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Fossil Fuels


Fighting coal export terminals: It matters

Photo by the Rainforest Action Network.

As I wrote in my last post -- and have been writing for years -- coal is on the decline in the U.S. The biggest driver of this trend is the current low cost of natural gas from fracking, but it also has to do with increasing competition from renewables, the aging of the U.S. coal fleet, organized grassroots opposition, new EPA regulations, and slowing demand for electricity [PDF].

The rapid move away from coal is hitting U.S. coal-mining companies where it hurts. The Wall Street Journal reports on the fortunes of Arch Coal and Alpha Natural Resources, the second- and third-largest coal-mining firms in the U.S.:

On a 52-week basis, shares of both Arch and Alpha are down 72%. ...

Arch is expected to see its profit fall by 44%, to $33 million. Alpha—still struggling to digest Massey Energy Inc. after spending $7.1 billion to acquire the competitor last year—is seen swinging to a first-quarter loss of $18 million, down from a year-ago profit of $49 million.


Apple’s dirty energy supplier: ‘Nothing to see here’

Photo by Zoli Erdos.

The utility company that supplies power to Apple’s Maiden, N.C., data center has pulled a paper from its website that bragged about Apple’s energy-guzzling ways.

The paper was a puff piece talking about the reasons that Apple chose to hook its iCloud data center up to Duke Energy’s power grid. It lays out the backstory of an Apple lobbying effort, dating back to 2006, that ultimately landed a 500,000-square-foot data center -- code-named Project Dolphin -- in the wilderness of North Carolina.

“This was the best-kept secret in the data center world,” said Duke Energy Director of Business Development Stu Heishman, according to a copy of the report [PDF], which had formerly been located on a website run by Duke’s business development group.

The report also talks about Apple’s power consumption, a subject that has suddenly become controversial as Apple has come under fire for using too much energy from non-renewable sources at the Maiden data center. We don’t know why or when the report was pulled -- reached last week, Heishman said he didn’t remember the report -- but some of the statements in the report seem to be at odds with Apple’s image of Maiden as low-power consumer.


U.S. coal is on the decline, and utility execs know it

Every week brings a new story about coal's decline in America. Here are two from last week.

One is about American Electric Power, the nation's largest electric utility, based in Ohio but ranging over 11 states in the South and Midwest. AEP is the farthest thing from a good actor in the utility sector. Between 2008 and 2010, the company raised executive compensation by 30 percent, laid off 2,600 workers, spent almost $29 million lobbying the federal government, and paid a tax rate of -9 percent [PDF]. Yes, negative nine. It's that kind of company.

So it's significant that last week, AEP reaffirmed its intention to accelerate a shift away from coal. By 2020, according to CEO Nicholas Akins, coal will fall from 67 percent of AEP's assets to 50 percent.


Modern-day DeLorean? Airplane runs on trash

Photo by Paul O'Donnell.

One man's trash is another man's airplane fuel.

Adventure-seeker Andy Pag aims to obtain funding and become the first person to fly a trash-fueled plane from one end of the U.K. to the other. His aircraft, a microlight plane, will be powered by gasoline made from un-recyclable plastics like bags and packaging.

The fuel is made by a British company using Fischer–Tropsch synthesis--a process of making synthetic fuel that dates back to before WWII. Pag says the fuel is worth highlighting because it produces limited CO2, and reduces the volume of plastics that otherwise would go to landfills.


Happy Earth Day, Mitt!

Mitt RomneyMitt Romney, brownwasher in chief. (Photo by Gage Skidmore.)

Mitt Romney might be the country's No. 1 brownwasher. While corporate America tries to paint itself as greener than it really is, corporate America's presumptive candidate tries to paint himself as browner than he really is -- or at least was.

We aren't fooled. Sure, he mocks efficient cars, extols the virtues of coal, and argues that we should be drill-baby-drilling our way to lower gas prices. Yes, he bashes the EPA and has packed his staff with EPA haters. OK, he wants to keep handing out billions to Big Oil and rubber-stamp the Keystone XL pipeline.

But if you chip away at that brown paint, there's a layer of green underneath. (As for what's beneath that layer, and then the one below that, who knows?) When he was governor of Massachusetts, Romney was about as green as Republicans get (if you don't count the now-disgraced Governator, and many Republicans don't). Check out these eco-friendly stances from Romney's past:


New climate strategy: Buy the damn coal and keep it in the ground

shovels laying on coal fieldPut the shovels down and leave the coal alone.

I concluded my last post with a slogan: "Keep the damn coal in the ground." Lo and behold, along comes a new paper in the Journal of Political Economy that sketches what that strategy might look like: "Buy Coal! A Case for Supply-Side Environmental Policy." It's fascinating.

