King Coal Wants to Keep His Crown

There's a lot of pressure in the U.S. at the moment, on several fronts. The presidential race is heating up, just as the economy is taking a steep dive:

"Unfortunately they have no power to reverse what in my opinion is the worst post-war recession," said Michael Metz, chief investment strategist at Oppenheimer in New York. -- BBC
Meanwhile, in the midst of this 'climate', some of the richest, most powerful industries are shifting nervously in their seats -- notably Big Coal and Big Oil. In the wake of the IPCC report, public opinion is playing catch up with science and this is translating into increased concern over our old-fashioned, embedded energy choices. The practical outcome of this shift in public understanding has been evidenced by major obstacles being put in the way of new coal-fired power plants for Washington state, Florida, Kansas and Texas.

Some voters are responding. In truth, 2008 is the year of the coal reckoning. The construction of new coal-fired plants are being fought in nearly 30 states across the county. Take Kansas... Thanks to a citizen’s movements, that so-called red state became the first in the nation to reject efforts to build more coal-fired plants, due to considerations of carbon dioxide emissions. Across Appalachia and the South, an extraordinary crossover campaign of citizens groups have launched one of the most aggressive anti-strip-mining movements in history. Their campaign has gone national... -- CommonDreams
Few monarchs have ever stepped down from a position of power willingly, and King Coal is certainly no exception, and he certainly has the weapons of warfare with which to preserve his place in the market: political connections, and money. Knowing that the push against dirty fuels will only snowball, the coal industry is not content to sit idly, watching profits get diluted as funds are redirected towards a cleaner, greener future.
A group backed by the coal industry and its utility allies is waging a $35 million campaign in primary and caucus states to rally public support for coal-fired electricity and to fuel opposition to legislation that Congress is crafting to slow climate change.

The group, called Americans for Balanced Energy Choices, has spent $1.3 million on billboard, newspaper, television and radio ads in Iowa, Nevada and South Carolina.

One of its television ads shows a power cord being plugged into a lump of coal, which it calls "an American resource that will help us with vital energy security" and "the fuel that powers our way of life." The ads note that half of U.S. electricity comes from coal-fired plants. -- Washington Post

The lobbying group doesn't hesitate to be disingenuous in its marketing campaign either:
The ads being run by Americans for Balanced Energy Choices talk about "clean coal." New power plants are cleaner than they used to be because they must meet more stringent federal regulations limiting such pollutants as nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide. But climate change is linked to carbon dioxide emissions, which are not yet regulated; those emissions have dropped more modestly as plants have become more efficient.

The group's newspaper ads avoid that distinction. They say that today's carbon-fired plants are "70 percent cleaner based on regulated emissions per unit of energy produced." That does not refer to carbon dioxide. -- Washington Post

The brilliant marketing shill, "clean coal", is of course used at every opportunity. Proposed new plants would be built "carbon sequestration ready" -- meaning that if the ability to capture and store the plant's CO2 emissions is ever developed to the point where it's safe (i.e. won't leak or get 'burped' out of geological formations or be subject to mass release through a rupture from, say, an earthquake), affordable (it's become increasingly clear that carbon capture will only get implemented with massive taxpayer funding, see here, here, and here) and scalable to the quantities required (see quote below), then it'll get incorporated. The lobbying group is very enthusiastic about the readiness of such technologies, but they rank amongst the very few that are.
The hurdles to implementation [of CCS] are largely ones of integration at scale. Current possible scenarios of climate change predict that by 2030, the level of CO2 to be mitigated could be 30 billion tons per year or more. Sequestering [only] 5 billion tons of CO2 each year would entail pumping volumes close to 100 million barrels per day of supercritical CO2 into secure geological formations. - Facing the Hard Truths About Energy, National Petroleum Council, Chapter Three, page 178 (emphasis added - and remember 5 billion tons is only 16% of the CO2 they expect will need to be captured by 2030)
Even the coal industry itself admits that carbon capture and storage is not, in fact, ready for implementation -- that is, they admit this when trying to justify why carbon capture and storage is not being used on new plants today, as opposed to when they're lobbying for public support for building them. Referring to Senator Hillary Clinton, one of the founders of "America's Power", an alliance of coal and energy companies, said:
Hillary recognizes that new power plants using coal can’t be expected to put carbon capture and storage technologies on that don’t yet exist. -- CommonDreams
These contrary, targeted, 'forked tongue' statements are not constrained to the U.S. only, of course -- as George Monbiot discovered:
Aha, you say, but what about carbon capture and storage? When governments use this term, they mean catching and burying the carbon dioxide produced by burning fossil fuels. It is feasible, but there are three problems. The first is that fossil fuels are being extracted and burnt today, and scarcely any carbon capture schemes yet exist. The second is that the technology works only for power stations and large industrial processes: there is no plausible means of catching and storing emissions from cars, planes and heating systems. The third, as Alistair Darling, then in charge of energy, admitted in the House of Commons in May, is that the technologies required for commercial carbon capture “might never become available”.... (The government is prepared to admit this when making the case - as Darling was - for nuclear power, but not when making the case for coal). -- George Monbiot
Meanwhile, Huffington Post contributor, Jeff Biggers, brings the political aspect to the fore:
Let’s face it: Every single presidential candidate with a veritable chance at victory, Democrat and Republican, is in the hip pocket of King Coal. -- CommonDreams
While the 'Americans for Balanced Energy Choices' (ABEC) team may paint a polished veneer over their intentions, our good friends over on DeSmogBlog have managed to secure a copy of the ABEC request for proposals it used when approaching, with a view to commissioning, PR agencies in Nevada. The document makes clear that U.S. energy security and public and environmental health are not the priority:
As part of ABEC’s broader, national communications campaign, a primary objective is to defeat unreasonable regulations that negatively impact the industry. ABEC will look to the PRA [public relations agency] to assist in implementing communications strategies and tactics designed to assist in defeating such regulations when/if they arise. -- DeSmogBlog
There is some truth in what King Coal has to say, however -- and that's specifically in regard to how dependent we are on the coal industry. Merely saying "no" to new coal fired power plants, without a serious look at our energy options, and, significantly, our pattern and rates of consumption, will most certainly see us painting ourselves into a very dark corner. Coal is the largest supplier of energy on the planet at the moment, and if we maintain our present course its usage will continue to grow along with our energy demands. Replacing it, although a necessity, is not an easy ask.

