Environmentalists in Georgia lose fight to stop coal plant construction

Environmentalists fought a valiant fight to block the construction of the first new coal plant built in the state of Georgia in over 20 years.  The Sierra Club, Greenlaw, and Friends of the Chattahoochee argued that the state should not have granted permits to the plant that, while using more modern pollution controls, did not use the best available. 

The plant uses a dry scrubber instead of a more effective wet scrubber in order to remove the sulfur dioxide from the smoke, and no carbon dioxide limits would be in place.  Surprisingly, many of the local residents welcome the plant for the economic benefits it would bring to the area, without taking into consideration the amount of pollution and greenhouse gases that would come along with that. 

With the price of solar now very close to the price of coal plants, why are we still building these things?  It will take another five years to build in which time given the present rate of advancement in solar technology the plant will be hopelessly outdated and expensive to operate before it is completed. 

The environmentalists in Georgia lost this round; Judge Stephanie Howells issued an order affirming the states decision to allow the plant to be built.  Howells’ opinion is being appealed and the project manager for the new plant states he will not break ground until appeals are resolved. 

Coal Liquefication. What it means for your gas tank and the environment

Photo courtesy of efo at Flickr.com.

Coal Liquefication is a controversial technology that turns coal into a high carbon liquid. The resulting fuel can be substituted for gasoline in cars, trains, and planes. It’s controversial because the process that produces liquefied coal is energy intensive and it releases a lot of carbon dioxide during production and again when it’s burned. All told, a gallon of liquified coal has about twice the carbon footprint of a gallon of gas.

To put it another way, a Prius burning liquified coal will release as much carbon as a Hummer burning regular gasoline. Many environmental groups oppose Coal Liquification. If liquid coal replaced gasoline at the pump, the American auto fleet would have to become twice as fuel efficient just to maintain current CO2 emissions. Increased coal use could also accelerate environmental damage from coal mining.

Yet, there are reasons why Coal to Liquid (CTL) conversion is getting a lot of attention. As the price of oil hovers around $100 a barrel, there’s intense pressure to develop alternative energy sources. Coal mining employs a lot of people (~80,000 in the United States) and creating an industry that converts coal to fuel could create a lot of new jobs at a time when the US economy is sluggish.

Another reason why CTL is getting renewed attention – liquefied coal is a domestic energy source. Every gallon of liquid coal would replace a gallon of gasoline – and you may have noticed that we’re having trouble with several oil producing countries. There are balance-of-trade concerns that reinforce energy independence – lately our trade deficit has been one factor driving down the value of the US Dollar. The buying power of the petrodollar has experienced a sustained decline since 2003.

At the beginning of 2003, one euro bought one US dollar. Eighteen months ago, it bought $1.20. Now it is pushing $1.50, and there is no reason to think that it will stop there.

Despite climate concerns and technological hurdles, the US Air Force is already flying some planes using liquefied coal. And the technology is supported by some surprising faces:

Illinois basin coal has more untapped energy potential than the oil reserves of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait combined. Senator Obama believes it is crucial that we invest in technologies to use these resources to reduce our dependence on foreign oil.

Photo courtesy of rollerboogie at Flickr.com.

Promising Energy Bill No Longer So Promising

According to the new York Times, the new energy legislation bill clear the senate on Thursday, but only after the oil and utilities lobbies convinced Republican senators to cut out some of the most important aspects of the bill.

A $13 billion tax increase on oil companies and a requirement that utilities nationwide produce 15 percent of their electricity from renewable sources were left on the floor to secure Republican votes for the package.

The tax measure and the renewable electricity mandate were included in an energy bill that easily passed the House last week. But industry lobbyists focused their attention on Republican members of the Senate and on the White House, which repeatedly threatened to veto the bill if the offending sections were not removed.

The much weaker bill passed the senate 86-8. The bill now returns to the house where it is expected to pass easily. President Bush is reportedly pleased with the bill in it’s current form.

“We made sure that everybody knew our point of view – the White House, the House, the Senate,” said James Ford, director of government affairs at the American Petroleum Institute. “We told our story and told it thoroughly.”

Mr. Ford said that even with the tax provisions removed, the oil industry had concerns about meeting the bill’s requirement that 36 billion gallons of renewable fuels be blended into gasoline by 2022.

