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By Kelly Mitchell
It’s been a big month for news on the state of the U.S. coal industry—from announcements that China is significantly curbing coal use, to the long-awaited unveiling of the Obama Administration’s carbon standards for new coal-fired power plants.
Despite Peabody’s claims that “We have trillions of tons of coal resources in the world. You can expect the world to use them all,” a very different reality is shaping up. ”King Coal” is being reduced to pawn. The open secret is that it has very little to do with new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rules.
The beginning of the end.
It’s old news that the coal industry is in trouble. Peabody (BTU) and Arch (ACI), the largest U.S. coal companies, have lost more than 75 percent of their peak value since 2011, as coal struggles to compete with renewable energy and gas. One-hundred-seventy new coal plants representing $450 billion in capital investment have been canceled. Few utility companies are taking a gamble on new coal generation; those who have are in financial trouble. Meanwhile, community activism has worked in tandem with shifting economics to secure the retirement of dozens of existing coal plants. Current and pending federal health and climate rules will only accelerate this trend.
While all eyes were on EPA, a surprising indicator of the severity of coal’s decline emerged from the relatively obscure federal coal leasing program. The Department of Interior (DOI), through its Bureau of Land Management (BLM), owns and manages one of the world’s largest coal reserves in the world in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana. Since the start of the Obama Administration, DOI has leased over 2 billion tons of federal coal to companies like Peabody, at rates of around $1 per ton. Literally cheaper than dirt.
Not surprisingly, this leasing program has come under intense public scrutiny from environmentalists, taxpayer advocates, U.S. Senators and federal investigators over claims that it is shortchanging taxpayers, ignoring the industry’s desire to export coal overseas, and fueling climate change.
However, recently, BLM is facing a new set of challenges. For the second time in less than a month, federal coal auctions in the Powder River Basin have resulted in no coal sales.
On Aug. 21, Cloud Peak Energy declined to bid for the Maysdorf II coal tract, citing “current market conditions and the uncertainty caused by the current political and regulatory environment towards coal and coal-powered generation.” This marked the first time in Wyoming’s history that a coal lease sale failed to attract a single bidder.
A few weeks later, on Sept. 18, Kiewit mining company placed a 21 cent per ton bid for the Hay Creek II tract—the lowest Wyoming bid in 15 years. BLM rejected the offer. As Ben Jervey at DeSmogBlog put it, “Hey, at least we can’t accuse the BLM of literally giving away coal on public lands.”
Twice, the federal government offered up huge tracts of coal, for what would have been giveaway prices, and the coal industry effectively passed. Coal companies have the whole leasing system rigged in their favor, and it’s still not worth the risk!
But maybe it’s not surprising. The U.S. is moving away from coal in favor of cleaner energy, and the coal mining industry is wary of dumping big money into mines oriented to meet domestic demand. For all the hand-wringing and outrage over EPAs carbon standards for new coal plants, the truth is coal has been behind the curve for some time.
Which brings us to China.
With declining demand at home, the U.S. coal industry has increasingly looked to the export market as its saving grace. Cloud Peak, the company that declined the Maysdorf II tract designed to feed its domestic coal plant serving Cordero Rojo mine, is working to rapidly expand what it calls an “export-focused mine complex” in Montana.
Unfortunately—for the poor coal companies who have poisoned our air and water for generations—it appears that opportunity has passed.
Global coal prices surged in mid 2009, fueled by a large increase in demand for imported coal from China. China’s appetite made coal sales to Asia a lucrative business proposal for companies who could get their rocks on ships, and coal export terminal proposals popped up soon after in Oregon and Washington States. The domestic market was slowing—but, hey, coal companies had a fire exit.
However, it now appears that market has peaked and is on the decline. China’s coal appetite is cooling, and with it the entire Pacific seaborne market. Analysts at Bernstein were blunter:
Globally, Chinese demand growth has been the primary driver or the backstop behind every new investment in coal mining over the last decade. The "global coal market" ended with the collapse in price in 2012.
Ross Macfarlane at Climate Solutions recently posted a brilliant digest of new analysis from Wall St. firms such as Goldman Sachs, Bernstein and Citibank—all pointing to a bleak future for the global coal trade and the U.S. coal industry in particular.
