“Yes” to Carbon

I went sailing once. Using the inordinate amount of tact I clearly possess, I mentioned to my partner–a girl who happened to have a dramatic lazy eye–that she would be an optimal sailing buddy as she could keep one eye on the tiller while simultaneously watching the ropes.

After reading an article in Inside Climate News on Obama’s “Yes” to tar sands and “No” to coal, I was reminded of my unfortunate comment to my sailing partner: Obama is trying to keep one eye on his election poles and one eye on his long term carbon and energy goals. Unlike my lazy-eyed friend however, his vision seems to be mostly focused on the poles.

People are a bit flabbergasted with Obama at present: he is endorsing the tar sand moving  Keystone XL pipeline and all the while is creating initiatives that will put more stringent regulations for future power planets. A portion of the new regulations would limit carbon emissions from those new plants to 1,000 pounds per megawatt hour. Current coal fired power plants hover around 1,800 pounds.

Opponents of Keystone point out that any reductions seen in carbon emissions from the EPA’s new regulations may be moot if the entire 1,702 mile behemoth pipeline is erected. The predicted 900,000 barrels of tar sand extracted, transported, and refined per day will emit 27 million metric tones more carbon dioxide than emissions from conventional crude oil. The EPA estimates that’s equivalent to to the annual emissions from 7 coal-fired power plants.

As power plants remain in commission usually for 50 some odd years, the EPA’s rules for new plants are key in preparing for what we want future emissions to look like. It’s important to note, however; that the EPA’s rule’s impact will be meager until existing plants are retired as they aren’t required to adhere to the same standards. It’s also important to realize the rules don’t apply to the dozen or so power plants that have already obtained building permits and breaking ground in the next year. As plants breaking ground today will be around for the next 50 some odd years they will still be polluting the same amount into the next few decades.

As of now, there are no new proposals in the queue that would need to be held accountable to the EPA’s new standards.

As Robert Walther, an energy adviser with the think tank Third Way states, “Coal was already falling away as an option. It can’t compete in the marketplace.”  If the EPA is basically ensuring no new coal fired power plants will come online, what is the point of their new regulations that solely apply to future power plants? Walther says it will sow the seeds for new regulations for existing power plants, which would only happen post-November, if Obama is reelected. At this time, it just seems to be a way for the Obama administration to appear to be making headway as far as limiting the emissions from coal fired power plants.

Obama’s support of the Keystone pipeline may just be a symbolic gesture to ease the public’s gas pump woes, but that doesn’t discount the fact that at least half of the pipeline is being constructed and it will create a huge carbon bomb on the planet. Obama supporting the EPA’s new rules to regulate emissions from new power plants may be a way to cut carbon emissions, but it doesn’t discount the fact that no new power plants are being built and the rules don’t apply to the hundreds of carbon spewing electricity generators.

We can’t just switch from one dirty energy source to another and expect to accomplish much. It seems that Obama is just saying, “Yes” to carbon at this point.

One Score and One Year Ago…

One score and one year ago, our EPA brought forth a new regulation to bring upon clean air and acid free rain, that would take until December 21, 2011 to be brought into effect.

21 years after being first mandated by Congress, the EPA released air pollution regulations that require power plants to lower dangerous smokestack emissions.

Giving the companies three years, power plants have to cut the emissions of 84 different toxic chemicals to match the 12% of the cleanest plants–however the EPA has made it clear that if more time is “necessary” to achieve these goals, it is available.

This is an important regulation as power plants emit half of the mercury and cause more than 75% of the acid gas emissions in the US, according to the EPA. The EPA estimates that by cutting these toxic emissions it will prevent as many as 11,000 premature deaths, 4,700 heart attacks, and 130,000 cases of childhood asthma symptoms a year.

Currently, only 12% of the nations power plants meet these standards (hence them being the mark others strive for) while 48% have some, if not all, the necessary technologies in order to achieve these standards. Unfortunately, the left over 40% have no technology in place to just flip the switch on. As Lisa Jackson (EPA Administrator) told USA Today, “[they] have done nothing, they have no controls, they emit unlimited amounts of pollutants, they have no technology in place.”

But what would regulations be without cockamamie claims to try to avoid them?

In attempts to thwart EPA regulations, power plants have been arguing a number of angles against the regulations from: it will make electricity more expensive and less reliable; to, it will bring economic hardships.

Perhaps if families don’t have to shell out thousands of dollars a year in medical expenses for the toxic pollutants they’re exposed to in the air they breath and water they drink, they could afford to spend a little more to pay for energy. In theory I could see how electricity reliability might decrease for a period of time with construction or alterations of the plants, but that isn’t a long term problem. In fact, the EPA and Department of Energy don’t foresee any problems with regards to power failures or blackouts.

As far as economic hardships go, the EPA estimates that with manufacturing, engineering, installation, and maintenance, pollution standards will provide employment for thousands potentially including 46,000 short term construction jobs. Now, unless the power plants are referring to economic hardships they themselves will suffer for having to pay for these regulations…I’m not sure I can sympathize with their qualms.

