When it comes to energy “we cannot be afraid of the future,” according to President Obama. But it would be a lot easier not to worry if Obama’s policies lived up to his rhetoric.
Instead, we get this: just a few weeks after Harvard Medical School researchers determined that the hidden costs of coal rack up to perhaps a half trillion dollars annually for the US public, the Obama administration decides to allow a staggering volume of coal strip mining in the eastern Rockies, and on publicly-owned land.
The newly leased public land is expected to yield 758 million tons of coal, enough to generate more than 1.3 billion tons of carbon-dioxide when burned. That’s more carbon pollution than all the energy—from planes, factories, cars, power plants, etc. — used in an entire year by all 44 nations in Central America, South America, and the Caribbean combined. Even worse, if mining interests have their way, a huge share of that coal will be exported to China where lax pollution controls are the norm.
You could be forgiven for thinking that President Obama isn’t aware of the horrific cost of that scale of coal mining. But that would be a bit odd, considering that just prior to the well-publicized arrival of Harvard Medical School’s new research, the National Academies found that the damages from burning coal for electricity are 20 times higher than the damages from natural gas, the next dirtiest (and costliest) fossil fuel used to produce power. And of course that report comes on the heels of the 2009 report from the National Academy of Sciences that US coal burning results in $60 billion in health costs alone.
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Neither National Academies study accounted for climate change-related damages, costs that may prove to be incalculable. Or as Obama has said: “There’s no longer a debate about whether carbon pollution is placing our planet in jeopardy. It’s happening… The consequences are dire.”
Yes. They are dire. And that’s thanks in large part to Obama.
Fun update!—It appears that the Obama administratin wildly exaggerated the economic benefits of coal mining. The Wyoming Tribune-Eagle reports: “[Salazar] said the sales would add between $13.4 billion and $21.3 billion to government coffers… The likely total is far lower, or the amount you get if you move the decimal point over one spot to the left… coal would more likely produce about $2 billion, nearly half of which flows to state coffers… Simple math illustrates the error.” The correction, by the way, was made by the mining industry itself. Oops.
Notes: I calculated 1.3 billion tons of CO2 by using figures characteristic of typical coal supplies in the Powder River Basin: I assumed the coal will, on average, generate 8,500 BTUs per pound with 212.7 pounds of CO2 per million BTUs. I did not factor in the substantial carbon impacts of methane release from mining, nor the costs of extracting, processing, and transporting the coal. So, the true climate bill is much higher.
Coal mining photo courtesy of flickr user fxp under a Creative Commons license.
I completely agree that coal should best remain in the ground, both for reasons of raising air quality, and lowering CO2. At the same time, I think it’s essential to add that the energy household deficit caused by coal’s exclusion cannot and should not be filled by proposals for 3rd and 4th generation nuclear power plants. That is, after all, also clearly the Obama administration’s explicit intention. AND why President Obama appointed Dr. Steven Chu, former director of the Livermore Lab in California and outspoken nuclear advocate, to lead his Dept. of Energy. Add to this confused mix the fact that the world’s greatest climate scientist, Dr. James Hanson, who is also by far the most articulate spokesperson against the use of coal worldwide, has come out strongly in favor of new nuclear plants. (see his new book, STORMS OF MY GRANDCHILDREN 2010)Luckily, there is a third way. This is the already 20-year-old program in Germany initiated by the late Dr. Hermann Scheer of Energy Autonomy. Energy autonomy as a matter of ethical and economic principle rejects the dependence on fossil fuels AND nuclear, while setting clear goals for both their phasing out and replacement by decentralized, highly sophisticated networks of renewable energy generation. More than 100 municipalities in Germany, both large and small, have already declared energy autonomy in this way. [At the root of these developments is the German Renewable Energy Act, the EEG. It started as a one page act passed by the German parliament in 1990. It was simple and based on three concepts: (1) Free access to the grid to all producers; (2) the obligation for utilities to purchase; (3) and guaranteed fixed prices for each producer in accordance with their cost of production and state of technology. SEE ALSO: Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! interviews Hermann Scheer: http://traffic.libsyn.com/democracynow/dn2010-1015-1.mp3
Amen to Clifford Crego’s observation. The answer to the cost profile is to decentralize energy generation and downsize the reach of distribution systems to be more appropriate to geo-physically determined sources. In some areas, wind power makes more sense than coal or natural gas, in others it’s hydro. Power development should be based on a first precept of local resiliency. In every case, some combination of LOCAL or REGIONAL sources is the only way to ensure resiliency in the system Every community should be allowed to assess what power sourcing and scale of generation makes the most sense for meeting their needs independent of any federal subsidies.Right now we have power and grid development being driven by federal subsidies, generated by narrow interests and their ability to fund political candidates or parties.Why else would we have Florida Power building wind turbines in the Columbia River Basin and shipping that power to California, at great expense to taxpayers all over the country? It’s corporate-driven fiscal insanity.Local resiliency, per the German model, is the only long-term solution that makes sense; but that means dis-empowering multinational corporations in our energy planning processes. Do we or can we have the political will to take that step?
