The DIRTY Facts on Coal

Posted: September 18, 2010 in GREEN, Table Of Contents, TRUTH / Occupy
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> The Climatic Consequences of Coal: Nebraska’s Role
> by Bruce E. Johansen
> Why coal? Why here? Why now?
> As the dirtiest and most pervasive fossil fuel, coal is the linchpin of global
> warming.  Continuing to burn coal to generate electricity all but guarantees
> we will face catastrophic changes in our climate. Nebraska has no coal
> resources of its own.  But our role as a transportation corridor from the
> strip mines of Wyoming¹s Powder River Basin has made our state the nexus for
> coal trafficking in North America‹putting us on the frontline of the battle
> over a new national energy policy.
Omaha has served as the headquarters of the nation¹s largest railroad, the
> Union Pacific, since its founding.  With Warren Buffett¹s recent purchase of
> the Burlington Northern/Santa Fe (the second-largest railroad in the country),
> however, this Nebraska city has now become the financial center for America¹s
> railway industry.  Both the U.P. and the BNSF earn about 20 percent of their
> freight revenues from hauling coal, giving them a direct financial stake in
> policy discussions in Washington.
> Union Pacific and Climate Change
> Not surprisingly, the U.P. has been no fan of climate change legislation.  The
> company itself spent $3 million on lobbying through the first eight months of
> 2009‹the bulk of it opposing the Waxman-Markey ³American Clean Energy and
> Security Act² passed by the House of Representatives climate bill last summer.
> But the U.P.¹s national influence runs far deeper.

> Tom Donohue, the national president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (which has
> adamantly opposed legislation to curb global warming), is a member of U.P.¹s
> Board of Directors.  The U.P. has paid more than $1 million in retainers to
> Donohue, a board member since 1998.  He also has been granted more than 43,000
> shares of Union Pacific stock, and is entitled to nearly 20,000 more shares
> when he leaves the U.P. board‹a combined value about $3.8 million at today¹s
> share prices.

> The U.P. has also given $700,000 to the U.S. Chamber since 2004, including
> $500,000 to the Chamber’s “Leadership Fund” (a common name for its political
> action committees), plus $100,000 to a voter-education project in 2006, and
> $100,000 to an award ceremony in 2007.

> ³What is the connection between Union Pacific Railroad, dirty coal and the
> U.S. Chamber?² Pete Altman of the ³Natural Resources Defense Council² asked in
> a blog last fall.  ³The dots connecting them draw what has the appearance of a
> conflict of interest.²
> So What¹s the Matter with Coal?

>              Nebraska is the only state in the U.S. with a 100-percent public
> power system.  One might think of that as progressive, but it¹s been
> Œbusiness-as-usual¹ when it comes to energy use‹which means burning lots of
> coal.  Alternative power here has lagged seriously behind the rest of the
> country.  In Omaha, two-thirds of Omaha Public Power District¹s generation
> comes from coal (nearly all of the rest is nuclear).

> OPPD¹s and the Nebraska Public Power District¹s current goals call for wind
> energy making up no more than ten percent of their total portfolio by 2020,
> despite a recent poll (funded in part by the ³Center for Rural Affairs²) in
> which 79 percent of respondents urge 20 percent or more.  Iowa¹s private power
> utilities, in comparison, are doing far better.  Nebraska¹s Public Power

> Districts have obviously been wooed not only by the fact that Wyoming coal is
> deceptively Œcheap,¹ but plentiful.

>            Ninety percent of the Earth¹s remaining fossil-fuel reserves, in
> fact, are in the form of coal.  For nations with large populations (such as
> China which controls 43 per cent of remaining reserves) coal is the fuel of
> choice.  During the 1980s, China passed the Soviet Union as the world¹s
> largest coal producer, and its generation capacity has continued to grow.  The
> People¹s Republic built 114,000 megawatts of coal-fired power in 2006 and
> 95,000 more in 2007.

> From a Œgreenhouse gas¹ point of view, however, coal is the most deadly of the
> fossil fuels, producing roughly 70 percent more carbon dioxide per unit of
> energy generated than natural gas, and about 30 per cent more than oil.  It
> also poses environmental problems other than carbon emissions.  The mining of
> coal produces methane.  Its combustion produces sulfur dioxide and nitrous
> oxides, as well as carbon dioxide.  And the transport of coal‹something of
> particular relevance to Nebraskans‹usually requires more energy than any other
> fossil fuel.
> Coal and Carbon Dioxide
> Coal is the source of half the electricity generated in the United States.
> Climate activists have concluded that reliance on coal must be reduced sharply
> if the proportion of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is to be reduced to safe
> levels (which celebrated climatologist James E. Hansen, director of NASA¹s
> Goddard Institute for Space Studies,  and other scientists have defined as 350
> parts per million).

> Why is 350 p.p.m. so important?
> Studying the climates of the past can provide clues to the future.  At 380
> parts per million, we already have reached the carbon-dioxide levels of the
> Pliocene (3 to 4 million years ago), when the Earth had very little
> long-lasting ice, and sea levels were about 100 feet higher than today.

