Climate & Energy

Why FutureGen had to die

The blind alley of more coal

Thomas Homer-Dixon, whose book I adore, has written an op-ed in The Globe and Mail arguing in favor of large government investments in carbon capture and sequestration technology. His advocacy of CCS has long confused me -- my reading of his book suggested (to me, anyway) that large-scale CCS was precisely the kind of technology we should avoid like the plague. To recap: Homer-Dixon builds on the work of Joseph Tainter, who argues that societies respond to pressures and challenges by investing in complexity. But these investments come with increasing costs as time goes on, until society finds itself investing more in complexity than the challenge/pressure actually costs. In Tainter's example of the Roman Empire, it eventually became more expensive to run the Empire than it was worth to the local peasant, whose taxes had gone nowhere but up for the previous century, so the peasants didn't put up much of a fight when the Goths came through. Paying tribute to the barbarian was less of a burden than paying taxes to Rome, so the Empire imploded -- not because the Empire was militarily weak, but because people had been living in a system of negative returns. Homer-Dixon's book argues that when we start getting to negative returns on increasing complexity, the proper response is new, more resilient systems, less about "efficiency" than resilience, withstanding the inevitable shocks that face any system. We are at a pretty crucial decision point, or indeed past it: Do we keep investing in fossil fuels and the systems required to sustain them, or do we invest in the more resilient energy system of the future? Prof. Homer-Dixon and I agree that the grid of the future should be more renewable and resilient, but he argues in his op-ed that the scale of the climate crisis means we need to be using CCS now. But the two futures are not compatible, and I think we need to understand some pretty fundamental flaws with industrial CCS:

Run your car on coal? Maybe not

CTL fuels: still a bad idea

As the price of oil rises, coal company executives smell a huge opportunity: they are planning to ramp up a new global industry to turn coal into liquid fuels (diesel, kerosene and jet fuel), plus basic feedstocks for the chemical industry to make plastics, fertilizers, solvents, pesticides, and more. The coal-to-chemicals industry is already going gangbusters in China. U.S. coal companies like Peabody and Arch plan to combine well-known coal-to-liquids technology and rapidly-evolving coal-to-chemicals technologies with untested methods of capturing carbon dioxide (or CO2, the main global-warming gas), compressing it into a liquid, and injecting it a mile below ground, hoping it will stay there forever. (Burying CO2 is called "carbon capture and storage," or CCS.) If coal executives succeed in convincing the public to pay for all this, low-carbon renewable energy systems and waste-free "green chemistry" will be sidelined for decades to come. The coal industry has nearly universal support in Congress. During President Bush's 2008 State of the Union address, one of the few lines that drew enthusiastic applause was, "Let us fund new technologies that can generate coal power while capturing carbon emissions." A few days later, the president announced his latest budget, with $648 million in taxpayer subsidies for "clean coal." A few days after that, the government announced it was ending its participation in the nation's first "clean coal" demonstration, the Futuregen project in Mattoon, Illinois. Obviously, Washington is experiencing policy angst over global warming, and "clean coal" lies at the heart of the debate. Both coal-to-liquids and coal-to-chemicals depend entirely on carbon burial being possible, affordable, and convincingly safe and permanent. Despite political support in Congress, "coal-to-liquid fuels" had its coming-out party earlier this year, and it did not go well. Here's the story:

Plans for Indiana BioTown face obstacles, but sputter on

In 2005, Reynolds, Ind., was deemed the world’s first “BioTown,” as agricultural officials unveiled a plan to power the 550-person burg entirely with corn, hog waste, sewage, and other energy sources in ready local supply. …

Fair and balanced?

NASA’s Hansen responds to NYT’s Revkin

This post ends with an exclusive look at James Hansen's response to NYT journalist Andy Revkin's piece commenting on Hansen's (draft) article on why we need a CO2 target of 350 ppm. But first the backstory. Revkin used me as the "balance" for his piece: Some longtime champions of Dr. Hansen, including the Climate Progress blogger Joe Romm, see some significant gaps in the paper (it is a draft still) and part ways with Dr. Hansen over whether such a goal is remotely feasible. I complained directly to Revkin about the first part of that characterization. I was going to let it go at that, but then I got e-mails from people directing me to a media interview of Hansen (and Mark Bowen, whose new book is Censoring Science: Inside the Political Attack on Dr. James Hansen and the Truth of Global Warming). The reporter cited Revkin's quote directly to Hansen to argue the paper is "controversial." Well, obviously, the reporter should have called me directly, rather than taking some hearsay characterization from another member of the media. But that just isn't the state of journalism today. [Note to media: You don't need to cite me in order to call a paper saying we need to go back to 350 ppm "controversial" -- it's kind of obvious, given that we're at 385 ppm, rising 2 ppm a year, and not currently doing anything to stop emissions from rising, but I digress.] Anyway, at that point, I felt obliged to write Hansen an email titled "I don't see 'significant gaps in the paper'":

New York’s new governor supports congestion pricing

Brand-spankin’-new New York Gov. David Paterson has announced his support for a controversial congestion pricing plan. The proposal, put forward by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and supported by former Gov. Eliot Spitzer, would …

Brown Dogs

Dirty energy industry preemptively padding the pockets of key Democrats

The dirty energy industry sees big, important debates heading to a Democratic Congress, and it’s preparing by buying up "moderate" House Democrats ($ub. req’d): Moderate House Democrats — even freshmen with little obvious influence — …

‘Ahead of the Curve: Business Responds to Climate Change’

Here is an absolutely stellar video from Sea Studios productions called "Ahead of the Curve: Business Responds to Climate Change": (via Steve Clemons)

No (Dutch) nukes

The Netherlands is opting for carbon sequestration and renewables over nuclear power. What does this mean? Why, clearly it reinforces what you have always said!

Gore group will launch climate marketing campaign

Photo: World Resources Institute Al Gore’s Alliance for Climate Protection plans to spend more than $300 million over the next three years on a marketing campaign aimed at getting Americans to address climate change. With …

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