I am afraid that the environmental movement has to divorce Obama, or at least take a trial separation. His policies are brutally conformist to the fuclear agenda (I just learned that word: fossil fuel + nuclear) despite his retoric and tiny gestures toward sustainables, as you so clearly illustrate with this piece, Eric.Thank you Cliff for the pointer to the “third way” and Dr. Scheer. I look forward to reading more.
So, what would be worse; run-away global warming or hundreds [thousands?] of new nuclear plants? Obama seems to believe that nukes are no problem and clean coal is just around the corner and what the Chinese do with our coal is not our problem.Of course, this is a global concern which the US cannot solve by itself. To this point, though, the US seems to trail more than lead, which is a real shame.
Reena Meijer Drees
Re: “Third Way”…I highly recommend reading “Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air”, a free book written by a Cambridge Physics Prof. Google the title and you’ll quickly find it. This book is free, readable, and gives an extensive overview of the scale of the energy problem we face. It’s a UK perspective, but quite applicable here as well. You might want to check your library for Vaclav Smil’s books as well – he’s a U Manitoba prof who writes extensively about energy in a very clear-headed way.Some scale factors: it takes 1000 wind mills (large ones, like those used in wind farms) to generate the same amount of power as 1 average power station (nuclear, coal, whatever). Since each windmill requires 0.7 km2, this is a huge swathe of land/ocean required to supplant a power station. You can’t just plunk this down anywhere, and building transmission lines is very expensive.Solar PV is even more space-intensive. An average household uses over 1000 solar panels’ (1.5 m2) worth of power – much more if you start adding electric cars (75% of Canadian’s power use is for personal transportation, according StatsCan). The duty factor of solar PV hovers around 3hrs/day here on the West Coast. It’ll cost you in the neighbourhood of $1/kWh to run solar PV. In Germany, the taxpayer is subsidizing solar PV in a big way through the legislated subsidies to which Mr. Crego alludes.A third way may be possible, but (as the German experience indicates) it costs. And from our experience here in BC as soon as you increase energy costs people start whining like crazy. We’re locked into a high-energy lifestyle that is very hard to change, both politically and practically. It’s not that I don’t want the change, but it’s pretty clear to me that this is not a cheap or easy problem to solve.
Georgie Bright Kunkel
Speaking of winning—some biggie once said that the one who wins the war is the one who has more survivors after the war.I would rather talk about preventing any further wars than worrying over is the winner of a war. Right?
” … I assumed the coal will, on average, generate 8,500 BTUs per pound with 212.7 pounds of CO2 per BTU.”Wow ! I really should have paid more attention in high school chemistry class. Maybe then I’d understand how one pound of coal will produce 1,807,950 pounds of CO2.Or maybe you could describe a simpler way that .758 billion tons of coal [mostly carbon] converts to 1.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide [carbon and oxygen]?
Eric de Place
John,As you probably guessed, I should have written “212.7 pounds of CO2 per MILLION BTUs.” I’ve corrected the footnote.I also re-checked my math and arrived at a slightly higher figure: more than 1.3 billion tons of CO2. The weight of CO2 is higher than the weight of the coal because, as we all know from chemisry, a CO2 molecule consists of two oxygen atoms bound to one carbon atom. Same reason a roughly 6 pound gallon of gasoline turns into 20 pounds of CO2 when combusted.
Also re: “The Third Way”…According to Arjun Makhijani’s book Carbon Free and Nuclear Free: A Roadmap for U.S. Energy Policy, “North Dakota, Texas, Kansas, South Dakota, Montana, and Nebraska each have wind energy potential greater than the electricity produced by all 103 U.S. nuclear power plants.” True, the wind farms would require a huge amount of land, but at least wind turbines could be sited on agricultural land that in large part stays in production. Certainly, the transmission lines would be financially costly, but what about the high costs of building reactors that are truly safe (if that’s even possible) or of safely storing spent fuel? You can download an executive summary (or the entire book) here:http://www.ieer.org/carbonfree/index.html
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