Archive for the ‘Coal’ Category

These Stories Are Not Related

via Wikipedia

via Wikipedia

Remember when Freedom Industries shut down Charleston, West Virginia by spilling thousands of gallons of a toxic chemical into the Kanawha River? Perhaps you were wondering what consequences might befall the company for poisoning the water supply for 300,000 residents of the state capital. Wonder no longer. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has fined Freedom Industries eleven thousand dollars – that’s $11,000 – for an incident OSHA itself described as one that could likely result in death or serious physical harm.

That draconian penalty is sure to impress the importance of environmental safety on the rest of the extraction industry.

Meanwhile, over in another coal-dependent state, state legislators worked themselves into a lather about new EPA carbon emission regulations. One Kentucky state senator illuminated the debate by informing us that “the temperature on Mars is exactly as it is here,” and pointing out that there are no factories or coal mines on Mars, so what’s the big deal, anyway? Not content with astronomical ignorance, another senator argued that just because the dinosaurs went extinct, we humans had no need to worry. “The dinosaurs died, and we don’t know why, but the world adjusted. And to say that this is what’s going to cause detriment to people, I just don’t think it’s out there.”  Well, okay then. If we humans die out, the world will adjust. Problem solved.

Come Christmas, some people might find a lump of coal in their stocking.


Block Here, Block There, Block Everywhere

via Wikimedia

via Wikimedia

Back in the beginning of June, the EPA released its long-anticipated guidelines for cutting carbon pollution from existing power plants. The guidelines, implemented after the administration grew exasperated with Congress’ inability to cobble together sensible regulations, are intended to cut carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants – the single largest source of such pollution in the United States. Power plants account for one-third of all domestic greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, according to the Agency. The Agency hopes to cut carbon emissions by 30 percent nationwide below 2005 levels which it says is equal to the emissions from powering more than half the homes in the United States for one year.

Nobody expected the coal industry to celebrate the new rules. And nobody expected the climate change deniers in Congress to roll over, either. And sure enough, the obstruction machinery is being fired up.

Bloomberg tells us that Republicans in Congress are determined to cut the funding necessary to enforce the new guidelines and prevent them from taking effect. They are preparing for a “pitched battle” over the carbon rules which they describe as “job killers.” John Podesta, the president’s top adviser on climate change, said last month that Republicans have a ‘‘zero percent chance” of stopping the rule. We’ll see. When it comes to blocking the administration’s environmental regulations, as with every other initiative from the White House, the congressional Republican caucus has shown itself to be as tenacious as a junkyard dog.

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

Via WikiMedia Commons

Via WikiMedia Commons

Rumor has it that North America may be energy independent within a few years.

Alternative energy sources like wind, solar, and biomass are contributing ever greater amounts to the nation’s energy bank. And the country’s traditional oil and gas industry is booming as it hasn’t in decades. Where the U.S. had become an energy mendicant, relying on unstable (and occasionally unsavory) sources overseas, the country is set to be a net energy exporter and will soon overtake Saudi Arabia as the globe’s top oil producer. Energy independence is a good thing. Weaning ourselves from middle Eastern oil reserves will bring market stability and reduce the temptation to secure our oil and gas supplies by force of arms.

But supplying the bulk of our own energy needs domestically presents challenges of its own.  Wind and solar electricity has to make its way from place where it is generated to consumers who might be thousands of miles away. The national grid is being upgraded but is not yet up to that task. Moving all the new oil and gas that’s flowing out of the various bonanzas around the country presents a whole separate category of problems. Quite aside from the environmental toll presented by hell-for-leather production in, say North Dakota or Alberta, just moving the stuff around the country safely and efficiently is a herculean task.

We generally think of oil and gas as flowing through pipelines. The Keystone Pipeline, which would bring tar sand oil from Alberta is a political flash point. Lots of people are questioning its safety, and for good reason. Exxon’s burst pipeline in Arkansas  and PG&E’s fiery pipeline failure in San Bruno are still fresh in the public mind.

But pipelines are not the only way oil gets around the country. Increasingly, it’s making its way to market by rail. And that’s proving to be a bit of a train wreck in its own right. Last month, the town of Casselton, ND had to be evacuated after a mile-long train carrying crude oil slammed into another train, resulting in thunderous explosions and a searing plume of toxic smoke. ABC tells us that this was the third accident in six months involving trains carrying North Dakota crude oil. In July, a train of 72 carloads of crude oil in Quebec derailed and burst into flames, killing  almost 50 people.

Coal, too, is being increasingly transported by train in the face of growing opposition.

It’s naive to think we don’t need the energy we’re pulling out of the ground with such new-found vigor. It’s also naive to think we could stop it being distributed around the country. But we shouldn’t think that energy independence is an unalloyed good. It presents a whole slew of problems of its own.

Treasury Department Quietly Kicks Coal to the Curb

via Wikimedia Commons

via Wikimedia Commons

Back in June, the administration released details of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan. One aspect of the plan is to tilt public financing towards clean energy and to end U.S. government support  for the public financing of new coal plants overseas.

