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Clean Energy Lobby Outspends Big Oil! September 8, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Congress, Politics.
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No, that didn’t happen.  The mere thought of it is preposterous.  What actually happened is a recent report highlighted increased lobbying expenditures from renewable energy companies, and the conservative reaction has been predictably devoid of perspective.  Pot?  Kettle here.  Let’s get you a mirror.

But if they want to talk about energy subsidies, let’s do it.  The following passage from OpenSecrets.org was quoted in a post on the conservative blog RedState:

“By 2007, the alternative energy industry had begun to drastically increase its lobbying spending, almost doubling its expenditures from the previous year. In 2009, alternative energy organizations shelled out an unprecedented $30 million to protect and promote their interests on Capitol Hill, and this year, it’s on pace to equal that record output.

The alternative energy industry’s lobbying expenditures have grown to 12 times from its 1998 level. In comparison, oil and gas spending and mining spending have grown less than three times their 1998 amount, and electric utility spending has grown to just twice its 1998 amount.” (emphasis added by RedState)

That sounds like a lot of money, and it is.  But of course the concept of context is lost upon RedState.  Let’s try adding some.

Renewable energy companies spent $30 million on lobbying in 2009.  Compare that to 2009 lobbying expenditures for:

  • Misc. Energy: $56,013,293 –  $30 million in renewables = ~$26 million*

Total: more than $373 million in 2009 lobbying.

*The “Misc. Energy” category contains dozens of companies, some from the renewable energy sector but others such as the FutureGen Industrial Alliance, which lobbies for “clean” coal.  OpenSecrets cited $30 million for renewables, so I used that number here.

In 2009 alone, dirty fuel interests outspent clean energy by a factor of 12.4.  The oil and gas industry outspent renewables by a factor of nearly 6.  And Exxon Mobil – alone – spent 90% as much on lobbying as the entire clean energy sector.

Since 1999, oil and gas companies along with electric utilities have spent over $2 billion.  In that period, the renewable energy sector spent $105 million.  So tell me again why we’re whining about the big bad clean energy lobby?

The author of this RedState blog post, writing under the pseudonym Vladimir, identifies himself only as “Operations Manager for a small Gulf of Mexico oil & gas explorer & producer.”  Vlad further explains the crippling burden imposed by tyrannical American energy subsidies upon the tiny, innocent oil industry:

“The wind industry is pocketing subsidies that dwarf those garnered by the oil and gas sector. …Wind subsidies are more than 200 times as great as those given to oil and gas on the basis of per-unit-of-energy produced.”

First of all, The per-unit cost difference is easily explained: oil industry is fully mature whereas renewables are still very much developing.  New industries, especially those with positive instead of negative social benefits, receive subsidies so that they can develop more quickly and their costs can come down.  These fuels are our future, and we’d like to get there as soon as possible.

Side note: That future isn’t just clean and renewable, it’s really cool: check out these self-healing solar cells.

But more importantly, NO wind subsidies absolutely do NOT “dwarf” oil subsidies.  That is patently false.  When one compares size, one generally compares…size.  A > B.  Not A/X > B/Y.

Below is a wonderful graphic produced by the nonpartisan Environmental Law Institute (where, in the interest of full disclosure, I currently work – this was compiled long before my recent arrival).

This chart is slightly dated.  For example, just this Tuesday, the Department of Energy pledged more than $575 million in stimulus funding for 22 different projects related to Carbon Capture and Storage (E&E News, subscription required).  But you get the idea.

You cannot make the serious claim that renewables get unduly preferential government treatment on account of their lobbying.  One look at the benefits these lobbying efforts reap dispels that notion.

The conservative self-delusion is irreconcilably hypocritical when subjected to the facts of real life.  That is why the two worldviews currently exist without much overlap.

Hat tip to Kevin Grandia at DeSmogBlog for his post on this.

