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The Great Coal Faceoff Comes to Airports in the DC Area January 21, 2011

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Coal.
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New post at Change.org:

“FACES of Coal” (Federation for American Coal, Energy and Security) is an astroturf coal front group created to try to humanize the coal lobby. …But there is something strange about these FACES ads: There are no faces.

When FACES first appeared in the summer of 2009, they put up ads ostensibly showing people working in jobs created by coal mining. Yet some inspired detective work revealed that these people were not “faces of coal;” they were the faces of stock photography. All the photos in their ads were available on iStockPhoto.com (ridiculous side-by-side comparisons here).  The woman working at the flower shop wasn’t a coal supporter, she was literally just “Woman working in a flower shop.”  Ditto for “Group of happy business people standing together against white background” and “Group of adult students standing in campus corridor” etc.  As Rachel Maddow so eloquently put it in her expose, “The faces of coal are clip art.”  (Note: no other major media outlets covered the story and the PR firm responsible for the website immediately tried to cover its tracks.)

Read the full post here.

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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.

Why the EPA Should Regulate Carbon July 7, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change, Coal, Congress, Politics.
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…because the Senate won’t.

Despite what is shaping up to be the hottest year on record, the ongoing oil spill  and pubic opinion polls showing that Americans are finally ready to address our entwined energy and climate crises, legislation remains blocked by the usual suspects: Republicans, lobbyists and perpetual election year politics.

Most people think that Congress is the governmental entity that ought to address an issue as sweeping as climate change.  I agree.  So do most congressmen – loudly.

Unfortunately, many those congressmen who angrily rant about the importance of congressional authority are the very same people blocking congressional action.

The Obama Administration has made it clear that it does not want to have to regulate greenhouse gas emissions through the Environmental Protection Agency.  Everybody would prefer that Congress pass a bill instead.  The House has.  The Senate, it seems, cannot.

Yet we must address a threat of this magnitude.  So if Congress won’t, the EPA should.  The Supreme Court agrees; if Congress doesn’t act, the EPA is legally obligated to regulate GHGs as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act. The EPA will not supersede legislative climate action; it will act in accordance with the Clean Air Act (written by Congress) unless Congress passes a newer law.

As the chances for such a law fade, it is worth examining what EPA carbon regulations might look like.

What Would EPA Regulations Looks Like?

There have been a number of bureaucratic hoops to jump through on the road to EPA carbon regulations.  Next January, when the EPA’s new gas mileage standards for cars comes into effect, greenhouse gases will finally be “subject to regulation” under the Clean Air Act.

First, new polluting power plants and industrial facilities would have to adopt the “best available control technologies” (BACT) for regulating carbon emissions.  The EPA gets to determine which technologies are “best.”  Carbon capture and sequestration technology could fall into this category if it was proven, but that’s a long way off.  In the meantime, the EPA would the mandate the use of existing technologies to reduce emissions and/or increase efficiency.

For example, the EPA could require any and all new coal-fired power plants to utilize integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) technology.  IGCC plants convert coal into a synthetic gas so that it can be burned more cleanly (in terms of non-GHG pollutants) and use excess heat from the primary combustion and generation to power a secondary steam turbine that generates extra electricity per unit of coal burned.  Or it could require new power plants use natural gas instead of coal.

Natural gas emits much less carbon than coal.  It’s not a long-term solution, but significant short-term gains could be achieved by switching from coal to natural gas.  The EPA could propose this change.

What is the “Tailoring Rule”?

Under the Clean Air Act, anyone trying to build or upgrade a facility that will emit a baseline level of a regulated pollutant (usually 100-250 tons per year) needs to get a permit from the EPA certifying that they are utilizing the “best available control technology” (BACT) to minimize their emissions.

For other Clean Air Act pollutants, like lead, 100 tons per year is quite a bit and well worth of regulation.  The problem here is that carbon emissions are on a much larger scale.  As the Clean Air Act is written, as many as 6 million buildings would need permits for their carbon emissions, including schools, churches, buildings that use heating oil…you get the idea.  Not the real targets of these regulations.

