Colorado incinerates, DC blows out: Is it climate disruption?

June 30, 2012

Did climate disruption cause that particular mess?

We have been fiddle-farting around with this wrong question to the point of distraction, if not lunacy.

So thank you David Roberts for grabbing the question by the scruff of the neck and talking some sense into it.  You nailed it.  Clamped and glued it.  Screwed it all the way down.  No one should ask it again.

Unless you’re in the middle of trying to extinguish Colorado or are still without power due to the freakishly intense DC thunderstorm last night, please go read David’s post.  There you will find more of this:

“If I find my kid next to an overturned glass and a puddle of milk and ask him why the milk is spilled, I don’t care about the neurons firing and the muscles contracting. That’s too proximate. I don’t care about humans evolving with poor peripheral vision. That’s too distal. I care about my kid reaching for it and knocking it over. That’s not the only level of causal explanation that is correct, but it’s the level of causal explanation that is most meaningful to me.”

Clean energy efficacy: “Can’t” meets its match.

June 28, 2012

Climate solutions are not tweaks.  They’re a revolution.

Bob Doppelt at the Resource Innovation Group argues persuasively that big changes – fundamental shifts in beliefs, practices, goals, and results – require 1) dissonance (“this isn’t working”) 2) efficacy (“yes we can”), and 3) benefits (“hey, this is profitable/fun/sexy”).   These are necessary preconditions for the transition from an ecosystem of denial to a culture of responsibility.

There’s work to do on all three points.  But efficacy might be our biggest collective challenge.  Without it, we suppress dissonance and get mired in skepticism about benefits.

It’s hard to imagine how we tackle climate disruption without collective action on an unprecedented scale.  But the traditional vehicles of collective action at the national and international levels seem locked up, captured, kaput.  Congress’ epic failure to deliver a national climate policy was only partly about climate; the bigger factor was the wheels popping off the institution.  Cynicism is rampant (and justified, but useless).

Systemic collective dysfunction is a boon to defenders of fossil fuel dependence, since the clean energy revolution requires loads of collective efficacy.  They’ll never convince us that their way is better, so they have to demoralize us into believing that there is no other way.  That’s why they’re working overtime to undermine confidence in the clean energy revolution and the government’s ability to accelerate it.

Call in the efficacy brigade, intrepidly spearheaded by Climate Solutions co-founder Rhys Roth!  It’s no coincidence that he shares his initials with Rosie the Riveter.   Dude oozes efficacy.  And for the last few months, he’s been pummeling skepticism about the clean energy revolution.  Check out his review of the National Renewable Energy Lab’s Renewable Electricity Futures Study.

“You ever talk with someone who thinks you’re starry-eyed and gullible because you think a renewable energy future can work? I’ve got your answer….”  Read the rest at the Climate Solutions Journal.

“How science works”: Appeals court upholds EPA authority to limit climate pollution

June 28, 2012

Big win!  A federal court of appeals in Washington D.C. upheld the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate climate pollution yesterday.   Good to see some arc in the moral universe.

There’s good coverage at Climate Progress and Grist.  (Update:  NRDC’s David Doniger, one of the heroes of the victory, has the word at NRDC’s Switchboard.)

My favorite quote so far is from the decision itself:

“State and Industry Petitioners assert that EPA improperly ‘delegated’ its judgment to the IPCC, USGCRP, and NRC by relying on these assessments of climate-change science. See U.S. Telecom Ass’n v. FCC, 359 F.3d 554, 566 (D.C. Cir. 2004). This argument is little more than a semantic trick. EPA did not delegate, explicitly or otherwise, any decision-making to any of those entities. EPA simply did here what it and other decisionmakers often must do to make a science-based judgment: it sought out and reviewed existing scientific evidence to determine whether a particular finding was warranted. It makes no difference that much of the scientific evidence in large part consisted of ‘syntheses’ of individual studies and research. Even individual studies and research papers often synthesize past work in an area and then build upon it. This is how science works.  EPA is not required to re-prove the existence of the atom every time it approaches a scientific question”  (emphasis mine, but it kinda sounds like the judges were leaning into it, eh?)


All oil is foreign

June 26, 2012

When the political class focuses on the perils of fossil fuel dependence, they almost always use the word “foreign” before “oil”.  This is redundant.  Oil is inherently foreign.  All of it.

Oil is foreign to democracy.  In an election cycle flooded by unrestricted political money, oil money stands out as the biggest gusher.  The Supreme Court struck down Montana’s law limiting corporate spending on campaigns yesterday, so the blowout of oil’s influence will remain uncapped for the foreseeable future.   In America and around the world, oil and freedom do not mix.  Because it concentrates wealth, facilitates abuse of power, breeds dependence, and crushes democracy, oil is fundamentally foreign to the American creed.