Back to the FutureGen: Obama Revives Coal Plant August 16, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change, Coal, Politics.
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Earlier this month, the Obama administration awarded $1 billion to revive FutureGen, a commercial-scale advanced coal power demonstration plant that was both proposed and killed during the Bush administration. As a coal-state senator, Obama has long supported projects such as this, and this funding is consistent with promises made on the campaign trail.  The resurrected project has been dubbed FutureGen 2.0.

Originally announced in 2003, FutureGen was intended to combine and test a number of different advanced coal technologies* (explained at the bottom of this post for those who are interested).

An artist's rendition of the FutureGen coal plant.

The most anticipated technology to be tested at  this plant was the underground storage of carbon dioxide emissions, known as Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS), the subject of an entire previous post.  This technology could theoretically allow us to burn coal without releasing greenhouse gases.

If coal is to have any real future, it will be completely reliant upon some form of CCS technology; without it, “clean coal” does not exist and coal will not be able to compete with other energy sources if/when any kind of price or limit is established on carbon pollution*.  So coal companies have a prominent stake in this project.

It makes sense, then, that this project was a joint venture between the federal government and a corporate consortium called the FutureGen Industrial Alliance Inc.  Alliance members include major coal companies from both the United States and around the world; as I said, the future of coal power depends upon the development of CCS technology**.

The project was originally planned to cost $950 million, but expected costs continually rose.  After five years, in January 2008, the Bush administration cancelled funding for FutureGen largely because the expected cost had ballooned to $1.8 billion (with the government on the hook for a much larger share than the private sector**).

Interestingly, it was reported in 2009 that the Energy Department had made a $500 million accounting error in projecting those increased costs; the price tag had indeed gone up, but it had not actually doubled.  This adds another layer of intrigue to the already curious circumstances of the project’s first death.

Cost was the stated reason for cancelling FutureGen, but there were other plausible motives.  A number of states actively pursued the investment and jobs that FutureGen would create.  The final four potential sites were split evenly between Illinois and Texas.  Just three weeks before our nation’s most prominent Texan killed FutureGen, Mattoon, Illinois was selected as the future home of FutureGen.

So when the funding disappeared, the Illinois delegation immediately accused Bush and his Secretary of Energy of having ulterior motives.  And the accusations weren’t beyond belief, especially given the deceitful manner in which the funding was withdrawn: the administration announced its intention to pull the plug literally the day after President Bush highlighted federal investment in advanced coal technology during his State of the Union address.  Political promises are often broken, but not often within the first 24 hours.

Yet after all that effort to bring FutureGen to Mattoon, the Illinois town pulled out of the project last week.  Their decision makes some sense.

FutureGen 2.0 is notably different from its predecessor; instead of building a completely new plant, the new plan is to retrofit a currently mothballed coal plant 150 miles away in Meredosia, Illinois.  Mattoon was still a key player in the new plan, however: the town boasts one of the country’s most ideal geological formations to store carbon dioxide underground.  FutureGen 2.0 planned to store carbon dioxide beneath Mattoon via a pipeline from Meredosia.

As I have previously described, if CO2 were to leak out from an underground reservoir, the denser CO2 can displace all the oxygen near the ground and smother any living thing above. It has happened before.  A particular geological formation might be structurally sound and contain CO2 for now, but we are not talking about short-term storage, and geology is not permanent.  Mattoon residents were reminded of this just 6 months ago.

The Midwest is not commonly known for its earthquake activity, but Mattoon is just 100 miles from the Wabash Valley Seismic Zone.  On February 11 of this year, a 3.8-magnitude earthquake shook southern Illinois.  And in 2008, a 5.2-magnitude quake was centered 200 miles from Mattoon.

To make matters worse, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, the nearby New Madrid Seismic Zone has a 90% chance of a magnitude 6 or 7 quake in the next 50 years.

Nearby seismic zones and the locations of earthquakes magnitude 2.5 or greater.

I’m not a geologist, but that worries me a little.  If I lived in Mattoon, I wouldn’t find the prospect of carbon storage in my back yard very attractive without $1 billion in investments either.

But other towns are already lining up to take Mattoon’s spot, and lawmakers from my native Illinois are doing everything they can to keep this project close to home.  FutureGen 2.0 is very much alive.


