Year 2, Month 3, Day 14: Coal Makes You Stupid (So Does Oil)

An Australian paper, the Mackay Daily Mercury, runs an article noting, unsurprisingly, that Australian coal companies are opposed to a tax on carbon. Well, they would, wouldn’t they? Industries are not known for taking the long view. If corporate charters were set up to encourage century-long thinking, a lot of things might have turned out differently.

Sent March 6:

It’s hardly surprising that higher-ups in Australia’s coal industry are opposed to a carbon tax. Despite their comprehensive and lavishly-funded denial of the facts of climate change, the multinational corporations which have made enormous fortunes from our species’ eagerness to consume fossil fuels are beginning to see the writing on the wall. They’re soon going to confront the limitations of the Earth’s resources and the laws of nature; we’re going to run out of oil and coal — unless the long-term consequences of the greenhouse effect bring our species to an evolutionary bottleneck first. The coal industry needs to be asking how to find ways to employ people once they’re no longer mining coal, not how to avoid paying taxes on carbon emissions. The days when economic actors could easily afford to disregard climatic warning signals are long past; our addiction to cheap energy has become a very expensive habit indeed.

Warren Senders

Year 2, Month 3, Day 4: And The Straw Boss Hollered ‘Well Damn Your Soul!’

The Courier-Press (KY) runs an article about another House Republican who’s gunning for the EPA. Because Kentucky is a coal state, this guy is in their pocket, and he wants to remove the EPA’s authority to regulate emissions in order to make the lives of the mining companies easier. Easier for Kentuckians who’re part of the profit chain from Big Coal, too — at least in the short run. In the long run? Don’t even ask.

The recent Republican attempts to defund or defang the Environmental Protection Agency are examples of short-term, politically-driven thinking at its most egregious. Rep. Whitfield knows perfectly well that the current Congress will never pass any legislation addressing the threat of global climate change, since a majority of its members were elected with the help of money from the petroleum and coal industries. The problem that we face is that the greenhouse effect is a result of the laws of physics and chemistry; climate change is inherently long-term and non-political. While muzzling the EPA may benefit Kentucky’s economy for a few years, does anyone seriously believe that the coal companies will really care about the state and its citizens once the coal’s all gone, the mountains are leveled and the streams poisoned? By carrying out the bidding of his corporate masters, Rep. Whitfield is doing a disservice both to his constituents and to the country as a whole; by treating the environment and its advocates as enemies, conservatives make a livable future for our descendants more and more unlikely.

Warren Senders

Month 7, Day 9: Even Though I’m Not A John Denver Fan

The Rainforest Action Network sent me an email. They’re apparently camping out in EPA administrator Lisa Jackson’s vicinity, letting her know that mountaintop removal mining is a Bad Thing. Which it is.

We’re here at the EPA today with a giant sound system playing Lisa Jackson her own words over and over at a deafening volume, mixed with the sounds of dynamite blowing apart mountains, and a little of John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” for good measure. We hope this intensely emotional soundtrack filling the halls of the EPA all day long will guarantee they hear us this time.

They requested me to go to their online action site and send an email. Which I did. I’m also going to print it and fax it/send it.

Dear Administrator Jackson,

There are many reasons to oppose mountaintop removal mining.  The obvious ones are local in essence: an MTR project means millions of tons of toxic debris winds up in the waterways; it means that what was once a flourishing forested area will be transformed into a blasted, dessicated moonscape; it means that once the project is over, local ecosystems and economies are blighted, perhaps beyond recovery.

Those are the obvious reasons.  The less obvious reasons are national and global in essence: America and the world need to stop burning coal as soon as humanly possible, because of the extraordinary amount of harm it does through increasing the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere.  The goal of the EPA should be what its name implies: protecting the environment.

There really is no good reason for green-lighting the Pine Creek MTR proposal, which is projected to destroy almost a thousand acres of pristine forest and over two miles of streams.  Please reverse your decision.  Mountaintop removal is a bad idea in every sense, and it is time for your agency to offer genuine stewardship instead of an “Environmental Protection Racket.”

Yours Sincerely,

Warren Senders

Month 4, Day 28: You Can’t Keep a Bad Gas Down

Posts like this one at DK allow me to sound like an expert. I am an expert — at sounding like an expert. If the US Government were to develop policies about Hindustani music, I’d be speaking from a genuine base of experience…but here? I’m just passing along what I read, rephrased and polished.