Oil is foreign to the atmosphere, air, and water. Burning oil releases about 85 billion pounds of CO2 to the atmosphere per day, all of which has been foreign to our climate for many millions of years.  The planet that existed when that carbon was aloft was a very different place, as foreign as, oh, Jurassic Park.  And some oil doesn’t get burned because it leaks out along the way, causing the waterways of home to turn toxic, hostile, and foreign (see Inside Climate’s blockbuster story on the underreported “Dilbit Disaster” in Michigan.)

Oil is foreign to economic security.  The U.S. has less than 5% of the world’s population, about 2% of proven conventional oil reserves, and consumes about 20% of the oil produced.  Prices are set on world markets and heavily influenced by oilogopolistic producers, regardless of where the oil comes from.  Those producers have us over a barrel as long as we need the stuff.

Oil is foreign to local economic vitality.   The overwhelming majority of Americans live in communities that are hemorrhaging economic resources in order to pay for oil.  Here in King County Washington, for example, our economy will lose north of $5 billion this year to fetch oil – roughly the size of the entire County budget.  A tiny handful of Americans live in communities where oil brings in more money than it sucks out.

Oil is foreign to the intergenerational contract.  Any economic value derived from expanded oil trafficking is confiscated from the many generations who will have to pay the exorbitant costs of living in an unstable climate.  They will not be amused.  Estimates of the economic value of unchecked climate change are enormous but fuzzy;  there is no satisfying way to monetize the intergenerational abuse.

Regardless of where they poke the holes, oil is not yours.  It’s not mine.  It’s not “America’s“.  It’s ExxonMobil’s and OPEC’s and the Koch’s.  Wherever the next fix happens to come from, they will use it to extract record profits, destroy the climate, and maul our democracy.

Drill here, drill there, it doesn’t matter.  The whole damned business is foreign to our national interests, to our values, to our future.

Got $60 worth of coal-in-the-ground? BLM will give you a buck and change for it.

June 21, 2012

Recent talk about leaving coal in the ground got me thinking:  What’s it worth there?

The question looms large in light of recent and imminent federal leases to extract a bazillion tons of coal from public land in the Powder River Basin (PRB)Critics of the practice note that Americans are being compensated for this public resource at well below its market value.

But if you don’t happen to be in the coal business, the market value of coal-to-burn pales in comparison to the vital functions of coal-in-the-ground (hereafter, “coal ITG”).

Undisturbed coal delivers enormous benefits, like long-term strategic resource security, and locking up mercury that otherwise floats around causing neurological disorders.  And the greatest value of coal ITG may be in the carbon it stores.  That carbon was once in the atmosphere, as a result of which the Earth was a sauna with much higher sea levels.

What’s it worth to continue living on Earth as it is, rather than in, say, Jurassic Park?  The value in the absence of large predatory reptiles alone is incalculable!

How might we estimate the value of coal ITG?  Bona fide wonks should respond.  But I’m going to take a quick hack at it, because the Bureau of Land Management is leasing the coal now.  We need to assess whether the lease revenues fully compensate Americans for the lost value of the coal ITG.

Determining this value raises tricky questions about how a unit of coal might be kept in the ground, and whether doing so would actually keep the equivalent greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere (“leakage effects,” etc.) But let’s suspend those questions for a moment and assume that coal ITG is carbon that’s not warming the climate. Because, you know, physically, it is.

One way to think about what coal is worth in the ground would be to assess how much it costs us once it gets out and gets burned.  EPA did just that in its regulatory impact analysis for new greenhouse gas standards.  They estimate the social cost of carbon dioxide at $24 per ton in 2015, escalating to $45 per ton in 2050 (using a 3% discount rate.)  Let’s take the middle of that range, since these coal leases go out for decades, and use $35 per ton of CO2.  Figure a ton of PRB coal produces 1.8 tons of CO2, so the carbon storage value of a ton in the ground would be north of $60.  (You can imagine other ways to calculate this value.  See “Further preliminary wonkery,” below.)

So where does BLM get OFF selling that $60 a ton public coal ITG for $1.11 a ton (the price of the most recent federal lease)? Their primary justification appears to be that it helps Americans get cheap electricity.  But the external costs documented in a landmark Harvard School of Public Health study at least double the cost of coal-fired electricity.  And this false excuse completely falls apart when the coal is being used for export.

Is there any legal and/or political way for Americans to prevent this looting of our minerals, this pillaging of our climate stability, this fracking of our future?   Can we hold the BLM accountable for fiduciary mismanagement of public resources?

