Ted Nace

Ted Nace is the director of CoalSwarm, a collaborative information clearinghouse on U.S. and international coal mines, plants, companies, politics, impacts, and alternatives. He is the author of Climate Hope: On the Front Lines of the Fight Against Coal (CoalSwarm, 2010).

Sir Richard Branson: Hand over the $25 million!

Why the No New Coal Plants movement should be awarded the Virgin Earth Challenge prize

Dear Mr. Branson: On Feb. 9, 2007, you and Al Gore announced the Virgin Earth Challenge at a London press conference: The Virgin Earth Challenge is a prize of $25 million for whoever can demonstrate to the judges' satisfaction a commercially viable design which results in the removal of anthropogenic, atmospheric greenhouse gases so as to contribute materially to the stability of Earth's climate. It was announced that the panel of judges would consist of Richard Branson, Al Gore, Crispin Tickell, James Hansen, James Lovelock, and Tim Flannery. I'm sure that when you dreamed up the prize, you were probably thinking about how to motivate the proverbial garage inventor or moonlighting chemist to come up with a new planet-rescuing technology in the narrow sense of the term -- perhaps some sort of chemical reagent, gene-tweaked algae, or super-absorbent biochar that could suck carbon dioxide molecules out of the atmosphere. But it's time to do some out-of-the-box thinking on climate change, starting with what sort of technological solutions we're willing to take seriously. Let's start with the idea of technology itself. Wikipedia's definition is as good as any: A strict definition is elusive; "technology" can refer to material objects of use to humanity, such as machines, hardware or utensils, but can also encompass broader themes, including systems, methods of organization, and techniques. Let me propose a technology that I take very seriously, even if people like Rudolph Giuliani don't: grassroots community organizing. The "community organizer" that Giuliani and Sarah Palin mocked at the Republican Convention in September is now about to be sworn in as the 44th President of the United States. Indeed, even seasoned politicos admitted to being fairly dazzled by the ground game displayed by Obama in winning the election against far more experienced politicians. That was community organizing on display. And yes, it really is a technology. In fact, in solving climate change, it may be the only technology that really matters. Two years ago, at about the time you were announcing your Virgin Earth Challenge, a bureaucrat named Eric Schuster at the U.S. Department of Energy was releasing the latest of his "Tracking New Coal-Fired Power Plants" spreadsheets. The document showed 151 coal plants under development [PDF] across the country.

Blowback

Did the coal industry create its own PR nightmare?

The press coverage of the Tennessee sludge spill has been nothing short of astonishing. Barely a week has passed since the accident and already a Google search for the phrase Tennessee spill produces 2,280,000 results! Compare that to 1,740,000 for Three Mile Island and 708,000 for Exxon Valdez. In little more than a week, this has become one of the biggest environmental stories in recent decades. Obviously, the naked fact of being the biggest coal spill in history (100 times larger than the Valdez spill) is reason itself for the intensity of the coverage. But is it also possible that the level of press interest would not be quite so massive were it not for the tens of millions of dollars spent by the coal industry on its "clean coal" advertising campaign? In international affairs, this is what they call "blowback." The can of "water" that you thought you were throwing on a small fire turns out to be gasoline, and you suddenly find yourselves engulfed in flames. I wonder what the folks at the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity are thinking about all this. Can they keep running the ads as if nothing had happened? If they do run the ads, will people just be reminded of all those icebergs of fly ash floating west of Knoxville? Just checked on the ACCCE website: silence. Not a word on the Tennessee spill. Must be in meetings. Or maybe working on the lyrics for next year's clean coal carols.