> Allowing for what climatologists refer to as Œthermal inertia¹‹the roughly 50
> years it takes for carbon dioxide in the air to transform into a greenhouse
> gas (100 to 200 years in the oceans)‹we may be well on the way to replicating
> the conditions of the Pliocene.  This should be cause for concern among the 1
> billion people on Earth who live within 100 feet of sea level.
> ŒThermal inertia¹ is central to global warming.  In general terms, it involves
> the amount of time required for an action that provokes warmth (such as
> carbon-dioxide emissions) to reach a given temperature in the atmosphere and
> oceans.  For example, a frozen turkey placed in an oven at 350 degrees F. does
> not cook instantly.  It takes a while for the temperature of the thawing
> turkey to reach equilibrium with that of the oven.  In the same sense, a large
> body of cold water is more Œthermally inert¹ than the warmer atmosphere above
> it.  This heat exchange works both directions.  Even after the outside cause
> producing temperature increases in the atmosphere (such as burning coal for
> fuel, for instance) is reduced or removed, the lingering inertia in heated air
> and ocean persist.  Lack of understanding of thermal inertia‹with its delayed
> impact‹partially accounts for why many climate skeptics are convinced that
> global warming is not occurring.
> The Window for Action Is Closing
> In the meantime, the ratio of carbon dioxide in the air continues
> to rise 2 to 3 parts per million per year, and a large proportion of that
> increase is from new coal-fired power.  China, which has become the world¹s
> largest producer of wind turbines and solar panels, also is also bringing
> on-line one new coal-fired power plant on an average of every two weeks.

> Author and activist Bill McKibben is the co-founder of
> <> , an activist group that works to publicize the need to
> bring down greenhouse-gas levels.  The coal question is central to its
> mission.  But with Congress and the largest member states of the United
> Nations dragging their feet on addressing the climate crisis,
> <>  ³messengers² like McKibben, Hansen, Archbishop Desmond Tutu
> and Rajendra Pachauri (who shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore) are
> worried that we¹re running out of time. Letters and phone calls are still
> important, but we have no choice but to Œtake it to the streets.¹
> In a widely circulated Œopen letter,¹ McKibben and the legendary
> conservationist Wendell Berry called for massive protest at the ³Capitol Coal
> Plant² in Washington, D.C. back in March 2009.  Driven by the conscience and
> the urgency of their mission, Berry, Hansen and McKibben all publicly faced
> the prospect of arrest for participating in the nonviolent protest against
> coal burning.

> ³There are moments in a nation’s‹and a planet’s‹history,² they stated in part,
> ³when it may be necessary for some to break the law in order to bear witness
> to an evil, bring it to wider attention, and push for its correction.  We
> think such a time has arrivedŠ We have our bodies, and we are willing to use
> them to make our point. We don¹t come to such a step lightly.  We have written
> and testified and organized politically to make this point for many years, and
> while in recent months there has been real progress against new coal-fired
> power plants, the daily business of providing half our electricity from coal
> continues unabated.  It¹s time to make clear that we can’t safely run this
> planet on coal at all.²

> The industry claim that there is something called Œclean coal¹ is, they go on
> to state, is ³simply, a lie.²  ŒClean coal¹ is a public-relations
> gambit‹whereby carbon dioxide can allegedly be removed (sequestered) and
> stored underground, or in some cases, under the ocean. The oceans already have
> been overloaded with carbon dioxide to a point where their acidity has been
> increasing, imperiling animals with calcium shells that erode in overly acidic
> water.

> Present technology allows only carbon capture that suffers two debilitating
> problems.  First, it is expensive, adding roughly a third or more to the cost
> of generated power.  Secondly, it requires so much additional energy that it
> nearly defeats its own purpose.  Without technological breakthroughs, coal
> capture remains an industry public-relations stunt, and nothing more.

> A call, accordingly, has been rising for a moratorium on new development of
> coal-fired power because of its climatic consequences.  James Hansen has
> proposed such a moratorium until technology for carbon-dioxide capture and
> sequestration is available. About a quarter of power plants¹ carbon-dioxide
> emissions will remain in the air ³forever², i.e., more than 500 years, long
> after new technology is refined and deployed.  As a result, Hansen expects
> that all power plants without adequate sequestration will be obsolete and
> slated for closure (or at least retro-fitting) before mid-century.

> Citizen activism has already delayed or derailed 100 of 150 new coal-powered
> plants that had been proposed five years ago.  From streets to statehouses,
> the conviction is growing that stopping global warming requires stopping
> coal-fired power because of its key role in the rising level of carbon dioxide
> in the atmosphere.

> Hansen was not arrested that wintry day in March at the Capitol Coal Plant.
> Nobody was.  But several months later, at age 67, the foremost climatologist
> in the world was among 31 protesters arrested for allegedly obstructing
> officers and impeding traffic during a protest against mountaintop mining in
> West Virginia June 23, 2009.

> Life is possible without coal.  We don¹t have to freeze in the dark.  There
> are carbon-free technologies we can be promoting.  Here in Nebraska‹with the
> fourth best wind potential in the entire U.S.‹clean, green renewable wind and
> solar energy.  And energy efficiency and conservation.  (The cheapest kilowatt
> is still the one you don¹t use.)


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