Though these regulations will decrease the amount of pollutants being spewed into the environment, they won’t get rid of them all together (after all there’s no such thing as “clean coal“). And since the EPA doesn’t seem hell-bent on enforcing the three year timeline for having the necessary technology in place to reduce said emissions, in theory power plants could stretch actual implementation out for decades–and by that time most of these power plants will have reached the end of their useful lives as they’re (on average) 50 years old–I’m not sure what they’re complaining about.

As Regulations Grow…Freedoms Die. In Wyoming At Least.

As Regulation Grow Freedoms Die

Pavillion is a small town (165, according to the 2000 census) located in west-central Wyoming, and late last week the US EPA found synthetic chemicals used in hydraulic-fracturing in two deep water-monitoring wells near a gas field outside the town.

There has been a lot of debate circling hydraulic-fracturing–or fracking–from the earthquakes in Oklahoma, to the most recent discussions to chemicals penetrating drinking-water aquifers.

Fracking allows the US to get about one-third more natural gas from underground stores. It encompasses pumping millions of gallons of a pressurized mixture of chemically treated water and sand underground to fracture rock and let trapped gas vapor flow, thus increasing extraction rates.

With the EPA’s report, environmentalist groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council, are now pushing for stronger regulation…sorry freedoms.

Though the above photograph wasn’t taken in Pavillion (it was taken in a town about 2 1/2 hours away in Casper, Wyoming, where I had the pleasure of visiting last September) I’m sure Pavillion’s largest natural gas producer (Encana) hold the same, if not similar sentiments, when it comes to regulations.

I know the residents don’t, as they were the ones who asked the EPA to address water quality issues in the first place and have had to use outside drinking water sources for drinking and cooking.

Although my secret ambition is to be Erin Brockovich and expose  corporate negligence, pollution, extortion…what have you…I’ll try to abstain. But it’s difficult, very difficult indeed, when Doug Hock, spokesperson for Encana, responds to the EPA report by saying since the EPA uses terms like “likely”, it means the report isn’t definitive. Hock continues by saying EPA might be the culprit behind the well contamination when they conducted sampling.

An industry representative for Chesapeake Energy Corp, Aubrey McClendon, goes on to say, “Try not to be the 51st person to write a story about the alleged contamination of somebody’s water well from fracking.” Well Aubrey, I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume if there are so many reports of contamination, no one’s having smoke blown up their well…so to speak. If fracking is in the neighborhood, there might be a very good chance aquifers and wells are contaminated because of it.

As it is, gas companies don’t need to disclose the chemicals used in fracking. By his own admission, Hock said he didn’t know if the chemicals found were used by his company. Now I don’t know what’s worse, a company not having to disclose the chemicals being used in close proximity to drinking water sources, or the fact the spokesperson “doesn’t know” what chemicals said company uses whilst fracking.

The EPA does admit there could be a variety of reason contamination leaked into wells–faulty construction from the beginning, gaps in the rock, fractures created by drilling–but the evidence still stands, petroleum hydrocarbons were present in the water at levels well above acceptable drinking water standard.

Whichever way you look at it, regulations need to be stronger, because if drinking water contamination is present in Wyoming fracking sites, the chances of it being elsewhere is also likely.

But thanks to Encana, “likely” isn’t definitive enough of an answer to claim responsibility.

Can Renewable Energy Win Despite Disadvantages?

It’s definitely a difficult climate for renewable energy these days. Renewable energy is at a competitive disadvantage in comparison to the oil, and coal industries who receive billions of dollars a year. Receiving less than one percent–one tenth of a percent to be exact–of funding, federal support for renewables is the lowest it has ever been.

Federal support and investment is crucial to renewable energy success. If the government cut through the inequalities between renewable and fossil fuel funding, we could achieve a nation who gained not only energy independence, but make significant strides to helping the environment. California has been doing its best to forge a path with renewable energy–as it is 1/4 of solar jobs are in California–but the nation can’t make progress in creating healthy competition in the energy sector without some subsidies or incentives.

Thankfully, renewable energy might have a new friend, the EPA certainly does: the US Army.

Be all you can be, Army of one, with your net-zero and sustainability goals. If anyone can succeed in achieving zero water, waste, and energy goals it is most certainly you, as you have now partnered with the EPA in order to gain the most cutting edge technology, and development.

In all seriousness, the Army employing renewable energy, even having net-zero goals, could be a great boost for not only the renewable energy sector, but the environment as a whole. A governmental institution taking measurable steps towards achieving energy efficiency could–well, not set the bar high–but at least set the bar for the rest of the government. The Army has a plan to install 300 megawatts of solar on military housing in the next five years–the Army needs power, why not get it from a source that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg?–and where veterans can be hired to complete said installations.

With fluctuating gas prices, and oil back in the $100 dollar range, some predict the US will be a net importer by 2030. According to the International Energy Agenc, by 2035, the price of coal is expected to rise 65 percent. Instead of sinking federal funds into these dwindling fossil fuel supplies, solar–and renewable energy as a whole–is a viable alternative that should be not only considered, but implemented before we start importing all of our oil, or the price of coal has skyrocketed.

Renewable energy is at a competitive disadvantage right now because the government won’t level the playing field with fossil fuels in terms of funding or incentives, but that doesn’t mean it still can’t come out on top. With the US Army creating some semblance of a bar that other government entities could reach towards, and rising costs of not only oil but coal, renewables may be able to sidle their way to the front for the win.