More small battles won in war on coal — but trouble looms behind enemy lines

News from the front: Accompanying Pelosi’s and Reid’s announcement that the Capitol Power Plant will switch to natural gas, more coal plants around the country are on the chopping block due to lawsuits and power companies’ getting wise.

Behind enemy lines, however, the industry-funded front group ACCCE (American Coalition for Clean Coal Euphemisms?) is regrouping and recruiting new allies.

In Tulsa Oklahoma, a proposal to build a second coal-fired generation plant was abandoned last week.

The decision came directly from the project developer (global power giant AES), without litigation, but AES spokesmen were murky about the exact reasons for their decision to pull out, saying only:

Although we would like to help meet the need for an affordable source of base load power, our decision to withdraw our application is part of our broader strategy to re-evaluate our growth plans.

As usual, grassroots activists had campaigned against the plant, but in this case, the decision to close the plant does not seem to have been provoked primarily by climate change concerns. Instead, critics of the plant focused on conventional pollutants by suggesting that the plant’s impacts on regional airsheds might put Tulsa in non-compliance with the Clean Air Act.

A spokesperson for the Center for Energy Matters, one of the organizations opposed to the plant, did point out that the political uncertainty about the future of carbon emissions should have caused the company’s shareholders to think twice.

AES claimed that the cancellation had nothing to do with grassroots opposition.

Meanwhile, in Kansas and Louisiana, Department of Justice reinforcements have brought big federal guns to small local battles. In its first month in power, the Obama DOJ has joined the fray, announcing a “national initiative to stop illegal pollution from coal-fired power plants” and filing suit against two coal-fired power companies in February alone.

On February 4th, the DOJ sued the Kansas utility Westar Energy Inc., and on February 11th, it sued Louisiana Generating LLC, for allegedly increasing pollution levels without installing the best available technology to abate emissions. Just days later, the EPA’s Environmental Appeals Board ordered Michigan regulators to put a coal-fired power plant in the Upper Peninsula on pause for failing to consider emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases when granting emissions permits to the facility.

Eric Schaeffer, who resigned from his post in the EPA’s Office of Compliance and Enforcement in 2002 in protest of the Bush administration’s policy of non-enforcement, said “they’re sort of rolling [the lawsuits] out, which is good.” (Isn’t it good to know that we finally have an EPA that actually does its job? Here comes the artillery.)

However, despite these encouraging developments, much is afoot behind enemy lines, and the oxymoronic American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE) has been regrouping and seeking to capture the high ground. Three developments are troubling:

First, in a blatant attempt to capitalize on Obama’s popularity, on February 18th the not-so-secretive pro-coal lobby group issued a statement implying that the stimulus package had sent a “strong message that investing in clean coal technologies creates jobs for American workers, promotes energy independence, accelerates advanced technologies for CO2 capture and storage… (etc).”

Second, to sharpen its tactics and shore up its flanks, the ACCCE has also brought on board a potentially dangerous and well-connected new general of federal affairs to strengthen the ACCCE’s invasion of Washington. A Former officer in the Bush DOE and at the American Petroleum Institute, Paul Bailey was also spotted in The Hill newspaper’s 2007 list of top lobbyists. His connections as well as his credentials as a former nuclear engineer could spell trouble for the agendas of the reality coalition and its allies.

[NOTE: Originally, the previous paragraph mistakenly identified ACCCE’s new staffer as John Sopko. We apologize for this mistake.]

Third, accompanying this addition to the leadership was a call by three western governors for the Obama administration to support the development of clean coal technology. My favorite paragraph from the letter contains three completely unsupported assertions:

These projects are consistent with findings from scientists who have concluded that: (i) carbon capture and sequestration is likely to be competitive with other major carbon mitigation technologies; (ii) the geological carbon dioxide storage capacity in the Great Plains and Intermountain West coincides with large coal reserves; and, (iii) there is good cause to be optimistic about the safety and security of geological carbon dioxide storage with careful planning and management.

(i) I’ve heard “clean coal” company reps say directly to my face that CCS can’t be done under $40 a ton… and by the way, the CEO of Royall Dutch Shell and McKinsey Global Institute seem to agree.

