In West Virginia, one environmental group is aiming to plant trees on at least one coal mine site.
In West Virginia, one environmental group is aiming to plant trees on at least one coal mine site. - 
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Yet another mining company is going through the process of selling off assets via Chapter 11 of the Bankruptcy Code. The company is Patriot Coal out of West Virginia, in bankruptcy court now.

But in a twist, one party seeking to scoop up mining assets and liabilities is the head of an environmental group. His plan is to plant millions of trees on mine sites to offset coal’s carbon pollution and at the same time continue mining.

This strikes critics as the equivalent of low-tar cigarettes, or perhaps healthy cheesecake. But the corporate executive behind the proposal has said he wants to be controversial. His stated passion: reforestation.

“We’ve got about 3.1 trillion trees,” said Tom Clarke, who runs the nonprofit Virginia Conservation Legacy Fund, as well as the company Kissito Healthcare. “And it’s estimated that when human civilization began, we had about 5.6 trillion. So we need to almost double the number of trees. We think this is an economic model that can actually move the needle closer to that number.”

Clarke’s model is to acquire, via bankruptcy proceedings, at least one West Virginia coal mine, then plant millions of trees, and sell the forest and the mine as a packaged product.

“Our thought is that we’ll be able to sell coal that actually has bundled with it an offset to the carbon emissions profile,” Clarke said.

Offset means taking existing greenhouse gases and sucking them out of the atmosphere.

“It’s really a substantial offset,” said Malcolm North, research ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service in Davis, California. “The only one that’s bigger is the oceans.”

As long as a tree remains alive, it acts as a so-called carbon sink. Some of the longest-living trees, including sequoias, live thousands of years.

“If you think about the main part of the tree, which is the stem or the bowl,” North said, “about 50 percent of that is actually carbon. So if you think about some of the largest trees we have, it’s quite a bit of carbon.”

To advocates, adding and replacing forests to sequester carbon dioxide is a key part of the global climate challenge.

“Even reducing future emissions is not going to do the job of creating a stable climate,” said Toby Janson-Smith of the carbon credit standards organization, Verified Carbon Standard. “So we’re going to have to draw down and sequester what’s already in the atmosphere. And that’s where trees becoming particularly compelling.”

But Clarke’s idea of trees-plus-mines has challenges: It’s hard to plant near mines, where the soil is polluted with metals such as magnesium. New forests would offset only a percentage of the coal mined, so the net effect would still add greenhouse gas emissions.

And it’s unclear who would buy this “greener” coal.

“I guess we’re sort of betting the farm we’re going to create a market,” Clarke said.

His idea is to sell power plants the coal bundled with green credits from the trees. That shrinks power companies’ carbon footprints, which federal regulators now require them to do.

The problem is, the federal Environmental Protection Agency does not accept forest-planting as a way to do that.

“This won’t stop us,” Clarke said. “I mean, if something happens that we hadn’t anticipated, we’ll be right on to the next opportunity to sell compliant fuel.”

And the way things are going, there will be more bankrupt mines available for cheap.

 

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Follow Scott Tong at @tongscott