Late Friday, PACE concluded the final portion of its 2016 Energy Tour as the Megan Parker, a motor vessel operated by Parker Towing, returned to its dock in Northport, Alabama. A twenty-person contingent of regulators, elected officials, staffers, and other energy leaders had just seen firsthand how much of America’s coal resources travel along America’s waterways. Just minutes after the tour departed, that same vessel would push coal barges down the Black Warrior River toward their destination at McDuffie Coal Terminal in Mobile, the nation’s second largest coal terminal. Meanwhile, other vessels in the Parker Towing fleet undertook similar errands, working along the region’s waterways to bring energy products and other goods to those who need them.
Earlier in the day, some tour participants descended 175 stories underground to see Warrior Met Coal Mine #7 firsthand, a trip the New York Times calls “the longest elevator ride in the country”. No coal mine in the U.S. is deeper. Others visited Mine #4, another mine that, like #7, produces some of the finest metallurgical coal in the world. Steel producers around the world covet the metallurgical coal mined around the clock at Alabama mines for its ability to produce extremely high temperatures.
The key is that tour participants aren’t just told about the mining process. They undergo an hour of safety training, wear the same heavy gear as the mine workers, and stand within just a few yards of an incredibly powerful long wall machine that harvests tons of coal every minute from far beneath the surface. Those who see this process firsthand emerge to the surface different than they went down in more ways than one. While it may be easy to clean the smudges on their faces, it’s not as easy to lose the appreciation they gained for the men and women who do this difficult, and all too often unrecognized, job. The men and women who descend far beneath the surface every day to mine the resources that have taken America to such great heights.
The same type of men and women work at Nucor Steel in Birmingham and at Miller Steam Plant northwest of the city, facilities visited by the group on Thursday. At Nucor, tour participants had a chance to see the steel production process up close. American energy was in action, helping to heat recycled metal products to thousands of degrees so that they can ultimately gain new life as high quality steel products. General Manager Franky Griggs explained to the group how Nucor has evolved its processes to be more energy efficient, helping the company to compete with overseas steel producers.
At Miller Steam Plant, a facility operated by Alabama Power Company and owned in part by PowerSouth Energy Cooperative, the group saw environmental control technology up close. Technology that reduces emissions from the electricity generation process and produces useful byproducts like gypsum. They saw new techniques aimed at capturing carbon dioxide. All part of an electric generating station that is one of the nation’s most efficient and that produces some of the lowest cost electricity in the world. At dinner on Thursday, attendees met a man who works on a substation construction crew, a critical part of the transmission and distribution grid infrastructure that keeps America’s lights burning. I wrote about the same person, Joey, in my Thanksgiving piece from last year.
All in all, the visits help connect the production of electricity with its consumption. They help connect the process of mining with the transportation sector. The same vessels that take metallurgical coal to the Port of Alabama often bring raw goods back to another Nucor Steel facility visible from our cruise on the Black Warrior River. Mining, transportation, power generation, and heavy electricity consumption are all connected. We tie them together in a two-day period to allow tour participants to see a side of American energy that is often talked about, but rarely seen. We show them in a way that they’re likely never to forget.
This was our third such tour. Our hope each time is that those who journey with us return to their jobs with a fresh outlook on energy policy. We hope they take to heart that there are real facilities that depend on policy makers to do the right thing. Real people behind the scenes depending on policy that pushes America forward instead of holding it back. Real energy locked in the ground that can continue to power American manufacturing and keep us energy independent. Showing those people and places, with the help of companies that generously give us their time, is an important part of our advocacy for an energy future that works for all of us.