* FutureGen Technologies:

FutureGen is planned to be an “Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle” plant (aka IGCC).   Coal gasification is a process that breaks down coal into its chemical components and produces, among other things, a cleaner-burning gas that no longer contains many of the pollutants in coal.  Another product is hydrogen, and this plant is supposed to test the commercial viability of creating fuel hydrogen from coal.

The “Combined Cycle” refers to a more efficient design that uses two turbines to generate power instead of just one: the primary turbine is powered by that gasified coal, but a secondary steam turbine generates extra electricity from all the heat generated by the gasification process and primary generation.

In a traditional power plant (and the vast majority of industrial facilities around the world), vast quantities of heat are produced and wasted.  That heat could be used to generate electricity or heat facilities or water.  Anyone interested in more on this should look up “Combined Heat and Power” aka “Cogeneration.”

Additionally, FutureGen is designed to demonstrate oxy-combustion technology that produces a more manageable stream of carbon dioxide that is better suited for storage.

** Funding FutureGen:

America today is undeniably dependent upon coal power.  Carbon-free coal would certainly be in our national interest.  It would be a boon.  However, the coal industry, for obvious reasons, is entirely dependent upon coal power for its survival.  America can survive without coal; the coal industry cannot.  For that reason, it has always rubbed me the wrong way that the Department of Energy agreed to provide nearly three quarters of the funding for FutureGen, with industry exposure limited to just $400 million – to fund their own survival.  Why taxpayers should pay so that a polluting industry can have a future is beyond me.

It is also worth noting that according to a report released late last week by a CCS Task Force established by President Obama, the key barrier to CCS deployment is the lack of comprehensive climate change legislation. So coal companies are both taking taxpayer money to fund their only chance for a future and spending their own money to fight against that very same future.

CCS: An Energy Wild Goose Chase, Not Silver Bullet July 15, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change, Coal, Congress, Politics.
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Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS) is the much-hyped “clean” in “clean coal.”  Contrary to industry advertising, as of yet, it doesn’t really exist – so neither does “clean coal.”  If carbon-pricing ever occurs (and at some point it will), CCS will be vital to the survival of the coal industry.

So on Wednesday, a bipartisan pair of coal state senators pushed for yet more funding for this technology.  Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) and Sen. George Voinovich (R-OH) are seeking $20 billion to support large-scale CCS demonstration projects.

So how does it work?

Burning coal releases a lot of carbon dioxide.  Today, CO2 simply vented into the atmosphere with the rest of coal’s air pollutants. As a greenhouse gas, CO2 emissions are causing climate change, so CCS seeks to capture that carbon dioxide before it gets released and store it someplace other than our atmosphere.  In theory, if we can filter out the CO2 from coal combustion and store it safely, we could burn fossil fuels to our hearts’ content without exacerbating global warming.  CCS technology can potentially remove 80%-95% of CO2 emissions from power plants and other industrial sources.

Cost aside, the major technical issue with CCS is figuring out where to store all that gas.  There are two major options for storage:

  1. Geological storage
  2. Ocean storage

Geological Storage:

The most obvious place to store CO2 is within the Earth.  Our planet is rich with geological formations that naturally hold gases underground; it within these geologic traps that we currently drill for oil and natural gas.  Like helium in a balloon, light gases attempt to rise through the ground.  When impermeable rocks form solid, dome-shaped formations, gases become trapped there, having risen as high as they can.

The most attractive potential CCS sites are deep saline reservoirs, unmineable coal seams, and oil and gas reservoirs.

There are a number of geological formations that can theoretically store CO2 underground.

In regard to that third option, geo-sequestering CCS has been conducted on a small scale since the 1970s.  Subterranean gas injection is one of the techniques known as “Enhanced Oil Recovery,” often abbreviated EOR. Injecting gases into oil reservoirs can artificially increase the pressure within a given well, thus enabling the recovery of oil that would not have otherwise been obtainable.  It helps get a little more oil out of a depleting well. CCS can help us make the most of our existing domestic oil infrastructure instead of drilling in new, sensitive areas.  Whether such operations are suitable for long-term carbon storage is under investigation.