Can we lay claim to the value of coal ITG, even if we have to buy our own damned coal back from the BLM so we can leave it in the ground? 

It’d be a steal at ten times the going price.


Further preliminary wonkery

You can imagine other ways of assessing the value of coal ITG, for example, by looking at:

Economic damages due to climate disruption, as the Stern Review did.  Divide the total damages by the amount of GHGs assumed to be released, and you can derive an associated value for coal ITG.  If you do it this way, you really ought to include the huge health costs of burning coal, as the Harvard School of Public Health did when they estimated external costs of burning coal for electricity in the U.S. at $175-523 billion a year.  We burn a billionish tons a year in the U.S.  Since PRB coal is relatively low in sulfur and ash, it’d be worth a little less than $175-523 per ton in the ground – using this method.

– Carbon markets:  If CO2 allowances were traded in a market that limited total emissions to levels consistent with responsible climate stabilization, how much would they go for?  Synapse did an analysis that came up with a mid-range estimate of $26 per ton of CO2.  Again, a ton of PRB coal produces 1.8 tons of CO2 when burned, so this gives us a carbon storage value of coal ITG of $46.80.  (This is conservative, since assumed carbon caps are too high to prevent catastrophic climate disruption.)

– Sequestration costs:  What if we can’t help ourselves — what if we just have to burn that coal and release the CO2?  What would it cost to put it back, permanently and reliably?  A Belfer Center study estimated the cost of first generation carbon capture and storage technology at $120-$180 per ton of CO2 avoided.  Again, multiply by 1.8 to get the value per ton of PRB coal ITG.

..I’m obviously only scratching the surface with a cooked noodle here; we can wonk around with this all day (and I do hope better wonks will).

Feds to NW on comprehensive coal export review: No, we’ll just sweat the small stuff

June 18, 2012

Some things are better with your eyes closed and your brain off.  In the case of coal export, it may be the only way to do it.

I don’t see the Northwest making a conscious, fully-informed decision to become a blighted industrial backwater (see, e.g., Newport News VA).  The impacts are too enormous.  The benefits are too small.  The violation of our values and identity is too stark.

That’s why proponents of coal export act like elephants wearing green felt hats, trying to sneak across pool tables without being noticed.  We would never choose a future as a coal depot, so the power and money of the coal industry is focused on trying to prevent well-informed decisions.  If they can administer a quick slug of general anesthetic, perhaps we can be knocked unconscious long enough for them to begin the operation – a future-ectomy procedure, in which our bright prospects are amputated and replaced by the long, dreary nightmare shovelling of coal into the furnaces of climate disruption.

Two knock-out drugs are already being loaded into the IV drip:  1) coal terminal permitting processes that would ignore sweeping cumulative impacts, and 2) stealth leases for billions of tons of coal from public lands

1) See-no-evil permitting:  Applications to build 3 coal terminals have already been filed, and at least 2 or 3 more are in the works.   The scope of environmental review for the permitting processes has yet to be determined.  But local decision makers in the terminal communities are reluctant to consider the full scope of effects – including cumulative impacts to communities and transportation systems in the rail corridor, the economic security and cost implications of exporting vast amounts of coal, and the significant contribution to climate disruption.  As a practical matter, even if these decision-makers try to consider all the relevant impacts, the people who bear many of the costs – asthma sufferers in Eastern Washington, say, or future generations hammered by climate disruption – are unlikely to be well-represented in the review of a dredging permit in Coos Bay or Longview.

Local and state officials are sounding the alarm, calling for a comprehensive, programmatic environmental impact statement to examine the cumulative impacts of coal export.  Governor Kitzhaber has been particularly clear and strong, insisting on a full, transparent, public review:

“It is imperative that the federal government take seriously its responsibility to make informed decisions, and that there be a comprehensive look at the energy, environmental, and public health impacts of these proposals before the nation commits itself to this path.”

The Army Corps of Engineers, as the lead federal permitting agency, is balking at the prospect, aiming to minimize the scope of its review under the National Environmental Policy Act.  We met with Army brass in the Pentagon last week to discuss the matter.  In a reply to Governor Kitzhaber’s call for a comprehensive federal review, Assistant Secretary of the Army JoEllen Darcy made it clear the Corps has a very modest appetite – limited to analysis of dredging, filling, sinking piles and such.  What about the impacts to freight mobility, public health, safety, and the habitability of Earth caused by these export facilities?  Not their department.

(We happened to be there on the birthday of the Army and the bicentennial of the War of 1812.  A tank in the Pentagon courtyard was shooting cupcakes, and the Blue Angels were prepping for a weekend aerial awe-fest.  Nothing – except their posture toward environmental review – bespoke modesty on the part of the United States military.)