Climate change is an enormous collective action problem. Typically the focus has been on demand-side policies -- reducing fossil fuel consumption through taxes or mandates. Any "climate coalition" that adopts this strategy, however, has to worry about free riders that don't. Author Bård Harstad of Northwestern University summarizes:


Fossil-fuel subsidies are the real job killers

How many lobbyists does it take to defend billions in subsidies for one of the most profitable industries in the world? 786. That's the size of the army that oil and gas companies maintain in Washington to strong-arm Congress into bankrolling an industry that is cutting jobs and literally fueling the climate crisis. This army is bigger than Congress itself, which has only 535 members.

Last year, Democrats on the House Natural Resources Committee decided to investigate Big Oil’s jobs claims -- and it turns out the industry has gone on a firing spree in recent years. They discovered that despite generating $546 billion in profits between 2005 and 2010, ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell, and BP reduced their U.S. workforce by 11,200 employees over that period. In 2010 alone, the top five oil companies slashed their global workforce by 4,400 employees -- the same year executives paid themselves nearly $220 million. But at least those working in the industry as a whole get paid high wages, right? Turns out that 40 percent of U.S oil-industry jobs consist of minimum-wage work at gas stations.

With job numbers like these, it is no wonder the fossil-fuel industry needs to spend millions ensuring they are not branded as “job killers.”


The only good coal is coal left in the ground

Coal use is declining in the U.S. and will likely decline further in the wake of new EPA rules. What will happen to the U.S. coal that isn't burned in the U.S.? Brad Plumer answers: We'll probably export it. If that's true, then there won't be much net climate benefit; the emissions will just come from Asia instead of North America.

And indeed, this is the next big fight for the environmental movement: blocking coal export terminals.

Of course, no environmental campaign would be complete without a Michael Levi post explaining why they're doing it wrong, and right on cue, here it is. The question Levi raises is this: Is the coal the U.S. exports supplementing or displacing foreign coal? If it's supplementing, then blocking exports would reduce emissions. But if it's displacing, it won't. Other countries will just burn coal from elsewhere.

Levi cites an International Energy Agency analysis of what would happen if global coal use were sharply curtailed. Apparently it shows that ...

... Chinese, Australian, and Indonesian production would be cut deeply, but that U.S. production would hold up far more strongly. This suggests, at a minimum, that substantial U.S. coal exports are compatible with a lower-carbon world.

Argh. I'm a big Levi fan, but this kind of thing drives me a little bonkers. It misses the forest for the trees.

It may be true that massive U.S. coal exports are compatible with a lower-carbon world, but it's highly unlikely that they are compatible with a lower-enough-carbon world. At some point, we really have to start taking seriously the massive amount of carbon reductions that will be required to avoid catastrophic climate impacts.

To prevent the climate from spiraling forever out of control, we're going to have to leave most of the remaining fossil fuels in the ground. That's hard to imagine in current circumstances, and it will remain hard to imagine until people start imagining it and writing about it and treating it as a live option.

If you understand the brutal logic of climate change, you realize that we desperately need to keep coal in the ground anywhere and everywhere it's possible. We're seriously going to tell U.S. climate activists to drop their fight against coal exports because some IEA model says it would be easier to reduce output in Indonesia? U.S. activists don't live in Indonesia. They have no influence in Indonesia.

If anything, the model shows that curtailing U.S. production would raise global coal prices more than curtailing Australian or Indonesian production, which is exactly what climate campaigners would want!

This is a really, really big problem we face. If we're going to come even close to coping with it, we're going to have to rethink all our assumptions about fossil fuels, including the wonk assumption that we can craft some sort of economically optimal glide path into the post-fossil-fuel era. The time when that might have been possible is past. It's time for blunt weapons. Keep the damn coal in the ground.


Shocker: Conservative governor believes there’s a problem with the climate

Cross-posted from Climate Progress.

Speaking to a group of Republican political donors last week, Ohio’s conservative governor, John Kasich (R), called for action on climate change, saying he was “all for” developing clean energy.

At a time when climate change denial has become a de facto national platform for the Republican party, Kasich’s comments are a notable break from GOP rhetoric. The Columbus Dispatch reported on his statement to fellow Republicans:

“This isn’t popular to always say, but I believe there is a problem with climates, climate change in the atmosphere,” Kasich told a Ross County Republican function on Thursday. “I believe it. I don’t know how much there is, but I also know the good Lord wants us to be good stewards of his creation. And so, at the end of the day, if we can find these breakthroughs to help us have a cleaner environment, I’m all for it.”


Pew poll: Clean energy still popular among everyone except old conservatives

Photo by Takver.

Cross-posted from Climate Progress.

Energy has turned into a contentious campaign issue in 2012, pitting “drill, baby, drill” against “clean energy now.” But multiple polls now make clear that the clean energy issue is a winning one for progressives.

The way the media and cable TV frame the national debate may make it seem like there’s an even split between supporters of fossil fuels and supporters of renewable alternatives. However, a new poll from the Pew Research Center finds that clean energy has far more support than fossil fuels support across the political spectrum -- except among conservative Republican males.

The poll illustrates how clean energy has become a wedge issue among Republicans moving into the presidential election. This is precisely what has happened on climate.