However, CCS took a big hit just two months ago, when researchers at Texas A&M determined that CCS will require 5-20 times more underground reservoir capacity than previous thought.

Ocean Storage:

In theory, injecting CO2 at great depths within the ocean could keep the carbon out of the atmosphere for a geologically significant amount of time.  At depths of over 1000 meters, CO2 will simply dissolve in the water.  At depths of over 3000 meters, CO2 forms a liquid denser than seawater and pools at that depth for a time before ultimately dissolving.  A number of other ocean storage theories exist.

All of them are terrible ideas. Even if we could guarantee that oceanic CO2 never returned to the atmosphere (we cannot), carbon dioxide causes plenty of problems in the ocean as well.  We don’t even understand all of the potential consequences of oceanic CCS, but we do understand that it would cause ocean acidification, about which I have already written an entire post.

Transportation:

Regardless of where the CO2 is stored, a second major technological hurdle is transportation.  After capture at each stationary source, CO2 would need to be transported to whatever storage sites were to be used.  This could be done most economically via pipeline.  However, this is no simple matter.

“That CCS and related legislation generally focuses on the capture and storage of CO2, and not on its transportation, reflects the current perception that transporting CO2 via pipelines does not present a significant barrier to implementing large-scale CCS.”  –Congressional Research Service 2007, p. 2.

…but it does.

The various technologies required to build a CO2 pipeline network are each individually considered mature.  However, integrating them and deploying them at such a large scale would a considerable challenge.

Widespread CCS use would require its own dedicated national CO2 pipeline network.  That network does not exist. Currently, there are approximately 3,600 miles of CO2 pipeline in operation within the US, mostly to support EOR operations.  In contrast, there are approximately 500,000 miles of natural gas and hazardous liquid (such as gasoline) pipelines across the country.

To utilize CCS, we would need CO2 pipelines running across the country from hundreds of major stationary emitters to reservoirs. That infrastructure would have to be built from scratch.

Politicians have not seemed to notice yet, but this contributes to yet another critical problem with CCS…

Very High Cost:

CCS is an expensive venture.  Massive amounts of federal funding have already been funneled into CCS research and development.

The stimulus bill included $3.4 billion for CCS programs related projects.  Department of Energy budgets for fiscal years 2008-2010 included a combined total of $1.26 billion in direct CCS or CCS-related funding.  Federal loan guarantees for CCS were first authorized in the Dick Cheney Energy Policy Act of 2005.  The Omnibus Appropriations Act of 2009 restated that authority indefinitely and provided an additional $8 billion in coal-related loan guarantees.  The Cheney energy bill also included $1.3 billion in tax credits for advanced coal projects (source).

That’s about $14 billion right there.  This before the $20 billion now proposed by Senators Rockefeller and Voinovich. Why so much money?

A University of California study found that laying the 16 inch diameter pipeline that CCS would require would cost $800,000/mile (in 2002 dollars) although costs for individual pipelines could vary by a factor of 5 depending on location.

Last year, a Harvard study put the future of CCS in serious doubt.  These researchers determined that the “realistic” cost of first-generation CCS will be about $150/ton of CO2.  That price tag would make this technology infeasible.  We emit a LOT of CO2 each year.  Some analysts believe that, if utilized, CO2 sequestration rates could rise to over 1 billion tons of carbon per year by mid-century.  Even if that cost/ton came down as the technology advanced, the annual price tag would be staggering.

For reference, last year, analysts suggested a price ceiling of $35/ton of CO2 for cap-and-trade credits because costs higher than that were deemed prohibitively high.  In 2007, the Bingaman-Specter cap-and-trade bill had a price ceiling at $12/ton of CO2 (although commentators corrected deemed this ridiculously low).  The point is that $150/ton is beyond uneconomical.

Coal’s low price is what makes it so attractive to utilities (it certainly doesn’t have any other redeeming qualities).  Coals’ days without CCS are numbered, but CCS’s high costs make coal an unrealistic fuel for the future.

