The Weekly Carboholic: new site calls out "clean coal" boosters

Posted on May 28, 2008

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carboholic

That coal is dirty is hardly a surprise to anyone who’s read about coal. Mining coal destroys mountaintops and towns as surely as it does the lives of the miners themselves. Burning coal emits more radioactivity than nuclear reactors do even when they have unexpected coolant releases. And the sulfur, mercury, and nitrogen oxides that exit the smokestacks of coal plants cause acid rain and heavy metal toxicity downwind of every coal plant that exists. And yet the coal mining industry and utilities are engaged in a public relations campaign to convince the world that coal can be clean. Last week I was pointed to two new sites that call out “clean coal” boosters: Coal is Clean and Coal is Dirty.

I’d like to say that the first is an obvious satire site, but when naive people take The Onion seriously (or this post here at S&R), I’m hesitant to use the word “obvious” for any satire. But “Ask Dr. Coal – Check out what Dr. Coal has to say about the health benefits of coal for you and your family”? Can that be anything but a spoof? Well, when you click on it, you’re smoothly redirected to Coal is Dirty’s page discussing mercury’s effects on children (brain damage and/or mental retardation), respiratory effects of pollution (asthma attacks), and what happens when you drink water contaminated by coal mine drainage water (rare blood cancers, for one).

The site is slick, and while I’ll admit to being someone who thinks that less dirty coal is a vital bridge technology from today’s coal and natural gas to the future of renewable, alternative, and clean energy, it’s good to see the Coal is Dirty team working hard to offset the financial clout of the utilities and mining concerns. Decisions about the future of coal power are too important to allow any side unfettered control of the flow of information.

(Thanks to A. Siegel of EnergySmart for putting me onto this story.)

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I consume about 3/4 of a a gallon of gas every day commuting back and forth the 13 miles between my home and my office. At the $3.89 per gallon I last paid for gas, that’s about $2.81 every day. That doesn’t sound like much, but it’ll add up to be about $87 for the month of May. My wife and I just recently calculated that it would be better for me to shift my entire work day an hour later come August when my daughter goes back into preschool because doing so would save the family about a gallon of gas every weekday, and at about $4.00 per gallon, that adds up to significant household savings really, really fast. According to a Wall Street Journal article last week, my wife and I are hardly alone in making these kinds of financial decisions. But, a with us, most people aren’t choosing to cut back on driving and shifting to compact florescent light bulbs because it’s the environmentally-friendly thing to do, but rather because it’s the economic thing to do. And the article has several good examples of this:

When electric utilities ask consumers whether they would be willing to pay more for power from renewable sources like the wind and sun, more than half the respondents typically say yes. The average participation rate in utilities’ optional “green” energy programs: about 2%, according to the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

“Everybody calls themselves environmentalists,” says Jeff Swenerton, a spokesman for the Center for Resource Solutions, a nonprofit group that advocates renewable-energy use. “But when it comes down to spending a bit more for these things, people just don’t do it.”

Wal-Mart’s chief executive, Lee Scott, says there are limits to the company’s environmental push — because many of Wal-Mart’s customers live paycheck-to-paycheck, unable to pay extra for chemical-free soap or organic-cotton T-shirts. “It’s not a matter that they don’t care about sustainability,” he says. “It’s a matter that they can’t afford to pay more.”

What’s worse is the fact that the last major price spike was followed by a price chasm that convinced Americans that energy was essentially free and that driving big, overpowered, gas-guzzling SUVs was the right thing to do. And at the end of the WSJ article, Arthur O’Donnell, executive director for Center for Resource Solutions, says he expects that, if energy prices plummeted tomorrow, we’d see the exact same thing:

“People would say the crisis is over and generally move back to their previous ways. I hate to be cynical, but that’s what I think.”

On the other hand, BusinessWeek has a more upbeat article about how the days of regular business travel are rapidly coming to an end as a result of high energy, and thus transportation, costs.

Whenever there’s an economic downturn, corporations slash their travel budgets. The International Air Transport Assn. is already reporting that business and first-class travel have experienced the biggest plunge in five years. Typically, when the economy snaps back, so do the business trips.

This time, though, certain types of corporate jaunts may be dead for good. Across the U.S., companies as varied as Advanced Micro Devices, Xerox, Cisco Systems, AstraZeneca, and Adecco are cutting internal business travel (grinding from corporate office to office) by as much as 50%.

That’s not to say all business travel is going extinct. Globalization has expanded workplace networks exponentially. We all need to collaborate with—and stay connected to—more people than ever. Still, a growing number of managers are thinking twice before jumping on a plane.

The article claims that large companies that had the largest internal business travel expenses are shifting to high-end web meeting and video conference technologies like Halo and TelePresence. Looking at the two sites, I can see how these technologies could dramatically cut the need for internal business travel – when the video resolution is good enough to enable you to read body language, and the sound quality is good enough to enable you to detect subtle stress in the answer to a question… tell me again why I need to travel?

While advanced video conferencing technologies are certainly expensive, they’re cheaper than paying for multiple meeting attendees’ plane tickets, food, lodging, and lost productivity due to time spent in transit and recovering from the travel. And while the economics of this transition may have been initially driven by the price of jet fuel, the savings are very unlikely to go away even if the price of oil drops again. And that’s good for the global climate as well as the economic well-being of corporations.

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In a related piece of news, the leader of Canada’s National Democratic Party, Jack Layton, was quoted in The Star as saying “Those advocating a carbon tax suggest that by making the costs for certain things more expensive, people will make different choices. But Canada is a cold place and heating your home really isn’t a choice.” Layton’s alternative? A carbon cap-and-trade system.

There’s a problem here that Layton doesn’t appear to understand – ANY system that caps carbon emissions will increase energy costs for everyone. A carbon tax does it. A cap-and-trade program does it too, just in a different way. And so Layton’s criticisms that a carbon tax “would place an unfair burden on low-income Canadians” suggests ignorance of carbon reduction fundamentals.

There are only a few main differences between a carbon tax and a cap-and-trade system. A carbon tax puts a legislatively-determined price on a ton of equivalent CO2, while cap-and-trade lets a trading market determine the price of emissions based on the difficulty of meeting the cap. A carbon tax doesn’t actually force emissions to fall like the maximum emissions cap does in a cap-and-trade system. A carbon tax produces income for the taxing authority while a cap-and-trade system produces income for the individuals and organizations engaged in trading tons of equivalent CO2. And finally, carbon taxes are likely to produce a stable price increase for energy, while cap-and-trade programs could produce wildly varying energy costs from one month’s bill to the next.

Carbon taxes and cap-and-trade programs each have their advantages and disadvantages, but both will hurt the poor. The question is how best to mitigate the pain for those citizens least able to absorb the financial injury that emissions pricing will cause.

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