In May, the EPA released its “Tailoring Rule” to limit the focus of the permitting process to facilities that release >75,000 tons of carbon dioxide per year and already apply for other Clean Air Act pollutant permits.  This way, only the major polluters are subject to these regulations. The Tailoring Rule brings down the number of regulated buildings from 6 million to about ~550 of the biggest polluters.

For the record, when originally proposed, the cutoff was set at 25,000 tons per year, but after the comment period, the EPA realized that too many buildings would be unintentionally regulated (like schools and small businesses).

Additionally, any new power plants expected to emit more than 100,000 tons of GHGs per year would need to get a permit.  This would certainly cover all new coal plants, whose emissions are on the order of million of tons per year.

If the EPA does end up implementing these regulations, conservative groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce will likely challenge the Tailoring Rule in court so that schools etc. would need be regulated as well.  Why?  Because they hate children.  …ok fine, because if the EPA enacts this policy, conservatives want it to become a regulatory nightmare.  Making the EPA permit the 6 million buildings that emit much smaller amounts of carbon each year would be impossibly cumbersome and cause considerable public backlash – so conservatives hope we would just scrap the whole thing and let them keep polluting for free.  Potential legal vulnerabilities such as this are a weakness of this less than elegant regulatory route.

Benefits of EPA Carbon Regulations

EPA regulations would hopefully be designed with less lobbyist influence than in Congress.

Most climate/energy bills – including the climate bill that pass in the House last year – end up “grandfathering” in some dirty coal plants.  That is, their emissions are exempted from regulation.  Such provisions completely undercut the energy bills that contain them by providing utilities with a perverse incentive to keep their oldest, most polluting plants open as long as possible.  They are written by lobbyists and exist solely as thank you’s from American legislators to their industry supporters.

Disgustingly, even the original Clean Air Act grandfathered in existing coal plants.

Everything Congress touches that is at all energy-related comes out blackened with soot and covered in tar balls.  The EPA is not impervious to industry demands, but it is certainly in a better position to stand up to industry than Congress (which isn’t saying much).

In fact, in many ways,

The EPA is Better Suited to Address this Issue than Congress

In 1997, economist Alan Blinder presented an interesting argument that some governmental challenges could and should be better solved by unelected experts.

Certain types of problems, Blinder correctly argued, are by nature better addressed by experts than by elected laymen in Congress.  These types of problems meet three criteria (discussed below):

  1. The issue deals with technical subjects requiring specialized knowledge.
  2. The issue is long-term, both in problems and solutions.
  3. The issue imposes short-term hardship to avert long-term hardship of much greater magnitude.

Consider the legislative challenges of issues that meet these criteria.  What follows are not critiques of our democracy but rather explanations of some unfortunate effects that institutional design can have upon policymaking.

Congress Lacks Specialized Knowledge:

Everybody knows that our elected representatives are not experts.  They are elected to represent us and cannot possibly be expected to have in-depth knowledge of all the issues our legislature must tackle.

To overcome this deficiency, they summon experts to testify before them.  But most testimony has little impact on legislation, and as anyone who has ever watched C-SPAN (or even the Daily Show) can tell you, sometimes “expert testimony” is nothing short of political theater.

For example, in 2005, the notorious Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK and Congress’s most vocal climate-denier), who at the time chaired the Environment and Public Works Committee, invited fiction author Michael Crichton to advise the Senate on climate science because he had recently written State of Fear, a fictional story about murderous eco-terrorists.  Inhofe also made that book “required reading” for members of the top Senate environmental committee.

Jim Inhofe is the poster child both for senators not being experts and political theater. He once disputed climate science by saying “God’s still up there. We’re going through these cycles.” This man CHAIRED the Senate’s environmental committee for 5 years and remains its ranking Repubican member.

When you hear about the final deal-making and compromises being made to pass a law, it has nothing to do with expert testimony or pure policy considerations – it’s often just about pork barrel politics and a particular legislator’s demands.

