California had a regulation that would have required automobile manufacturers to produce a small percentage of cars without emissions by such-and-such date, and a larger percentage later. Automakers despised this rule, and decided that they had enough clout to ignore it, arguing that it was impractical. Environmentalists seemed to conclude that they were overmatched. Rather than go to the mat, they decided to play ball with the automakers, to try to work with them, accepting promises that the automakers would do everything that they could to improve vehicle efficiencies and reduce emissions.
The glee with which the automakers tracked down the trial electric cars that they had produced, and crushed the cars into small cubes, must have been palpable. Profit margins on large SUVs were much bigger. Automakers soon forgot their promises about better gas mileage, instead using technical efficiency improvements to make vehicles bigger and accelerate faster.
So who killed the electric car? The automakers? Government officials? All of us who let them get away with it? That vehicle story continues, as plug-in hybrid-electric cars are perhaps the best bet for a path toward a vehicle fleet with sustainable fuel requirements.
However, my reason for bringing up the electric car story is some similarities to the coal story, which is even much more important.
Coal interests are at least as powerful as the automakers. If coal interests have their way, the damage to the planet from coal will greatly exceed that caused by automakers. Their approach is similar to that of the automakers. They have bought influence with law-makers in Washington. They have convinced energy experts, even those with an environmental bent, that they, the coal interests, will win if the parties “go to the mat”.
Specifically, they want to continue to make more coal-fired power plants, claiming that the technology to capture and store CO2 will be ready in a decade or so, and promising that when it is ready they will convert the power plants to capture and sequester CO2. This would require not only technology to capture this enormous stream of CO2, but also a pipeline carrying the CO2 to a place where it is safely stored. If you are willing to accept their promise to do that, I have a bridge connecting Manhattan and Brooklyn that I will sell to you for a very good price. Even if you believed them, in the meantime, for a decade or likely longer they would be pouring out CO2 into the air at a rate that would destroy the effect of other efforts to slow climate change.
If we want to save the planet, creation, with all of its creatures, somebody is going to have to go to the mat with the coal interests.
Do not let anyone tell you that there is no viable alternative to increased coal use. If the rules for utilities were changed such that they made bigger profits by selling us less energy by helping users improve efficiencies, rather than bigger profits by selling us more energy, that alone could avoid need for more power plants for the time needed to develop CO2 sequestration technology. Not to mention the potential for renewable energies to contribute, or the potential via changed building codes, lighting and appliance standards, etc.
Of course it is sensible to allow a trial power plant to be built of the sort intended to eventually include carbon capture and sequestration. But there is no way that anything more than a trial should be allowed. These plants are gargantuan. There is no guarantee that they will even make sense, once carbon is properly priced. Scandinavia provides a good example (B.E. Johansen, The Progressive, July 2007): Denmark, e.g., has remade its energy infrastructure. While in the 1980s it had 15 large power plants, it now has several hundred smaller ones, thus closer to homes and offices with reduced power loss during transmission. Much of the energy is renewable. Energy efficiency has been promoted, so the average Dane uses less than half the electricity used in the U.S. In the process, their economy has become strong.