Safety:

Leakage out of the reservoir is a major concern.  Even stable rock formations shift in earthquakes.  In order for CCS to be an effective climate mitigator, sequestered carbon would have to remain underground for thousands of years.  Seismic activity presents a danger of undoing all that sequestration.

But even beyond climate concerns, if a carbon reservoir leaked near a populated area, that escaping carbon dioxide would pose a significant health risk.

Because CO2 is denser than air, when it leaks out of the ground it forms an invisible, undetectable cloud that pools near the ground and displaces the oxygen, suffocating any life nearby.  This has happened naturally and given us a glimpse of what could occur: in 1986, Lake Nyos in Cameroon released a large amount of CO2, silently killing nearly two thousand people and a large number of livestock.

1,700 people and 3,500 cattle within 16 miles of Lake Nyos were killed when the lake “outgassed” and CO2 displaced the oxygen near the ground.

CCS CO2 reservoirs could pose a substantial threat to nearby life. Pressurized carbon dioxide pipelines present would present a smaller, related risk.

Carbon Dioxide is Dangerous

Yes, carbon dioxide is necessary to sustain life on this planet.  That does not mean that more is better. For the “CO2 Is Green” crowd, I present this paragraph from the CRS report:

“CO2 occurs naturally in the atmosphere, and is produced by the human body during ordinary respiration, so it is commonly perceived by the general public to be a relatively harmless gas. However, at concentrations above 10% by volume, CO2 may cause adverse health effects and at concentrations above 25% poses a significant asphyxiation hazard. Because CO2 is colorless, odorless, and heavier than air, an uncontrolled release may accumulate and remain undetected near the ground in low-lying outdoor areas, and in confined spaces such as caverns, tunnels, and basements. Exposure to CO2 gas, as for other asphyxiates, may cause rapid “circulatory insufficiency,” coma, and death.” –Congressional Research Service 2007, p. 18.

This is what happened at Lake Nyos.

CO2: Pollutant or Commodity?

One additional minor but interesting potential complication for CCS is that CO2 could arguably be classified as both a pollutant and a commodity.  If climate-deniers figure this out, they will have a field day misconstruing this information, but CO2 could be classified as a pollutant by the EPA because of its excess greenhouse capabilities, but classified as a commodity by the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) on account of its application for EOR.  Only in this circumstance could CO2 be considered a commodity.

Even if EOR CO2 were classified as a commodity, because it is unlikely that all the CO2 involved in widespread CCS could ever be used in EOR operations, all that excess CO2 not used in this way would probably constitute an industrial pollutant.  This is not just an academic issue; conflicting classifications would have significant impacts on the regulatory process for pipeline construction.

Conclusion:

CCS demonstration plants are under way or planned in at least 10 countries including the U.S..  Our government is pouring money into this technology thanks to the Congressional sponsorship that coal industry campaign donations, lobbyists and jobs have bought.

However, the industry is lying to the public:clean, carbon-neutral coal”is decades away, if possible at all. The billions of dollars spent on this research could be better spent on real climate solutions; put $34 billion into solar and wind etc and we will have the clean, renewable energy infrastructure for our future.

Dethroning King Coal December 1, 2008

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change, Coal.
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Last month I was fortunate enough to drive through – and not stop in – the lovely state of West Virginia.  It was dark, but between the mountain passes I did get to do some sightseeing.  I was impressed by the neoclassical grandeur of the state capitol building, but I was also treated to pollution-belching industrial complexes beautifully backlit by gas flares.   The scene was reminiscent of, but did not smell quite as bad as, Gary, Indiana – a real gem in a state that prides itself on being “The Crossroads of America” (read: between places worth visiting).  But I digress.

Drifting somewhere between “the zone” and highway hypnosis, I was jarred awake by a billboard just past Charleston.  It said, “YES COAL. Clean, carbon neutral coal. ” I slammed on the brakes so hard I was nearly rear-ended as I slowed to make sure I’d read correctly.  ‘Clean’ is already a sleazy misnomer for coal, but ‘carbon-neutral’? That sign’s not just wrong, it’s probably illegal: There are laws protecting the public from false advertising.

clean-coal

An ad like the one I saw. Maybe your head didn't just explode, but this is ridiculous.