It is easy to see why under certain circumstances, our country would be better served if experts in the field at hand were asked to craft sensible and efficient policies to address technical problems.

Congress Cannot Address Long-Term Problems:

It is never more than two years from an election year in Washington.  If congresspersons want to be reelected, they need to deliver short-term results to their constituents.

It is no surprise, then, that long-term problems are not legislative priorities; they appeal to our legislators’ responsibility and duty, but those are not the forces that drive Washington.

Even if addressing a long term problem did not cost anything today, it would present an opportunity cost because a House representative only has 2 years to deliver demonstrably for his constituents.

For long term solutions that have short term costs, the future prospects grow bleaker.  Add a degree of uncertainty and magnify it with disinformation and demagoguery, and it is obvious why climate bills are hard to pass.

Congress Cannot Impose Short-Term Costs for Long-Term Benefits:

Legislators are held accountable for the present, not the future.  Until the end of their careers, the desire for reelection prioritizes short-term considerations.  Think about a Representative in the House.  If a bill in the House could save his constituents money in 10 years but will cost them money this year, he would have to be reelected 5 times before his constituents would feel the actual benefits of that bill, but he would surely be held responsible for the cost.

If that representative’s constituents are totally on board with that bill, they may give him credit for his work in the short term.  But if it’s a contentious law and there is disinformation circulating, that vote could well cost him his job.

If the problem that bill solves is only a small one today, even if it’s going to get much bigger in the future, his constituents may resent him for imposing a cost to solve a problem that was not unbearable yet.  This is why Congress is a reactive, not proactive, body.

Climate change is a long-term threat with long-term solutions.  Unfortunately, we only have a short-term window to address it and it will impose short term costs.

It is the perfect storm of an issue that Congress really cannot handle.  It is exactly the type of issue that Alan Blinder was talking about.  That is why the responsibility of carbon regulation may well fall to the EPA.

Downsides to EPA Action

1. Limited Scope: EPA regulations, at least early on, would do very little to clean up our existing power plants.  Recall from the Tailoring Rule that these regulations apply only to new or upgrading plants (unless they release other Clean Air Act pollutants too).  Obviously, we would need to reduce our current emissions to meaningfully reduce our climate pollution.

2. Cost: Congressional action could achieve emission reductions more cheaply than the EPA regulations could.  If EPA establishes carbon regulations under the Clean Air Act, they will be traditional “command and control” regulations.  The EPA will dictate what emissions-reducing technologies are best, and mandate their use.

Instead of that approach, Congress could use more modern market-based initiatives like cap-and-trade to put a price on carbon.  This would spur innovation and let us achieve our emission reductions for less.  The EPA would mandate the use a current technology, with no incentive to develop better ones.

The cost factor and other differences between market-based initiatives vs. command and control regulations are outlined in this recent post.

3. It’s Not Enough: EPA carbon regulations would provide emissions reductions where we need them most – the energy sector.  But they couldn’t put a price on carbon, which is a vital step to achieving the long-term reductions necessary to avert the worst effects of climate change.

“The only way to cut emissions 80 percent by 2050 is to put a price on carbon, and the only folks who can do that are in Congress.” –David Bookbinder, Sierra Club.

4. Threat of Being Overturned: Legal challenges could slow the EPA process but probably not derail it altogether.  The real threat is that Congress could overturn anything the EPA does, as Lisa Murkowski has already attempted to do preemptively.

Conclusion:

By virtue of not having gone through Congress, EPA climate regulations would likely emerge looking more like a sound policy solution than anything Congress has ever produced.  However, these regulations would not be enough. Combined with a good energy bill, they could be part of a real solution, but we would still need some congressional action to truly address this threat.

A comprehensive climate/energy bill would be preferable to EPA regulations.  But if Senate conservatives block another climate bill, the EPA will take action.  It will at least be a long overdue step in the right direction.

Dethroning King Coal December 1, 2008

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change, Coal.
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3 comments

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.