Imagine a landscape that, 10 years ago, was a moonscape mountaintop removal coal mine and is now carefully managed as a large-scale working forest growing trees to capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and combat climate change. That forest is steadily and measurably turning greenhouse gasses into a restored landscape, improving both the health of that ecosystem and global environmental conditions at the same time. Appalachian Voices is exploring making this vision a reality in the years to come through a reforestation project that engages with the emerging carbon offset market.
Meeting the Need: Reclamation
The Mine Cleanup and Bonding Crisis
Mine reclamation is the process of restoring land damaged by surface mining, and includes steps to revegetate the land, minimize pollution and prevent hazards like landslides or retention pond failures.
A mine cleanup crisis looms, and available funding for mine cleanup could decline as more coal companies go through bankruptcy. In this, Central Appalachian mining communities face a problem larger than currently allocated funds can address. Appalachian Voices explored both of these needs in a recent report.
To receive a mining permit, coal companies must post a bond that acts as collateral to assure reclamation will be completed. With the boom and bust cycles of the coal economy, market conditions can shift, sometimes quickly. With it, a once-profitable mining operation may turn into a losing proposition from a business perspective, opening up the risk of the mine operations — and the required reclamation — stalling out. If the coal company walks away from its reclamation responsibilities, cleanup is supposed to fall to the state or a third-party bonding surety, which funds cleanup from the coal company’s forfeited bond or from a state bonding pool that multiple companies have contributed to.
Looking to the future, if many companies forfeit their mine permits within the same time period, even state pool bonds will be unable to cover the total necessary costs. Read more in an August 2022 article in The Appalachian Voice.
The need for mine reclamation across Appalachia is clear, with 600,000 acres of active mines across Appalachia partially or totally unreclaimed, and 700,000 acres of pre-1977 abandoned mine land (AML) still in need of reclamation across the eastern states. Mine reclamation is the process of remediating damaged land and water after mining, and it is costly. Appalachian Voices estimates the cost of completing reclamation of active eastern mines at least $7.5 billion to $9.9 billion.
Meeting the Need: Carbon Removal and Climate Change
While Appalachia faces this regional problem, voluntary carbon markets are expanding across the United States as a method of addressing climate change. Carbon markets link investors with projects that document the successful removal of carbon dioxide, a potent greenhouse gas, from the atmosphere. In 2020 alone, these markets surged to a value of $277 billion worldwide.
All potential pathways currently proposed by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to keep climate warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius, the target of the international Paris Agreement, require the implementation of carbon dioxide removal. Removal can occur in different forms, including nature-based solutions like growing a forest or managing a grassland, or direct air capture technologies. Importantly, carbon removal — which addresses legacy carbon already in the atmosphere — is distinctly different from carbon capture and sequestration, which enables the prolonged use of fossil fuels by attempting to capture carbon emissions at the smokestack.
Reforesting mine lands in Appalachia qualifies as a nature-based solution, one that is ready to deploy immediately, and is linked with many potential benefits for ecosystems and communities. As the reforested land sequesters carbon dioxide in plants, soils and sediments, it also improves surrounding air and water quality, supports biodiversity and can be a draw for recreation. Nature-based methods of carbon removal are in contrast to direct air capture technologies, which require chemical engineering and are largely still in prototype phases.
Bringing Opportunities Together
Carbon markets are rapidly expanding. This, combined with hundreds of millions of federal dollars made available by the Inflation Reduction Act and Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, make now the moment for action. Appalachian Voices recently received a grant from Carbon180, a non-profit organization advocating for carbon removal solutions, to help us explore how we do our part. Appalachian Voices joins a small cohort of other environmental justice organizations in this work.
We are currently in the research and development phases of a pilot project to learn whether this approach is appropriate, viable and scalable. We envision a pilot project that will involve a parcel of several hundred acres of abandoned mine land (rather than land from a modern mine). Healthy forests in Central Appalachian states are able to uptake some of the highest amounts of carbon dioxide in the country, as this map from the Forest Service demonstrates.
Beyond carbon sequestration, Appalachian Voices is exploring this project to understand the scale of benefits such a project can bring to ecosystems and local economies. In our assessment, we project that the potential benefits of this project may include:
- Air and water quality improvements
- Decreased soil erosion
- Increased resilience of surrounding communities to extreme weather events (floods, droughts)
- Restoring ecological and wildlife communities
- Supporting biodiversity
- Local job opportunities in forest maintenance
To qualify a reforestation project for a carbon market, Appalachian Voices would work with a third party to measure and verify both carbon sequestration levels and related multi-benefits. The project would be designed to employ the Forestry Reclamation Approach and also follow specific guidelines and protocols for measurement and verification. After successful documentation and inspection, the reforestation project could qualify for carbon credits.
Reforestation projects for carbon removal are not yet common in the United States because baseline project conditions are difficult to prove, but mine land in Central Appalachia is uniquely well-situated to meet calculation standards for nature-based carbon sequestration. Among these foundational tenets is the principle of additionality, namely that forest management would not take place without intervening support from the carbon market. Additionality is easily demonstrated on mine land, as unreclaimed mine sites usually revert only to shrub and grassland, and require direct intervention to reforest. These and other requirements for a successful project can be found on mine land.
We recognize that such an undertaking is not without challenges, however. These can include a marketplace with ambiguous requirements, recent high-profile news coverage of fraud, and complex verification procedures to demonstrate scientific proof of concept. Carbon markets are growing quickly and do not yet operate under federal oversight. In light of this, Appalachian Voices would need to take great care in seeking a reputable partner for measurement and verification.
Any project that Appalachian Voices pursues would be implemented with the highest standards of community engagement and ensuring that communities receive direct benefits. Our funding partner, Carbon180, is well-respected in this industry and has been very helpful in guiding us through the exploratory process. Their guidance has been especially helpful in light of recent high-profile press surrounding fraud in large forest-based projects in the Southeast that took advantage of the complexity of the additionality principle described earlier. Inspection, measurement and verification can also be time-consuming and complex processes once a project is underway.
Where We Are Today
Appalachian Voices seeks your feedback to refine the process of this project. Support from local partners and communities is critical in our evaluation of a framework tailored to Appalachian ecology and economic needs. We invite your thoughts, comments and feedback at email@example.com.
About the author: Diana Dombrowski is Appalachian Voices’ Carbon Removal Fellow for 2022-2023. Her family roots go back seven generations in North-Central Appalachia. She is currently a graduate student in the Energy & Resources Group at the University of California, Berkeley.