The Department of the Treasury recently issued guidance on implementing that part of the president’s plan. The guidelines are intended to level the playing field for clean energy alternatives and to promote low-emission power generation. The plan accomplishes this goal by ending U.S. support for coal plant funding by multilateral development banks. From now on, the U.S. will not support such projects at all in wealthy countries unless they employ carbon capture and sequestration technologies. In the world’s poorest countries, the U.S. will support only the most efficient coal technology available and only where no other economically feasible alternative exists. The U.S. is the largest shareholder in development banks like the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, the African Development Bank, and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. While the U.S. is in no position to impose its policy on the banks by diktat, the new Treasury guidelines will likely exert considerable pressure to scrub coal plant funding from the banks’ agendas.

The U.S. isn’t going it alone in reining in funding for new coal plants. The World Bank itself has announced that it will limit financing for new plants to “rare circumstances” where countries have no alternative. The leaders of  Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden joined Obama in Stockholm in September in pledging not to fund any more coal projects.

The Treasury guidelines will have no effect on private financing, of course. And political pressure in favor of burning coal is intense, not just in the U.S., but in India and, of course, China – the world’s most voracious consumer of coal. Indeed, the Treasury action is a reflection of the intense political battle being waged in Washington, and arises out of Obama’s reliance on administrative measures to chip away at carbon emissions in the face of Republican obstruction in Congress. In this case, Obama and the Treasury appear to be taking a page from Teddy Roosevelt’s playbook: they’re walking softly and carrying a big stick.

One Casualty of the Economic Crisis: The European Cap-and-Trade System

Photo by Takver. Some Rights Reserved

Photo by Takver. Some Rights Reserved

The price of European carbon emission certificates has plummeted in the aftermath of the global economic crisis. This week the European Parliament narrowly voted down a bill designed to prop up the price per ton of carbon emissions in an attempt to keep the once-lauded program financially viable.

Cap-and-Trade has always seemed a jury rigged method of dealing with the principal driver of global climate change. A straightforward carbon tax would be a more transparent external cost but the political challenges of instituting such a tax have largely kept it off the table. The political difficulties have been compounded by the challenge of implementing carbon taxes globally – which country wants to walk into the propeller first? Cap-and-Trade at least had the virtue of being fungible; emissions banked in one country could be spewed out in another corner of the world.

Climate policy expert Felix Matthes, of the Institute for Applied Ecology, sat down to talk with Spiegel Magazine about the stark implications of Parliament’s decision, which he sees as the death knell for EU-wide emissions reduction. The ironic result, he says, will be a return to a national, rather than regional, approach to carbon reduction with serious consequences for global efforts to reign in emissions. Noting that while right wing politicians hope to undermine climate change policy entirely, and those on the left seek more regulatory protection, he still believes carbon trading is the most fruitful means of dealing with the global reach of carbon emissions. Unfortunately, the dramatically reduced energy consumption and industrial output following the economic crisis, combined with a glut of credits from China, have resulted in a flood of certificates on the market and a corresponding precipitous decline in their price.

Powering the Cloud

Photo by Michael Graham Richard. Some rights reserved.

As technology companies expand their cloud storage services, data servers around the country are expanding and increasing their energy consumption. Several media and advocacy groups have taken note of these huge facilities’ power usage, and this week Apple has come under the microscope. Grist raises concerns over Apple’s new data center in Maiden, N.C., citing Greenpeace estimates that the facility will draw 100 megawatts of power, and noting that its power provider, Duke Energy, is “coal-heavy.”

Their criticism is based on Greenpeace statistics estimating the portion of major technology companies’ energy coming from coal. In terms of overall reliance on coal, Apple is in the lead at 55%, above rival cloud service providers Microsoft (39%), Amazon (33%), and Google (28%). A map compiling related Greenpeace data shows 52 of the largest data centers in the country and how reliant they are on coal.

Apple, for its part, highlights its planned construction of on-site renewable energy plants near the Maiden, N.C. center, to include a solar farm and fuel cell installation from which it plans to generate 60% of the center’s energy needs. They would not be the first to explore new strategies for powering their data centers, though. As we have previously posted, in a data center in Taiwan, Google runs cooling systems at night to chill liquid coolant for use during the following day. The nighttime electricity is cheaper due to low demand, and the reduced daytime electricity usage eases pressure on Taiwan’s electrical grid.

To better appreciate the energy accounting of “cloud” storage, I would like to see an examination of the efficiency cost or gain of outsourcing our data storage from individually-powered hard drives in our homes around the country to a few massive data centers thousands of miles away.

Cooling Coal’s Jets

Photo by Ulrich McCowan MacDonald. Some rights reserved.

Check out the great map published yesterday by Mother Jones, which uses data from the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal project to map the status of various coal plants across the states (existing, progressing, or blocked). The accompanying article lauds the work that Sierra Club has done to toss out “two-thirds of 249 new coal plant proposals, avoiding more than 654 million metric tons of carbon that would have seeped into the atmosphere each year.”

According to the Sierra Club,  retiring one “dirty coal-burning plant” will prevent:

  • more than 29 premature deaths
  • 47 heart attacks
  • 146 asthma attacks
  • 22 asthma emergency room visits
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