting trees won't meet the requirements of the rule, Colburn said.
"The trees would be reducing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, but not the amount emitted from the power sector," he said.
Clarke said his group is already in talks with a Virginia-based power station that emits about 6 million tons of carbon dioxide a year. If a deal is finalized, Clarke's group will offset about 2 million tons of carbon by planting hundreds of millions of trees.
Correction: A previous version of the story stated Clarke's group would offset 2 million tons of emissions by planting trees on 100 million acres. The group will plant hundreds of millions of trees.