Across the Atlantic, Nick Cohen, writing for the Guardian, is pondering these same problems -- an impending recession in the UK compounded by a looming energy crisis. He asks a very good question:

Is, for instance, today's commitment to environmentalism a luxury? Like expensive holidays and restaurant meals, will it be one of the first casualties of a recession? -- Guardian
But supplies a very bad answer:
Blame the greens when the lights go off

Environmental campaigners will face a backlash if they do not drop their hardline attitude to energy -- Guardian (emphasis added)

What about the backlash from millions, even billions of people because we've failed to overcome industry influences and political cronyism to take solid action against climate change? I'd rather sit in the dark than face riots in the streets as food and water shortages and deadly heat take their toll on our most basic requirements. You can't eat money, and money can't buy food and water if it isn't there to be had (remember the tales of WWI Germany where wheelbarrows of money were said to be needed to buy bread). In this respect, when you weigh up the likely outcome of persisting with business as usual, a recession starts to look a whole lot more appealing.

But, it doesn't need to be like this. It'll be hard work, but we can have our cake and eat it too. Indeed, life could even get better for many of us. A little objective political action, combined with common sense and enthusiasm, can bring a major shift in the power energy balance. Objectivity is the key word here! The short term vested interests of a wealthy minority cannot continue to get a disproportionate level of taxpayer-funded subsidies attention.

David Cay Johnston, New York Times investigative reporter, would likely have something to say on this issue. He's just released his book, 'Free Lunch: How The Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves At Government Expense (and Stick you With the Bill)' (this very interesting podcast interview with David is well worth a listen). When facing the issues of climate change, energy security and the potential for a recession, it's worth looking at root causes, and also solutions that address all three.

While the U.S. federal government is selling out to corporate interests, some nations are looking ahead. As we posted today, Germany looks to be on the high road to full renewable implementation, having made use of sensible policy measures that incentivise their use, despite protests from their own historically embedded energy industries. Although this on its own will not be enough, it's a great start. These actions also need to be partnered with a change in our way of working, a change in our priorities and an emphasis on building solid relocalised communities. Our economy, as it stands, is based on rampant ever-increasing consumption -- consumption that's managed, fostered and gorged on by fewer and fewer ever-growing transnational corporations. Our consumption habits seriously need revisiting, and, incidentally, this is where the head of the 'Americans for Balanced Energy Choices', the afore-mentioned coal industry lobbying group, also speaks one more truth:

Yes, we do need to be more energy efficient," Lucas said. "But even as we become more efficient, we're plugging more things into the wall. -- Washington Post
Rampant consumption cannot last with seven billion people on a finite planet. Ultimately, the true measure of a nation's 'wealth' needs to be the health, happiness, freedom and security of the individuals and families within it.

As Celsias contributor, Joe Brewer, has expressed, the market does not have a brain, or morals. If left to themselves individual entities, businesses, will inevitably put their own gains above the public good (and make a mess -- like children without supervision...). If you add to this industry inroads into politics themselves, causing a 'free market' to not be free at all -- but biased towards the biggest most powerful players in the marketplace -- then we see our economic system is not only an environmental failure, it's also a failure of democracy and basic human decency.

I'll likely get called a left wing nutter by some for making these statements, but the environment and its unchanging natural laws does not tailor itself to political or economic ideologies. We must tailor economics around nature, or face ecological rejection. History is strewn with the carcasses of former civilisations that have failed to adapt to resource constraints.

We can wait for an even more desperate environmentally imposed depression to hit the world, or make use of the window of opportunity before us.

Sorry King Coal, but time's up -- you've got to go.

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  • Posted on Jan. 22, 2008. Listed in:

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