It’s extremely difficult to photograph power plants on company property. If you look at projects that tackle power plants or involve power plants in some way, you’ll notice that most images are shot from a distance, across the road, or are photographed in a way that hides most of the foreground. Coal companies guard their mine operations obsessively and the companies that own the burning end of the industry are the same way. I was completely surprised to get an email response from one such plant in SE Ohio in 2009. On top of that, it was the plant manager, the guy with the biggest office, responding to my request for a tour and access to photograph on the grounds.
When I arrived to Mountaineer for the first time, J.L., a plant employee that handles public relations and group tours met me and brought me to Charlie’s office, the plant manager. J.R. quietly closed the door behind us and Charlie sat for a moment looking at me. Charlie finally set “We’ve been reading about you and the work you’ve been doing in West Virginia for awhile this afternoon. We want to set the record straight.” I felt like I had walked into a total ambush. Online, most of what is easily searchable about my coal projects doesn’t come across as strictly anti-coal. That being said, the projects document the destructive nature of mountaintop removal, the often percarious practices of coal companies, and the culture and people surrounding the issues. The photos aren’t flattering to the coal industry, but I try to maintain a neutrality in presenting the work. Charlie and his friend had gone back and dug deep into the archives of my blog to find daily travel stories and more opinionated ranting about the situation in Appalachia.
We sat for an hour and a half to discuss the current energy and fiscal situation. It was clear that they had a strict agenda, so I let them talk. I barely said anything, a few times interrupting to remind them that I’m a journalist (I use the J word only when traveling, it’s often the fastest and most effective way to explain what I’m doing) and interested in photographing without an agenda (a soft lie). I didn’t remain quiet out of fear or because I was afraid of entering an ideological battle. I really wanted to listen to their position and to see if they believed everything they said. And I think they did. Their position was mainly this: coal needs to be burned and people need electricity. Someone has to do the job. It’s dirty, kind of, but we’re doing everything in our power to make it as clean as possible. The far-left environmentalists are demonizing us specifically, and failing to understand the reality of the energy situation in this country. Coal has a long life ahead of it and carbon sequestration will work. Etc.
It wasn’t anything I hadn’t heard before, but they said it with such conviction and personal commitment that it was impressive on some level. Charlie emphasized that most employees were proud of their jobs and lived in the local communities. They cited several statistics that seemed wildly inaccurate (including some dubious claims about coal’s zero carbon footprint over the “long run”), and were dedicated to painting anyone with remotely anti-coal attitudes as extremists hell bent on dismantling the energy infrastructure as soon as possible. Charlie didn’t believe in “the myth of global warming” and was skeptical of bureaucrats and politicians that had the ability to decide on energy’s future through legislation (hey man, coal activists are too, they agree on something!). At the end of the conversation, the point he wanted to drive home was that with America’s current energy demands, solar and wind can not provide enough energy (true). He sees them as prospects to subsidize coal energy, but never as a viable, main provider of energy.
But perhaps the most interesting claims were what the new carbon sequestration technology would mean for the future of coal. At the time, they were days away from beginning to bury carbon underground. They were the first plant in the country (and still one of the first in the world) to capture carbon before it’s emitted from a smoke stack, process it, and bury it 1.5 miles underneath the earth. In 2009, when I was first in their office, their goal was to capture 100,000 to 300,000 tons of carbon in the first year (to keep things in perspective they emit 6-8 million tons of carbon a year). That’s also what online literature published by the company suggests to this day. When I returned to their office in 2010 (more on that in an additional post), 9 months after they started the initiative, they had successfully captured 11,000 tons. Out of the 5 million plus tons emitted that year, 11,000 tons had been captured.
The company is proposing to extend the carbon capturing capibilities to eventually capture more than half of the output. The bill, $334 million, would be paid mostly by the companies’ consumers and federal grants. As far as unintentional metaphors go, the process of burying carbon miles below the earth’s surface accurately paints the picture. Instead of solving the carbon problem by implementing more sustainable practices, we bury it. Out of sight, out of mind.
Mountaineer continues to sequester carbon, although I’m not sure at what rate. After the meeting, J.L. took me on a tour. He was very accommodating, even jumping in some photos. The factory was neat and looked clean. However, everything had a thin layer of dust on its surface. Below are photos from my first trip to the plant in 2009. I hesitated to post these photos in 2009 because I knew I wanted to revisit the factory, and I was afraid they wouldn’t let me if they read about it on my blog. I’ll post another post in a couple days with the follow up trip in 2010.
Coal stock pile. This first visit was at the height of the recession, when people were consuming a lot less energy. Mountaineer had a massive stock pile that wasn’t being burned because of a lack of demand.