As Congress continues to deliberate energy and global warming bills, President Bush’s new climate initiative has altered the debate, at least at the international level. Clearheaded analysis and accurate information is essential – or narrow political and economic interests could run roughshod over consumers.
The recent “Coal is filthy” ad campaign underscores this danger. Featuring misleading claims about pollution from coal-fired electrical generating plants, it urged citizens to tell government officials, “No more filthy coal plants.”
But the Coalition wasn’t another gaggle of environmental pressure groups, like those listed on its CleanSkyCoalition.com website. It was a cabal of natural gas companies, led by Chesapeake Energy of Oklahoma. Their goal wasn’t helping Americans get “clean skies” and “live longer.” It was fattening corporate wallets.
The cabal hoped new laws would make it harder to build more coal plants, or retrofit old ones to meet tougher air quality standards. Utilities would have to switch to natural gas, supplies would tighten, prices would surge, and Coalition partners would get rich.
Every $1 increase in natural gas prices costs US consumers another $22 billion a year for heating, air-conditioning, food, consumer goods and services – many of which use gas for energy or raw materials – says the Energy Information Administration. Indeed, consumers paid $140 billion more in 2006 for gas and electricity than they did in 2000 – an extra $1900 a year for every family of four.
That hit poor families especially hard, and the US manufacturing sector lost 3 million jobs.
Chesapeake has 9 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) of proven gas reserves. That sounds like a lot, but US demand for natural gas has outstripped domestic production since 1985, forcing us to import the difference, largely from less than friendly countries and in competition with other nations. Substituting gas for coal-fired electricity would exacerbate these problems.
Geologists say the US Outer Continental Shelf could contain 420 Tcf – enough to meet current demand for 15 years. But over 85% of these areas are off limits to drilling. Onshore gas resources face similar obstacles. And eco purists want to keep it that way.
Electricity provides 40% of the energy we use, and the United States will need 100,000 megawatts of new electricity by 2020, according to analysts. Conservation and efficiency programs would reduce demand somewhat. But growth in population and technologies that use electricity mean we will need every available source: gas, nuclear, hydroelectric, wind, biofuels, waste-to-energy – and coal. Right now, coal generates half of our electricity, and there are no viable alternatives in the near term.
The ads and environmental group websites say coal-fired power plants are responsible for scary-sounding amounts of air pollution. The facts tell a different story.
Between 1970 and 2004, the US population grew by 40% … its Gross Domestic Product by 187% … miles traveled by 171% … electricity consumption by 115% … and coal burning by 80 percent. And yet, during this period, aggregate air pollution was cut in half, thanks to improved efficiency and pollution control, air quality expert Joel Schwartz points out. New rules require large additional reductions over the coming years that will eliminate most remaining power plant emissions by 2017.
Coal-fired power plants are now the primary source of US mercury emissions, not because their emissions are large, but because the real sources (incinerating wastes and processing ores containing mercury) have been eliminated. America now accounts for only 2% of global mercury emissions, and new EPA rules require a further 70% reduction from power plants over the next decade, Schwartz says.
Total air pollution now poses no significant health risks, even for children. (Asthma rates have risen as air pollution fell, so pollution cannot be a factor.) Moreover, coal-generated electricity costs much less per kilowatt hour than alternatives – leaving families with more money for nutrition and healthcare.
In 1900, the world supported 56 billion human life years, notes climatologist John Christy: 1.6 billion people times a 35-year average life span. Today it supports 429 billion life years: 6.5 billion people times a 66-year average life span – and they live far better than anyone in history.
The reason: energy, primarily fossil fuels. And in exchange for this incredible progress – if fossil fuels really are the primary cause of global warming – we have had a net increase in average global temperature, over the past 100 years, of about 1 degree F. (As a percentage of Earth’s atmosphere, carbon dioxide emissions from US coal-fired power plants equal the thickness of a single human hair on a football field.)
The Kyoto Protocol would compel the United States to slash CO2 emissions over 20% by 2012 – to reduce average global temperature increases by 0.2 degrees F by 2050. Current congressional bills would bring even fewer environmental benefits.
If the pervasive misinformation exemplified by the Chesapeake ad campaign is used to justify global warming legislation, Congress may well enact something like the Sanders-Boxer bill, which a new MIT study says would impose a tax-equivalent of $4,500 annually on every family of four by 2015.
These congressional experiments on constituents – mandates, cap-and-trade, and other pork-laden bills – must be corrected before real damage is done.