To the Secretary of Energy, with a cc to President Obama:

Dear Secretary Chu,

I was surprised and disappointed when you made public statements last year touting the possibility of “clean coal” as part of our nation’s energy strategy; your previous remarks characterizing coal as a “nightmare” were obviously unacceptable to the coal industry’s representatives, and it must have been an unpleasant experience having to sacrifice scientific integrity for the sake of political expediency.

A recent paper published in the Journal of Petroleum Science and Engineering significantly strengthens the case against carbon sequestration. Christine Ehlig-Economides and Michael Economides carried out simulation studies indicating that a closed underground reservoir may not be able to hold even 1% of its volume in injected carbon dioxide (CO2). They write:

“Published reports on the potential for sequestration fail to address the necessity of storing CO2 in a closed system. Our calculations suggest that the volume of liquid or supercritical CO2 to be disposed cannot exceed more than about 1% of pore space. This will require from 5 to 20 times more underground reservoir volume than has been envisioned by many, and it renders geologic sequestration of CO2 a profoundly non-feasible option for the management of CO2 emissions.

The authors further discuss Sleipner, a CCS project in the North Sea, noting that it has achieved only a fraction of the CO2 injection volumes required for a single 500-megawatt coal-fired power plant, and further more has experienced “significant leakage to overlying layers.” That is to say, the North Sea project isn’t holding what its proponents said it would hold — and it’s leaking.

Of course, CO2 leakage kind of defeats the purpose of carbon sequestration, doesn’t it?

But let’s say we could solve the leakage problem. Each year, a single coal plant makes about 3 million tonnes of CO2. Three decades adds up to ninety million tonnes, which, stored underground at 1,000 psi, would require an aquifer just slightly smaller than Rhode Island. The United States is a big country, but I don’t feel sanguine about finding six hundred or so storage locations of that size. Do you?

Ehlig-Economides and Economides conclude their paper by stating that geological CO2 sequestration is “…not a practical means to provide any substantive reduction in CO2 emissions, although it has been repeatedly presented as such by others.”

Can we please stop pretending that “clean coal” is likely to happen anytime soon? I strongly favor R&D funding of carbon sequestration technologies for the simple reason that research in this area is reasonably likely to turn up other approaches that may be useful in our fight against potentially devastating effects of high levels of atmospheric CO2. But it is increasingly obvious that the only way to safely sequester the carbon in coal is the simplest: don’t burn it.

Yours Sincerely,

Warren Senders

Month 4, Day 27: Truly Vile Stuff

Coal is dirty stuff. It’s dirty when you take it out of the earth, it’s dirty when you burn it, and the stuff that’s left behind is even dirtier. Google the phrase “coal ash waste” and you’ll feel like you’ve stumbled into a stomach-churning nightmare.

Bizarrely, the Environmental Protection Agency is still trying to figure out whether it should be classified as “hazardous” or not. On one side, the entire human race — on the other, the executives of big coal companies (of whom the odious Don Blankenship is the most repulsive example).

Thanks to Daily Kos diarist DWG, I was given an opportunity to make my letter for the day a note to OMB director Peter Orszag, urging that the EPA move forward on regulating coal ash. You should do it, too!

2. Urge EPA regulation of coal ash as a hazardous waste.

The EPA will announce its decision on regulating coal ash as hazardous waste in April. At the moment, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is holding up the release of new regulations. The OMB and EPA are being barraged with pleas from the coal industry, utilities, business groups, state regulatory agencies, and politicians opposing classification of coal ash waste as a hazardous material. It would be extremely helpful if you would take a moment to drop a line to the OMB to encourage them to move forward with regulation of coal combustion waste as a hazardous material. Remind them that the patchwork of state regulatory agencies has failed to protect the public against spills and contamination, there is overwhelming evidence of heavy metal toxic contamination in water on or near containment sites, and secondary uses need to be tightly regulated using a national standard to prevent contamination of water resources.

Use this form from the Natural Resource Defense Council to provide feedback to the OMB.

Here’s what I wrote:

I write to urge that the Environmental Protection Agency move forward in regulating coal ash as hazardous waste.

There can be no doubt that coal combustion waste is incredibly dangerous. The scientific evidence is incontrovertible. Among the sources is the EPA itself, which recently found that pollution from coal ash dumps significantly increases both cancer and non-cancer health risks and degrades water quality in groundwater supplies. After examining almost two hundred sites throughout the country, the report found that unlined coal ash waste ponds pose a cancer risk 900 times above what is defined as ‘acceptable.’ The report also found releases of toxic chemicals and metals such as arsenic, lead, boron, selenium, cadmium, thallium, and other pollutants at levels that pose both environmental and human health risks.