(ii) Well, the intermountain west might seem like a nice places to put CO2 in the ground, but lets not forget what happened with Yucca Mountain.

(iii) No there is not.

But time is not in the ACCCE’s favor, and no amount of posturing will change the fact that the clean coal myth is a dirty lie and may even be the single greatest threat to civilization and all life on this planet.

Next week we’ll be following developments from the Ohio front closely as the electricity cooperative American Municipal Power maneuvers to get a $30 million loan from the state’s “advanced energy” fund for a coal plant with scrubbers (there is nothing advanced about scrubbers, and they don’t reduce CO2 emissions).

–Sean Pool

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20 Responses to More small battles won in war on coal — but trouble looms behind enemy lines

  1. paulm says:

    Hacking the planet: The only climate solution left?

    What’s more, geoengineering could turn out to be relatively cheap. Early estimates suggest some schemes could cost a few billion dollars, small change compared to the cost of slashing emissions – estimated by former World Bank chief economist Nicholas Stern to be at least 1 per of global GDP per year.

    “There is a sense of despair that we are not seeing deep emissions cuts quickly, and that is pushing us to consider these things.”

  2. paulm says:

    John Kerry ready to debate Will…Go Kerry Go. Its about time someone beats up on these err…. repulsive people.

    Facts Are Stubborn Things: George Will and Climate Change

    In the old Republican Congress they even trotted out the author of Jurassic Park as an expert witness to argue that climate change is fiction. This is Stone Age science, and now that we have the White House and the Congress real science must prevail. It is time to stop debating fiction writers, oil executives and flat-earth politicians, and actually find the way forward on climate change.

  3. David B. Benson says:

    Joe Romm — Where/when in the world is that picture of a paitning supposed be be?


  4. rickfred says:

    Cool map of coal-fired power plant capacity by state:

    And another one for CO2 emissions:

    I think the flag in the painting is maybe the Lone Star flag of Texas.

  5. DB says:

    In Britain they will be shutting down seven coal plants but appear to be facing a 10 gigawatt shortfall of generating capacity. As they say when you ride the tube, ‘Mind the gap.’

    “Meanwhile, the UK must make a huge decision. We have promised to shut down seven old coal plants by 2015 because they emit too much sulphur. These can supply 12 gigawatts, or a sixth of UK capacity. Ideally, we would fill the gap with nuclear power, but EDF has made it clear that the first new British nuke won’t be ready until 2017, supplying less than 2 gigawatts.”

  6. DB says:

    “I think the flag in the painting is maybe the Lone Star flag of Texas.”

    If the star were on a blue background it would be the “Bonnie Blue” Lone Star flag used by several southern states during the Civil War.

  7. yahoodi says:

    Kudlow on Obama’s economic policies:
    “…Obama’s cap-and-trade program will be a huge tax increase on all blue-collar workers, including unionized workers. Industrial production is plunging, and new carbon taxes will prevent production from ever recovering. While the country wants more fuel and power, cap-and-trade will deliver less.”

    Global warming is a fraud and the economic policies it is furthering are ruining the country and you are reponsible.

    [JR: Well argued. How could I have been so …. right. Next time, pick someone more credible than Kudlow. Plus Obama sends the money back to blue collar workers — a group that Kudlow has never cared about in his entire life.]

  8. DB

    There is a world of difference between the U.K. and the U.S. as far as potential for renewable energy. We have the vast open space for solar and wind. They don’t have that luxury. We could replace all our coal plants with about 1/2 of 1% of American southwest desert lands filled with solar thermal plants with heat storage.
    Wind could eventually provide 30-40% of our power, and we have a huge country where small distributed and larger utility scale PV solar can be implemented. And we have geothermal untapped that they don’t have.

    All of which will be cheaper than “clean coal” or new nuclear.
    And much faster to build.

    That’s the whole point of quickly getting these renewables up to scale so there won’t need to be a gap. The faster they’re built the sooner non-CCS coal plants can be phased out.
    More than half are getting old anyway.