U.S. coal companies are already feeling the impacts of this downturn. Sightline Institute’s recent analysis of Cloud Peak’s second quarter earnings statement revealed that the company made significantly more money betting against coal than it did on actual foreign sales.
And this month, the Chinese government announced a far-reaching air pollution response plan that will lock in additional, long-term declines in Chinese coal consumption—especially in major importing regions.
The plan sets ambitious timelines for reducing fine particulate pollution in Beijing and other key heavily-populated cities. It calls for three main economic areas—Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei, Yangtze River Delta and Pearl River Delta—to peak and decline their coal consumption by 2017. It also bans the approval of new conventional coal-fired power plants in these key regions.
The ban on new coal-fired power plants covers China’s most important coal importing regions; the Pearl River Delta and Yangtze River Delta, responsible for more than 50 percent of thermal coal imports. It’s hard to read the crystal ball on the long term risks and opportunities in the Pacific coal market, but if U.S. coal companies are hoping for a dramatic surge in new coal demand in Eastern China to restore profitability, they might not want to hold their breath.
The New York Times, Associated Press and Wall Street Journal have reported on these developments with little optimism for the U.S. coal industry, evidenced by headlines like “Coal’s future darkens around the world.”
Cracks in the carbon bubble.
This mix of declining domestic demand and softening coal markets makes the U.S. coal industry the potential bellwether of the coming cracks in the carbon bubble. Peabody’s billions of tons of reserves were scooped up in the promise of growing markets and bigger margins. Now, one word describes the outlook for coal’s economic relevance: smaller.
Analyses from Carbon Tracker have warned that money invested in expanding fossil fuel reserves represent wasted capital as it becomes increasingly clear that most of the world’s fossil fuels are unburnable. Warnings that most fossil fuel reserves cannot be burned have also come from global institutions like the International Energy Agency and, most recently, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report.
Coal reserves are at particular risk of becoming stranded assets for several reasons. As the most polluting fossil fuel, any serious action to reduce carbon pollution must dramatically reduce coal consumption—EPA's new and pending carbon rules are a clear sign of what’s to come. Further, coal-fired power plants are major sources of deadly air pollution, so efforts to improve air quality are pushing the world’s top coal consumers—China and the U.S.—to rein in coal now.
The U.S. coal industry owns billions of tons of reserves in a developed country that’s steadily retiring coal fired power plants, and their only escape route is a global market that has likely already peaked. Peabody and Arch, the two leading U.S. coal companies, are badly positioned to deal with today’s global markets. Their value is depressed, debt levels are too high and their future sales potential is impaired.
Do not be surprised if the value of these companies, already at record lows, decreases further.
Reporting on major shifts in the domestic and global coal market, the Wall Street Journal recently concluded, “Investors in coal might well feel paranoid. But remember: it isn’t paranoia if the world really is out to get you.”
Down, but not out.
With so much bad news for coal, it might be time to revisit the classic activist narrative of David vs. the Coal Industry Goliath. It may be some time before we see the “end of coal” in a literal sense, but we are approaching a future with fewer, smaller, more volatile coal companies competing for a dwindling share of the electricity market. Coal CEOs should fear irrelevance before death.
But there’s another factor at play—the coal industry has historically punched above its weight, politically. You don’t have to search far to find examples of politicians and regulators green-lighting environmental and financial boondoggles peddled by the U.S. coal industry.
Deutsche Bank may call coal a “dead man walking.” But the industry is still very alive in certain corners of American politics.
DOI continues to hold lease sales, with billions of tons of coal in the leasing pipeline. Obama’s Army Corps of Engineers refuses to look at the full impacts of coal export proposals. Local governments are considering the risks of increased coal dust and diesel pollution because of the promise of economic development, even though that may never come. Members of Congress are introducing countless bills to roll back environmental protections.
Fortunately, these last ditch efforts to secure political support for risky coal projects are being met by a powerful and growing grassroots movement.
China’s ambitious coal reduction plan is a response to growing public demands for clean air. Research shows that every year thousands of Chinese citizens are dying from coal pollution. Those revelations have sowed anger in a Chinese culture that traditionally holds great value on long life, and the ability to enjoy active old age with grandchildren and friends.
