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College graduates heading to careers in … the coal mines

Tom A. Peter, Christian Science Monitor
With many miners approaching retirement, the industry is trying to attract young talent.

…For decades, coal mining was a risky career path, less because of the physical dangers and more so because of fleeting job security. While college students previously avoided mining as a course of study, now, thanks to the coal boom and the industry’s growing need for college-educated engineers, mining has become a career that more young people are going to college to pursue, rather than to escape.

“Throughout the ’80s and the biggest part of the ’90s, we steered our youth away from mining because we were in a period of austerity,” says Chris Hamilton, vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association. Now, many West Virginians are no longer discouraging their children from a career in the mining sector.

Though Adam Patterson’s family has mined coal in the mountain state for seven generations, when he started school at West Virginia University (WVU) he was uncertain if he’d continue in their footsteps. “But when I got here and saw the opportunities that were available, it became apparent that it was something I really wanted to do,” says Mr. Patterson, now a junior majoring in mining engineering.

The number of mining jobs in West Virginia, the second-largest coal producer in the United States, jumped 38 percent between 2003 and 2006. And because of looming retirements, demand for new workers looks strong for years to come.
(31 October 2007)

World’s growing dependence on coal leaving a trail of environmental devastation

Michael Casey, Associated Press
It takes five to 10 days for the pollution from China’s coal-fired plants to make its way to the United States, like a slow-moving storm.

It shows up as mercury in the bass and trout caught in Oregon’s Willamette River. It increases cloud cover and raises ozone levels. And along the way, it contributes to acid rain in Japan and South Korea and health problems everywhere from Taiyuan to the United States.

This is the dark side of the world’s growing use of coal. Cheap and abundant, coal has become the fuel of choice in much of the world, powering economic booms in China and India that have lifted millions of people out of poverty. Worldwide demand is projected to rise by about 60 percent through 2030 to 6.9 billion tons a year, most of it going to electrical power plants.

But the growth of coal-burning is also contributing to global warming, and is linked to environmental and health issues ranging from acid rain to asthma.
(30 October 2007)

Oil shale may finally have its moment

Jon Birger, Fortune
Touring a drilling site on a dusty mountain plateau above Rifle, Colo., Harold Vinegar stops, grins and then announces out of the blue, “I love that smell!”

No, the Royal Dutch Shell chief scientist is not referring to the crisp fragrance of the high desert air or the conifer scent wafting from the nearby stand of evergreens. Rather, it’s the faint, asphalt-like aroma of oil shale – a sedimentary rock rich in kerogen, a fossil fuel that is now the focus of Shell’s single biggest R&D investment.

Vinegar is the energy industry’s leading expert on the complex petroscience of transforming solid oil shale into synthetic crude – a liquid fuel that can be refined into diesel and gasoline. The breakthroughs this 58-year-old physicist has achieved could turn out to be the biggest game changer the American oil industry has seen since crude was discovered near Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay in 1968.

If that sounds like hyperbole, then consider this: Several hundred feet below where Vinegar is strolling lies the Green River Formation, arguably the largest unconventional oil reserve on the planet.
(31 October 2007)