  9. Bob Wright says:

    I remember reading that two of Britain’s nukes are antiques relying on huge high speed fans to blow Helium(?) coolant, and are candidates for replacement. The huge London Array windfarm is having problems with permitting and money. Noth Sea oil has peaked. Grid connectors to nuclear France would be hard on the balance of trade. It isn’t easy becoming green.

  10. DB says:

    Richard wrote: “There is a world of difference between the U.K. and the U.S. as far as potential for renewable energy.”

    I think the key word here is ‘potential.’ We need to keep an eye on baseload capacity and ‘mind the gap’ so that we don’t fall short while developing the potential.

    Excess baseload capacity is already down to something like half of what it was some 15-20 years ago. Demand will continue to increase along with population growth.

    Obama has called for a doubling of renewable energy production; however, the vast majority of renewable is currently in the form of hydroelectric which won’t be expanded. Solar, wind and geothermal currently make up just a couple of percent of load.

    We need to make sure we don’t stop the construction of more natural gas and coal fired capacity than we can make up in renewables. These calculations need to consider the on/off nature of renewables, storage capacities and transmission lines (especially considering the litigious nature of our society).

  11. shannon says:

    I, too, must know where the illustration originally came from and what it illustrates. IT seems to be a scene from the Civil War in the Southwest–maybe Texas?

  12. charlie says:

    Since we’re throwing billions away: here is an idea.

    Have the government buy the 15 most polluting coal plants out there. The pre-73 ones that keep on getting grandfathered.

    Then close them. Not at once, but in 10 years or so. Make a little money off the income streams to defray the cost.

    Turn some of them into natural gas plants. Scrap others completely.

    Forced nationalization. Give the power companies something but not a lot. Maybe give it as a loan that is conditioned on clean energy.

  13. We can dream of the future, when renewables replace coal as baseload power (somehow), but the CO2 crisis requires action soon. Either we cut back on our modern way of life, which depends on electricity from coal, or we develop some technology which can be retrofitted to existing coal plants to capture and treat CO2 emitted in their flue gas. Something other than the old prescription of chemical scrubbing and sequestration underground, neither of which can work.

    So President Obama is right, and ACCCE is right in quoting him, that the development of clean coal technology is a worthy goal, which might create a new American industry. But what is that technology? What’s the national plan for electricity? The coal industry makes a mistake in portraying coal as already clean, as if all of the technical problems have been solved. A little candor please, and cut the happy talk.

  14. boya says:

    I, too, must know where the illustration originally came from and what it illustrates

  15. Natural gas plants also emit CO2. Biofuels too. Natural gas power is much more expensive than coal.

  16. The British are planning a lot more that “2 EPRs” (which together would provide 3200 MWs not 2000 MWs). In fact they are trying to replace ALL their currently run nuclear power plants with newer, higher capacity ones. They are on a fast-track to do this and Westinghouse and Toshiba are in the running on these.

    Britain chose an unfortunate design, indeed, using helium cooled expensive Magnox reactors which were expensive to build as as expansive to decommission, which they did not financially plan for. Basically a huge financial distaster there.

    Their aim is to *increase* nuclear’s share of generation, not just replace what is there.

    David Walters

  17. David B. Benson says:

    Wilmot McCutchen — Biofuels only emit CO2 that was, in effect, already in the air before photosynthesis captured it.

    If there were an Excess Carbon Dioxide Removal Fee levied on all fossil fuels, natural gas might well come out to be less expensive than coal.

    Even better, it is not difficult to turn biomass into (among other thingss) biomethane which is then a carbon-neutral way to directly replace natural gas. The process would be carbon-negative (that’s good, removing excess carbon) if the CO2 from the process is captured and sequestered.

  18. David B. Benson says:

    Don’t think the painting is of

    Maybe of some Civil War action in New Mexico?

  19. David B. Benson says:

    Might be part of the confused Battle of Glorieta Pass, New Mexico in 1862:

  20. Bob Finch says:

    Re Mr Benson’s comment (17): I believe Biomass (and other biofuels) is only carbon neutral if it can be produced without the use of fertilizer (and gasoline-powered harvesting equipment). I also believe that production of biofuels & biomass is pretty water intensive.