Here in the U.S., the heads of more than 20 organizations representing millions of people have called on Interior Secretary Jewell to establish a moratorium on new federal coal leasing. The two failed auctions in the midst of so much controversy should be a wake-up call and opportunity for Jewell to put the brakes on this carbon giveaway. The market is declaring a moratorium; the Secretary must use her policy levers to reshape the program.
And thousands of people are turning out to public hearings, rallies and workshops in opposition to new coal export terminals on the West Coast, joining their voices with small businesses, ranchers, religious leaders and elected officials at all levels of government.
People on both sides of the Pacific are drawing a line against coal, and they will win. Because, in the words of Seattle Times columnist Lance Dickie, “The only return on investment with coal, coal trains and coal terminals is carbon dioxide and ocean acidification.”
The question remains, of course, if we can end our use of coal in time to avoid catastrophic climate change… or if we can draw strength from the victories of the last several years to defeat the Goliaths in the oil and gas industry. But, with a long and difficult fight ahead, we owe it to ourselves to pause and reflect on the successes at hand.
Cheers, to the beginning of the end of coal.
Visit EcoWatch’s COAL page for more related news on this topic.
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By Tom Duszynski
The coronavirus is certainly scary, but despite the constant reporting on total cases and a climbing death toll, the reality is that the vast majority of people who come down with COVID-19 survive it. Just as the number of cases grows, so does another number: those who have recovered.
In mid-March, the number of patients in the U.S. who had officially recovered from the virus was close to zero. That number is now in the tens of thousands and is climbing every day. But recovering from COVID-19 is more complicated than simply feeling better. Recovery involves biology, epidemiology and a little bit of bureaucracy too.
How does your body fight off COVID-19?<p>Once a person is exposed the coronavirus, the body starts producing <a href="https://www.mblintl.com/products/what-are-antibodies-mbli/" target="_blank">proteins called antibodies to fight the infection</a>. As these <a href="https://www.statnews.com/2020/03/27/serological-tests-reveal-immune-coronavirus/" target="_blank">antibodies start to successfully contain the virus</a> and keep it from replicating in the body, symptoms usually begin to lessen and you start to feel better. Eventually, if all goes well, your immune system will completely destroy all of the virus in your system. A person who was infected with and survived a virus with no long-term health effects or disabilities has "recovered."</p><p>On average, a person who is infected with SARS-CoV-2 will feel ill for about seven days from the onset of symptoms. Even after symptoms disappear, there still may be small amounts of the virus in a patient's system, and they should stay <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/if-you-are-sick/steps-when-sick.html" target="_blank">isolated for an additional three days</a> to ensure they have truly <a href="https://health.usnews.com/conditions/articles/coronavirus-recovery-what-to-know" target="_blank">recovered and are no longer infectious</a>.</p>
What about immunity?<p>In general, once you have recovered from a viral infection, your body will keep cells called lymphocytes in your system. These cells "remember" viruses they've previously seen and can react quickly to fight them off again. If you are exposed to a virus you have already had, your antibodies will likely stop the virus before it starts causing symptoms. <a href="https://dx.doi.org/10.5114%2Fceji.2018.77390" target="_blank">You become immune</a>. This is the <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK27158/" target="_blank">principle behind many vaccines</a>.</p><p>Unfortunately, immunity isn't perfect. For many viruses, like mumps, immunity can wane over time, leaving you <a href="https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/04/160421145747.htm" target="_blank">susceptible to the virus in the future</a>. This is why you need to get revaccinated – those "booster shots" – occasionally: to prompt your immune system to make more antibodies and memory cells.</p><p>Since this coronavirus is so new, scientists still don't know whether people who recover from COVID-19 are <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/hcp/faq.html" target="_blank">immune to future infections of the virus</a>. Doctors are finding antibodies in ill and recovered patients, and <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/hcp/clinical-guidance-management-patients.html" target="_blank">that indicates the development of immunity</a>. But the question remains how long that immunity will last. Other coronaviruses like <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/jmv.25685" target="_blank">SARS and MERS produce an immune response</a> that will protect a person at least for a short time. I would suspect the same is true of SARS-CoV-2, but the research simply hasn't been done yet to say so definitively.</p>