There is no way to burn coal without releasing its carbon.  That’s just how combustion works.  The only way that billboard is not a blatant mistruth is as a deceitful allusion to carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) a process that theoretically would allow us to catch carbon dioxide as it’s emitted.  But CCS is expensive and has yet to be practically implemented, so coal remains our most carbon-intensive (and dirtiest) energy source.

Walker Machinery, the mining equipment supplier responsible for this and other misleading coal ads, even admits on its Web site that its statements refer to the [ideal] future of coal, not the present.  And that dirty present has gotten some attention lately.

One of Walker Machinery’s major customers is Massey Energy, the nation’s fourth-largest coal company.  Massey has received a lot of negative press.  In 2006, notorious CEO Don Blankenship was sued with Massey when his unrelenting emphasis on coal production over safety led to two deaths in a mine fire.  Last year, Massey was sued for committing up to $2.4 billion worth of violations of the Clean Water Act.  And this year, two West Virginia Supreme Court Justices had to recuse themselves from a case against Massey after photos surfaced of one vacationing with Blankenship on the French Riviera.  The court, led by a third justice on whose campaign Blankenship spent $3.5 million but who has still ruled on numerous cases about Massey, voted to overturn a previous $77 million verdict against the company (see video below).

ABC’s Nightline reports on Don Blankenship.  Check this out.

How has Massey responded to its criticism? Blankenship unloaded on coal critics last week at the Tug Valley Mining Institute, calling them “communists,” “atheists” and “greeniacs.” He then compared environmentalists to Osama bin Laden.   But my favorite quote was, “Most people wouldn’t believe that coal is the most important thing to the environment. ” I’ll provide some context lest that sound silly: the environment to which he was referring was the “total environment,” which is composed not just of “trees and all that” but also of the ability to send our children to school.

Oh, that environment…wait, what?

Blankenship’s rant went on to sympathize with like-minded people who don’t believe in climate change but are “afraid to say that because it is a political reality.” Without exploring the remarkable similarities between his “political reality” and our “actual world,” I’d just like to say I hope that in this new political era we can set aside pesky realities and embrace fanatical utopias where ignoring something hard enough makes it magically disappear.  Viva la status quo!

But coal executives like Blankenship have reason to be cranky these days.  Two weeks ago, the Environmental Protection Agency ruled that utilities must apply the best available control technology for carbon dioxide emissions at new coal-fired power plants.  This really just updates EPA policy to start treating CO­2­ like other pollutants, but it has serious implications for the future expansion of coal power – unless they can show us some clean, carbon-neutral coal plants.

Yet the Bush bonanza is not quite over.  The EPA ruled against utilities, but coal mining continues as usual.  And according to a blog post by Rob Perks at the Natural Resources Defense Council, the EPA is soon expected to weaken environmental regulations on toxic mining waste.  The governors of Tennessee and Kentucky have opposed this assault on their states’ water quality; West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin has not, tacitly upholding his state’s submission to the coal industry at the expense of environmental and public health.

Just last week Massey Energy received approval to flatten another West Virginia mountain in search of coal.  Local citizens are pleading with the governor to rescind the permit, claiming that the mountain has enough wind potential to cleanly power up to 150,000 homes.  Would it be so terrible for West Virginia to invest in some renewable energy and preserve the mountains that drive its valuable tourism?  That would certainly be a step in a new direction.

mountaintop

This used to be a mountain before coal mining. For a sense of scale, those are 6 cars just left of center in front of that road across the middle.

Governor Manchin, when it gets so bad that passing college kids feel comfortable casually deriding your entire state, maybe it’s time for a change. America already has a Gary, Ind.  Why don’t you help keep West Virginia “Wild and Wonderful” by leaving a few of its mountains intact?

A version of this post ran in The Chronicle at Duke University.