This information alone should be enough to move coal ash waste into the “hazardous materials” category. But there’s more.

Coal contains trace amounts of the radioactive elements uranium and thorium. In “whole” coal they’re not a problem, but when coal is burned, the fly ash contains uranium and thorium concentrated to up to ten times their original levels.

In a 1978 paper, J. P. McBride and his colleagues at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) estimated fly ash radiation exposure around Tennessee and Alabama coal plants and compared it with exposure levels around nuclear power plants — and they found that people living close to coal plants got significantly higher dosages of radiation than those living around nuclear facilities. Depending on local factors, radiation doses were anywhere from three to two hundred times higher.

State regulatory agencies have utterly failed to protect the public against spills and contamination. When coal ash waste dams collapse, the effects are absolutely devastating, leaving behind barren, grotesque landscapes from which all life has been eradicated.

The notion that any controversy exists at all about the hazardous qualities of coal ash is bizarre. If Don Blankenship and the Board of Directors at Massey Coal think it’s such benign stuff, perhaps they could store it in the basements of their mansions — but somehow I don’t think they’d go along.

Please ensure that coal ash is designated a Hazardous Material, and likewise ensure that its storage is strictly regulated, with significant penalties levied for violations. If coal companies actually had to pay fines appropriate to the damage their waste products do, the myth of coal as “cheap energy” would vanish overnight.

Warren Senders

Month 4, Day 13: Not King Coal

I read a terrific piece at Kos about a politically viable strategy for weaning the US off its terrible coal addiction. So I appropriated a chunk of the piece, shuffled the clauses around, changed some verbs and punctuation, filed off all the serial numbers, and I’m now going to send it off to the Senators in charge of the climate bill.

Dear Senators Kerry, Lieberman and Graham,

As the recent tragedy in West Virginia reminds us, coal mining is a dirty and dangerous business. The true cost of coal includes places like Southeast Ohio, where even the cows have cancer; it includes hundreds of thousands of cases of black lung disease, and it irrefutably includes huge CO2 emissions which lead to global warming. And yet, these factors are never considered when we think of how “cheap” coal is as a source of energy.

In the long run, America needs to stop burning coal, and it needs to stop burning oil. The hidden costs of fossil fuels aren’t going to stay hidden much longer, now that the polar ice caps are melting and catastrophic climate change is just around the decadal corner. On the other hand, it’s not politically or economically realistic to think that we can start decommissioning these coal fired plants any time soon. A switch to natural gas would lead to massive price hikes in that commodity, creating conditions for poor people to freeze to death, and US agriculture’s total dependence on fertilizers created with natural gas would mean that food prices would closely track heating costs.

If we are to accomplish a lessening of CO2 emissions from the US energy system, we must be pragmatic. The legacy of coal and natural gas-fired electrical capacity is both a burden and a blessing. We need to focus on using coal and LNG as part of a strategy to integrate renewables into the electric grid — on thinking of renewable electricity is a way to conserve our fossil fuel resources rather than as a way to replace them. If every megawatt of power produced from renewables can keep a megawatt of coal or gas fired capacity offline when it’s available, we can start reducing our country’s grossly disproportionate carbon footprint.

If this strategy is coupled with a vigorous national push to reduce energy wastage, we might have an energy policy that actually accomplishes something. What we don’t need is a “political solution,” where our CO2 emissions are simply augmented with a lot of hot air.

Yours Sincerely,

Warren Senders

Month 4, Day 5: Sticker Shock

This is, plain and simple, horrible news.

I wrote the following letter to the Boston Globe.

While the Shen Neng disaster is tragic enough for its implications to the world’s largest coral reef and its unique ecosystems, it is also a warning: we need to understand the huge hidden costs of so-called “cheap energy.”

The Chinese coal ship could just as well be a picture of miners with black-lung disease, or a Tennessee village destroyed by a broken coal ash dam, for these tragedies are undeniable costs of the coal we burn. It could just as well be the loss of the polar ice cap, or the terribly devastating storms triggered by global climate change, for these are unacknowledged costs of our addiction to oil. Until our economic models include these factors in the price of our energy (along with the expensive wars we wage to protect our sources), we will be living obliviously and unsustainably. With catastrophic climate change looming on the horizon, it seems clear that our fossil-fueled paradise will soon be going the way of the dinosaurs.

Warren Senders