Governor Kitzhaber, Senator Murray, Congressmen Smith and McDermott, and countless local officials and citizen groups have called on the federal government for a comprehensive environmental review – asking only that coal export be evaluated with eyes open to the full range of cumulative impacts.  Senator Wyden, along with Congressman Ed Markey, has asked the Administration for a clear and comprehensive policy framework on fossil fuel exports.

But so far, the word from the Corps to state and local leaders and citizens in the Northwest is:  Hey, don’t look at us, we just permit docks.

2) The great coal giveaway:  By all accounts, the Bureau of Land Management is set to issue leases for another few decades worth of coal extraction from the Powder River Basin.   If past performance is any guide, the federal government will sell the coal for a song.  Tom Sanzillo, former Deputy Comptroller of the State of New York, estimates that the market value of the coal leased from federal land over the last 30 years exceeds the price by nearly $30 billion.  (The value of the coal in the ground is much greater than the market price, so the heist of public resources is even more egregious.  We’ll scratch our heads about the value of the coal in the ground in a future post.)

BLM’s analysis of the costs and benefits of the prospective leases assumed the coal would be burned domestically.  The bargain was implied, and politically stable:  the coal industry took coal from public lands for next to nothing, and Americans got “cheap” electricity.  The merits of this bargain are debatable, especially in light of potential intergenerational contract violations.  But the industry now hopes to export much of the coal from these leases.  Whatever ambiguous value Americans have reaped from “cheap”, coal-fired electricity would no longer be part of the equation.

Let’s recap:  the Feds would lease public land for coal extraction for a pittance; the coal would be transported through our communities, imposing enormous costs domestically, and then shipped to Asia along with whatever benefits come from “cheap” coal;  to burn this coal, Asia would accelerate investment in coal-burning power plants which, over their lifetimes, would obliterate any chance for responsible climate stabilization.  So, come again, what’s in the deal for Americans who don’t happen to own coal companies or railroads?  With genuine respect for the folks who would get the few jobs building docks and moving coal, is this really a good deal for America?

Hush up, says BLM, the leases are a done deal. The agency has declined to undertake further review, despite the fact that their analysis assumed domestic consumption.  The Federal Government’s eyes are glued shut, and US taxpayers are sleeping with their wallets out and open.

No way this goes down if everybody wakes up and smells the looting.  But so far, zzzzzzzzz….

Sex is better with energy efficiency

June 14, 2012

Something  must be done about the abysmal marketing of energy efficiency.  Never has such a big energy story received so little love.

In the pie-throwing contest that passes for energy dialogue in our political culture, Solyndra gets the ink, while the biggest story by far goes unreported.   Keystone dominates the headlines, while new fuel economy standards languish in obscurity — even though they’ll save far more oil than Keystone will deliver and create more jobs, at a fraction of the cost.  Clean energy naysayers offer a rhetorical choice between a “Keystone economy vs. a Solyndra economy“, when the actual economy is running more and more on the energy we save through better codes, standards, and efficiency programs.

Here in the Northwest, for example, we have saved over 4600 average megawatts of electricity since 1980.  That’s more than enough to continuously power 4 cities the size of Seattle – and the Northwest only has one city the size of Seattle!  If we let the east side of the region have all the good stuff, these energy savings could power the entire states of Idaho and Montana.  But we would never do that, of course, because that would make Seattle and Portland dramatically poorer; that conserved energy, harvested from the whole region, is a gold mine, saving consumers about $2.5 billion-with-a-b annually on our power bills.

This is by far the biggest energy story in the Northwest over the last 30 years.  The saved energy has met more than half of the growth in demand, at a fraction of the cost of the power we would have otherwise bought.  It has extended the value of our regional hydropower system, squeezing more work – more cold beer, more hot showers, more data crunching – out of every drop of water in the system.

But there’s plenty more squeezing to do.  The Northwest Power and Conservation Council’s Sixth Plan lays out a cost effective strategy for meeting the vast majority of new energy needs with efficiency over the next 20 years.  Oregon’s new draft 10 year energy strategy aims to go all the way – meeting all load growth by wasting less of the energy we’ve got.

And even that’s not the limit.  We’ve got coal plants to replace too, and huge power plants of wasted energy – squandered Grand Coulees, Dalles that dribble away – in our existing building stock.  Thousands of megawatts of available, cheap energy savings. Thousands of jobs for the people who harvest them…  A robust, irresistible, smoking hot energy future, powered by renewables and juiced by efficiency.

(Can’t get enough?  See “More sex is better with energy efficiency” here.)