Why have so few people officially recovered in the US?<p>This is a dangerous virus, so the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is being extremely careful when deciding what it means to recover from COVID-19. Both medical and testing criteria must be met before a person is <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/hcp/disposition-in-home-patients.html" target="_blank">officially declared recovered</a>.</p><p>Medically, a person must be fever-free without fever-reducing medications for three consecutive days. They must show an improvement in their other symptoms, including reduced coughing and shortness of breath. And it must be at least seven full days <a href="https://health.usnews.com/conditions/articles/coronavirus-recovery-what-to-know" target="_blank">since the symptoms began</a>.</p><p>In addition to those requirements, the CDC guidelines say that a person must test negative for the coronavirus twice, with the <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/if-you-are-sick/care-for-someone.html" target="_blank">tests taken at least 24 hours apart</a>.</p><p>Only then, if both the symptom and testing conditions are met, is a person officially considered recovered by the CDC.</p><p>This second testing requirement is likely why there were so few official recovered cases in the U.S. until late March. Initially, there was a <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/18/health/coronavirus-test-shortages-face-masks-swabs.html" target="_blank">massive shortage of testing in the U.S.</a> So while many people were certainly recovering over the last few weeks, this could not be officially confirmed. As the country enters the height of the pandemic in the coming weeks, focus is still on <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-nCoV/hcp/clinical-criteria.html" target="_blank">testing those who are infected</a>, not those who have likely recovered.</p><p>Many more people are being tested now that states and private companies have begun <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/cases-updates/testing-in-us.html" target="_blank">producing and distributing tests</a>. As <a href="https://www.dispatch.com/news/20200406/coronavirus-in-ohio-from-its-rocky-start-testing-for-covid-19-slowly-ramping-up" target="_blank">the number of available tests increases</a> and the pandemic eventually slows in the country, more testing will be available for those who have appeared to recover. As people who have already recovered are tested, the appearance of any new infections will help researchers learn <a href="https://www.statnews.com/2020/03/24/we-need-smart-coronavirus-testing-not-just-more-testing/" target="_blank">how long immunity can be expected to last</a>.</p>
Once a person has recovered, what can they do?<p>Knowing whether or not people are immune to COVID-19 after they recover is going to determine what individuals, communities and society at large can do going forward. If scientists can show that recovered patients are immune to the coronavirus, then a person who has recovered could in theory <a href="https://www.vox.com/2020/3/30/21186822/immunity-to-covid-19-test-coronavirus-rt-pcr-antibody" target="_blank">help support the health care system</a> by caring for those who are infected.</p><p>Once communities pass the peak of the epidemic, the number of new infections will decline, while the number of <a href="https://www.newsweek.com/china-says-passed-peak-coronavirus-epidemic-covid-19-1491863" target="_blank">recovered people will increase</a>. As these trends continue, the risk of transmission will fall. Once the risk of transmission has fallen enough, community-level isolation and social distancing orders will begin to relax and businesses will start to reopen. Based on what other countries have gone through, it will be <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-00154-w" target="_blank">months until the risk of transmission is low</a> in the U.S.</p><p>But before any of this can happen, the U.S. and the world need to make it through the peak of this pandemic. Social distancing works to slow the spread of infectious diseases and <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/need-extra-precautions/what-you-can-do.html" target="_blank">is working for COVID-19</a>. Many people will <a href="https://www.yalemedicine.org/stories/2019-novel-coronavirus/" target="_blank">need medical help to recover</a>, and social distancing will slow this virus down and give people the best chance to do so.</p>
By Elizabeth Claire Alberts
The future for the world's oceans often looks grim. Fisheries are set to collapse by 2048, according to one study, and 8 million tons of plastic pollute the ocean every year, causing considerable damage to delicate marine ecosystems. Yet a new study in Nature offers an alternative, and more optimistic view on the ocean's future: it asserts that the entire marine environment could be substantially rebuilt by 2050, if humanity is able to step up to the challenge.
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By Zulfikar Abbany
Bread has been a source of basic nutrition for centuries, the holy trinity being wheat, maize and rice. It has also been the reason for a lot of innovation in science and technology, from millstones to microbiological investigations into a family of single-cell fungi called Saccharomyces.