Now I personally believe that tax increases can be a powerful motivator to encourage corporations to move in the direction that benefit the public as a whole. In the preamble to the constitution and in article one section 8 it states that our governments job and our reason for levying taxes is to among other things, “promote the general welfare of the people”; not just the people in the oil industry.

That said I understand people opposing new taxes on pretty much anything; even though I don’t necessarily agree with that position I can understand it. But to take away the mandate to require 15 percent of electricity from renewable energy is beyond me. We need to move away from fossil fuels and we need to do so quickly; and the very nature of a large means that they cannot do such a thing unless there is a sound financial or legal incentive to do so.

So, if you disagree with this watering down of the energy bill write your senator a letter letting them know about it. We can’t blame our representatives for only listening to the lobbyist if the lobbyists’ are they only ones they are hearing from.

Hybrids Still May Not Be Financially Viable.

A recent Wall Street Journal article reported on the economic benefits to be found in buying a hybrid and from the looks of things there really isn’t much of anything.  The article states that:

Americans get a tax break for buying hybrids — the starting amount varies by model — but the more hybrids an auto maker sells, the smaller the tax break becomes on any hybrid models from that maker. After a manufacturer sells its 60,000th hybrid, the tax break starts to phase out

Well, in perfect world we wouldn’t need a government subsidy in the form of a tax break to make it make sense to buy a hybrid; but just in case you live in the same imperfect world I live in every little bit helps.

It seems that although hybrids are marginally more economical to operate due to the increased fuel efficiency; the higher sticker price tends to absorb any savings and then some.   For example:

Toyota’s Prius, which gets a leading 46 mpg combined but no longer qualifies for the tax credit, costs over $7,000 more than the auto maker’s compact Corolla. It would take nearly 18 years to recoup the premium, or more than twice the time you might expect to own it

They go on with a helpful chart that lets us know how equally disadvantaged the other hybrids in the group are. 

If we are going to depend on our government to make up the difference; well I don’t personally think that is the horse we want to bet on.  Now what may be  a more realistic plan is to start requiring better mileage and less emissions to the point that manufacturing has to keep up  to stay in the game but then we wind up with straining our already battered auto industry and inadvertently encourage more people to stick with older more polluting vehicles as they can now no longer afford a new car. 

I think the realist position is that if hybrids are in fact the answer; we aren’t there yet technology-wise.  The general population has proven time and again that in order for something like this to work it has to not put them at a financial disadvantage.  I always hope to be proven wrong on this.

Personal Sacrifice and the Environment

In this day and age it’s disturbing to think that Americans are not willing to make sacrifices in their way of life in order to help the environment.  Unfortunately a recent article in the Wall Street Journal states that:

A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll of 1,007 adults — conducted earlier this year by the organizations of Democratic pollster Peter Hart and Bill McInturff, his Republican counterpart — found that 34% of respondents said global warming was a serious problem and immediate action was necessary, up from 29% last year and 23% in 1999…But apparently, they are willing to make changes only if it doesn’t affect them too much. When the ABC News poll asked if they’d be willing to alter their lifestyle if it meant personal inconvenience, only 45% of respondents said they were very willing to make such a sacrifice. And just 31% said they were doing “a great deal” to reduce their energy consumption.

To me this means two things:

One; manufacturers are going to have to take into account when designing and marketing  more environmentally friendly products.   A car that gets great incredible mileage will only be successful if it pretty much drives the same as a regular car, hauls as much as a regular car, and drives as fast as a regular car.  The same goes for smaller products.  Take for example energy saving light bulbs; they function the same as regular light bulbs and people are starting to use them despite a higher price tag.  But getting people to buy an electric lawn mower that requires them to navigate around an extension cord and many people will take a pass.  It seems that price is less of an obstacle than inconvenience. 

Two; federally mandated improvements will need to be a big part of any kind of plan for environmental improvement.  I know too many people that kind of statement seems counter to the whole idea of smaller government but the article goes on to say:

Federal policies to combat global warming would draw majority support if they aren’t too costly, according to a survey of 1,491 adults conducted this year by Stanford University

The people seem to have spoken and they seem to say that they want someone else to do it; the government, as the peoples representative is that someone. 

While polls say that most people in the US and other countries now believe that human activity causes global warming the US is still behind the rest of the world in coming to that conclusion.  We still have a long way to go.