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In 2000, the United States Geologic Survey (USGS), published the National Coal Resource Assessment (NCRA), a project of the USGS Energy Program intended to "identify, characterize, and assess the coal resources that will supply a major part of the Nation's energy needs during the next few decades" (Ruppert 2001). A summary of the entire NCRA is available here. The major goals of the NCRA were to digitally asses selected coal beds and zones that will be most important in the next few decades, to create publicly available GIS databases to answer questions to government, industry and policy makers, and to provide interpretive geologic and geochemical information for the primary coal resources in the United States. In addition, the NCRA geochemical databases provide information for the prediction of potential emissions from the combustion of coal from the coal beds and zones studied, as well aiding in the delineation of area with potential for "coal-bed methane production, mine flooding, surface subsidence, and acid mine drainage" (Ibid).

Five coal-rich regions were assessed in the project. One particular area of interest is the Appalachian Basin region, an area known for both its aesthetics and its economics. It is in a region like the Appalachian Basin where the costs and benefits of a resurgent coal industry are most apparent -- in 1998, approximately 1,082 million short tons of coal, constituting 93 percent of the total U.S. production, were produced from the five regions of focus in the NCRA student, and 40 percent of the total was produced in the northern and central Appalachian Basin. This is one of the premier coal producing regions in the world.

Spatial data for the Appalachian-specific portion of the study, entitled the "2000 Resource Assessment of Selected Coal Beds and Zones in the Northern and Central Appalachian Basin Coal Regions," can be accessed here, under "Regional Spatial Data." For the executive summary of findings of the NCRA project specific to the Northern and Central Appalachian Basin Coal Regions, click here. According to metadata text files, the research was conducted by the USGS Northern and Central Appalachian Basin Coal Regions Assessment Team, in cooperation with the Kentucky, Maryland Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia Geologic Survey divisions. The region of study was the Appalachian Basin in those states, but more specifically, six coal beds and coal zones (Pittsburgh, Upper Freeport, Lower Kittanning, Fire Clay, Pond Creek, and Pocahontas No. 3) responsible for producing over 15 percent of the Nation's coal. To create the GIS data that describes the areal extent and mined areas for each of the six assessed coal beds and zones, the project team digitized and combined more than 1,000 published and unpublished maps at scales ranging from 1:24,000 to 1:500,000. As such, the software and analytic methodology utilized were varied, but normalized for purposes of the NCRA study and resultant GIS database. Metadata text files for each of the various layers indicate that maps were pulled together from various time periods (1960-1999) and drawn from various sources. One of the data sets on the regional map, for example, shows the federally owned land in the region (the label of this shapefile has not been changed from data speak; it is call "fedlds" in GIS). This data set is an ARC/INFO shapefile, created by "extracting federal land polygon features from the individual 1:2,000,000-scale state boundary DLG files produced by the U.S. Geological Survey....these files were then paneled into a single coverage." Another data set that appears in the Regional Spatial Data for the Appalachian Basin Region is point data showing mine locations that are producing coal; these data are from 1995 and were derived from the Energy Information Agency (EIA) database. In total, 17 different data sets comprise the Regional Spatial Data map of the Appalachian Basin in the NCRA study.

 In the larger analysis of the data (not shown in the one Regional Spatial Data map discussed above), the project team sought to determine the original and remaining amounts of coal in the six specific coal beds and zones and analyze the quality of the coal, as it will be a major suppler of power generated in the U.S. in the coming years. The specific amounts can be viewed here, on page A10. In summary,  the total original amounts of available coal resources are estimated at about "93 billion short tons, of which about 66 billion short tons remain....much of the remaining coal in all five coal beds and zones is thinner (<3.5 ft) and deeper (>1,000 ft) than the coal that has been mined, but economic resources are still available and mining in each coal bed and coal zone will continue throughout this decade and into the next given current market conditions."

 This project could not be accomplished without mapping or spatial analysis - these tools are the basis of energy resource exploration. As the study determines that these resources remain economical to exploit, even though they are more difficult and expensive to access than in the past, I would be interested in exploring issues of equity, environmental degradation and environmental justice. Depressed by shrinking economies, the historically coal-producing states of the Appalachian region will only benefit, in economic terms, from a resurgent coal industry. Yet without valuation of the externalities of modern intensive coal mining, the true costs of these practices are not clear and communities are most certainly going to accept the costs without comprehensive information.

References:

Ruppert, L.F., 2001, Chapter A--Executive summary--Coal resource
assessment of selected coal beds and zones in the northern and central
Appalachian Basin coal regions, in Northern and Central Appalachian
Basin Coal Regions Assessment Team, 2000 resource assessment of
selected coal beds and zones in the northern and central Appalachian
Basin coal regions: U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper
1625-C, CD-ROM, version 1.0.

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