Chemical leavening<p>If you like a little heft in your loaf, you will need a leavening agent.</p><p>For those short on time, you can use baking soda. That's a chemical compound of sodium bicarbonate mixed with potassium bitartrate, or cream of tartar.</p><p>Soda breads have their traditions in parts of eastern and central Europe, and in Ireland and Scotland, with Melrose loaves and "farls."</p><p>They can taste a bit bland, though, and are often considered only as an emergency solution on Sundays. No disrespect intended: They taste just fine fresh from the oven.</p><p>Whether it's chemical or more "natural," leavening relies largely on the production of carbon dioxide.</p><p>When you mix an acid, such as vinegar, buttermilk, yogurt or apple cider, with an alkaline compound like baking soda, you get CO2. That CO2 creates bubbles, which in turn capture steam in the oven and allow a bread to rise.</p><p><span></span>But it's better with yeast. Tastes better, too. It just takes more time. </p>
What is yeast?<p>There are yeasts all around us — on grains, in the air, in biofuels. It even lives inside us, but that's not always a good thing.</p><p><a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1090575/pdf/1471-2334-5-22.pdf" target="_blank">Candida yeast</a> can cause infections of the skin, feet, mouth, penis or vagina if it builds up too much in the body.</p><p>One of the most common yeasts, however, is <em>Saccharomyces cerevisiae</em>. That's <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/an-early-beer-archaeologists-tap-ground-at-worlds-oldest-brewery/a-45480731" target="_blank">"brewer's"</a> or "baker's" yeast.</p><p>You can get fresh baker's yeast, often in 42-gram (1.48-ounce) cubes, or as dried yeast (quick action or active, which requires rehydration) in a sachet of 7 grams.</p><p>There's little difference: One is compressed and the other is dehydrated and granulated. But they do the same thing, essentially. </p><p>Some commercial yeast producers add molasses and other nutrients. But natural yeast has plenty of useful nutrients in it anyway, including B group vitamins, so who knows whether it's good or necessary to add them. </p>
How does yeast work?<p>When you mix flour, yeast and water, you set off a veritable chain reaction. Enzymes in the wheat convert starch into sugar. And the yeast creates enzymes of its own to convert those sugars into a form it can absorb.</p><p>The yeast "feeds" on the sugars to create carbon dioxide and alcohol. The yeast burps and farts, releasing gases into the mix, and that creates bubbles to trap CO2. </p><p>It's a vital fermentation process that breaks down the gluten in the flour and helps make your bread more digestible.</p><p>The yeast cells split and reproduce, generating lactic and carbonic acid, raising the temperature and ultimately adding flavor to the mix.</p><p>The longer you leave the yeast to do its thing, the better for your bread. Time is more important than the amount of yeast. </p><p>In fact, that's an enduring question — how much yeast? I'll use 20 grams fresh yeast for 500 grams of flour. Others say that's enough yeast for 1 kilo. If you are converting a dry-yeast recipe to fresh yeast, some bakers advise tripling the weight. So, if a sachet of dried yeast is 7 grams, your fresh yeast is 21 grams.</p><p><span></span>But that also depends on the flours you are using, temperatures in the bowl and the room, and a host of other things. You'll just have to experiment and see. No number of books (and I've read a stack on bread) will help as much as trial and error.</p>
Wild yeast: Sourdough<p>So, good bread needs time. If you have a lot of time, why not move it up a notch and grow wild yeast — a sourdough starter — in your own home?</p><p>A sourdough starter is not to be mistaken (as it often is) for the leaven, or "mother," "sponge," or <em>levain</em>. That's more a second stage, a descendant of the starter. You take a scoop from your starter and add it to another flour and water mixture when you prepare the dough for a new loaf. </p><p>The sourdough process utilizes yeasts naturally present in flour and … yet more time. A longer fermentation process allows a richer lactic acid bacteria <em>lactobacilli</em> or LAB to evolve, and that can be healthy for your gut microbiome.</p><p>It's simple enough to start a sourdough starter. All you need is flour, warm water and time.</p><p>Some suggest equal measures of whole-grain flour and water at 28 degrees Celsius (82 degrees Fahrenheit), some say room temperature — just don't let the water exceed 40 C or the yeasts will die. Some suggest two parts flour to three parts water. But it's up to you whether you want a drier or wetter starter. You will know only through experimentation. </p><p>Some say you should filter tap water to remove chemicals like fluoride and avoid using water that's boiled and then cooled. Others say that really doesn't matter.</p><p>The main thing is, keep it clean and give it time. Days, weeks, months and years.</p>
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