NY Times misleads in piece on coal

March 30, 2022

By Tim Worstall

The New York Times should do better than this. They have a large piece about Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) in which they say the following:

“Mr. Manchin supplied a type of low-grade coal mixed with rock and clay known as ‘gob’ that is typically cast aside as junk by mining companies but can be burned to produce electricity.”

That is true. This next is not, or not necessarily:

“But as the Grant Town plant continues to burn coal and pay dividends to Mr. Manchin, it has harmed West Virginians economically, costing them hundreds of millions of dollars in excess electricity fees. That’s because gob is a less efficient power source than regular coal.”

We normally think of coal as coming in four forms: lignite, sub-bituminous, bituminous and anthracite. As we go from left to right, they are better at producing more energy per ton burned. And the crucial point is that they also become more expensive moving along that spectrum. A coal-fired electricity plant will pay more for coal that it can extract more energy from – and less from the ones that produce less.

Gob is the waste left over from mining bituminous coal — it’s “garbage of bituminous.” It’s absolutely true that a ton of it produces less useful energy than a ton of bituminous coal. But whether or not that increases energy prices depends upon the price of the gob, as it is sold to the plant. This is not something the New York Times delves into so its statement cannot be taken as being true.

NYT should have delved into this. The gob that is lying around the country is an environmental waste. It’s actually a pollutant, with the potential to degrade water supplies and so on. It’s a byproduct of old methods of mining. So much so that back in the 1970s Federal law changed so that mines stopped producing it but there were still decades of production of it sitting around old mines.

It’s also a very difficult thing to deal with. It can’t be buried because it’s likely to self-ignite. In fact, the only useful manner of dealing with it that’s really known is to build a special type of coal fired power station that can use it and then burn the gob to make electricity. The waste from that is much less dangerous.

The Grant Town plant being one of those special plants that was deliberately built in order to burn gob in order to clean up the environmental hazard. There’s much more about the hazards of gob here.

We’re not here to defend Manchin — that’s politics. Gob is indeed cheap and dirty coal. But cleaning up the vast – million of tons piles – of it that are lying around Appalachia can be seen as being an environmental champion as well as the dirty dealing that is being implied here.

The New York Times really should do better than this – they’ve most certainly got the resources after all. It’s the newspaper of record for the United States, they’ve 2,000 staff which is quite enough to be able to check these sorts of things. Some 5 million subscribers including digital, a print circulation approaching a million still and some 250 million visitors to the website in a month.

As to why they didn’t bother, well, that strays into politics again. Manchin has, this past year, shown himself to be the great roadblock in the way of the progressive steamroller. So why wouldn’t a progressive newspaper like the New York Times fail to look up whether electricity from gob is more expensive, or even why power plants use such cheap and lousy fuel? Hey, maybe Joe Manchin is making a buck out of all of this. But then as we’ve said, this can be written as a story about how the environment is being cleaned up. It’s interesting that that isn’t the way the NYT chose to write it, isn’t it?


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