Mean, old, and dirty

Climate youth activists target the Capitol Power Plant

The U.S. coal-fired power plant fleet is filled with geezers. Out of 1,522 existing generating units, 600 were running during the Nixon-Kennedy debates. Nearly 10 percent were built in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. Still, it would be hard to find a coal plant that has seen more history than the Capitol Power Plant in Washington, D.C. It was commissioned by an act of Congress in 1904 and completed in 1910. That year, Teddy Roosevelt was the first U.S. President to ride in an airplane. The plant was eight years old when the doughboys came home from France. When it …

The case for a 'coal conservancy'

Placing coal reserves into trust status would be a nice gift to our kids’ future

A generation before David Brower started raising hell at the Sierra Club, a similarly militant scientist named Victor Ernest Shelford organized the Ecological Society of America, becoming its first president in 1916. Shelford stepped down from that position when the Ecological Society of America shied away from taking controversial stands. With a small group of other activist scientists, he formed the Committee for the Preservation of Natural Conditions (1917) and later the Ecologists Union (1946) with the objective of taking "direct action" to protect threatened areas. For Shelford’s Ecologists Union, "direct action" meant buying threatened areas. The approach proved wildly …

Epic fail: democracy edition

The demise of California’s Measure T is bad news for the environment

“Market failure” is one cause of environmental problems, but “democracy failure” is even worse. Russia and China aren’t the only examples. It also happens closer to home, as illustrated by last week’s decision by California’s Humboldt County to abandon Measure T, a local law banning non-local corporate money from local elections. For years Humboldt County, like many rural counties in lumber or mining areas, was dominated by a single corporation — Pacific Lumber, a subsidiary of Texas-based Maxxam, Inc. For local voters, the last straw came when Maxxam spent several hundred thousand dollars on a recall initiative against District Attorney …

Schmidt for energy czar!

Google’s CEO is the one person who can engineer the transition

No position under the next administration will be more important for the economy, the environment, and national security than energy secretary. And no one fits the position as perfectly as Google CEO Eric Schmidt. Schmidt recently told the New York Times that he’s not interested in the role of "chief technology officer" in an Obama administration. But that’s the wrong spot for Schmidt, a big waste of his administrative talents. Give it to some other geek. Schmidt should run energy. That’s a job with real power, and it’s absolutely vital that under Obama the energy secretary grasp the nature of …

Meet the Boomers

What’s the best way to phase out the huge fleet of aging coal plants?

The anti-coal movement has a lot to celebrate right now. Of the 151 coal plants on the drawing boards as of the May 2007 report by the Energy Department, 82 have now been abandoned, blocked, or placed on hold. In September, Juliette Jowitt of the UK’s Manchester Guardian wrote: In a few years, the backlash against coal power in America has become the country’s biggest-ever environmental campaign, transforming the nation’s awareness of climate change and inspiring political leaders to take firmer action after years of doubt and delay. Plants have been defeated in at least 30 of the 50 states, …

Schwarzenegger's folly?

How the new European carbon standard could backfire

Last week’s action by the European Parliament to adopt the “Schwarzenegger clause” as a requirement for new coal plants built after 2015 shows the danger of locking in well-intentioned half-measures. The Schwarzenegger clause is a California regulatory requirement that emerged out of SB 1368, enacted in 2006 and rightly hailed at that time as a huge step forward. The basis of the standard was a requirement that carbon dioxide emissions from any new coal plant supplying power to California customers should not exceed the emissions of a combined cycle gas plant. Since new combined cycle gas plants produce 800 pounds …

Coal money talks, public ignores

Poll shows 86 percent of public wants a five-year halt on new coal plants

Shortly before the July 4 holiday, Opinion Research Corporation released a poll entitled "Opinions About Gas Prices and U.S. Energy Independence" [PDF] which shows -- drum roll please -- that the public, by a three-to-one margin, is either "very angry" or "somewhat angry" about gasoline prices. While gas prices grabbed the headlines, the poll also happened to ask a number of questions about coal, and the answers were both interesting and surprising: The percentage of people who said they opposed new coal plants was actually higher than the percentage expressing outrage over gas prices. When asked whether "America should commit to a five-year moratorium on new coal-fired plants," the response was:

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