Category Archives: coal

Also on Obama

Subsidies for corn ethanol, and ethanol mandates generally, are bad.

“Clean coal” is very bad except as part of a bridging strategy to something better, in which case it’s only moderately bad.

If you think I’m being tough on the new guy, I should say that I think he’s a hell of a lot better than the alternative would have been.

Latest column, on the NRDC campaign against the tarsands

(Photo credit: “Air Canada Airbus A319-114 C-GBHN“, Flickr/Cubbie_n_Vegas)


My latest column for the Ottawa Citizen is here. It’s on this Natural Resources Defense Council campaign to get North American airlines to swear off fuel that comes from Alberta’s tarsands and from liquefied coal.

In Canada, we still have generous federal tax treatment for new oilsands projects, which amounts to a subsidy. Alberta’s Premier Ed Stelmach has decided to increase his province’s share of the profits from projects that extract publicly owned oil, but his province is still an impressively easy place to make oil money, for companies with the capital to put up to get started. Alberta is the only province to put a real price on greenhouse-gas emissions, although the price is low — $15 per tonne of carbon dioxide beyond a set limit, far below the $50 or so for every tonne that’s at the low end of expert estimates of what we should have to rein in climate change.

In the United States, politicians from coal-mining states are delirious over the prospect of a massive new market for their dusty black gold, and they’re pushing subsidy programs to develop coal-liquefication technology like there’s no tomorrow.

So we do make environmental degradation more appealing than it needs to be, and the Natural Resources Defense Council is doing its job by pointing that out. Asking airlines to join in the fight, however, is a bit like asking golf-course operators to fight for more restrictions on water use, or for high-rise dwellers to call for an elevator tax. It’s not just difficult, it’s diametrically opposed to their interests. At heart, flying planes is a fuel-burning business and jet fuel is the airlines’ lifeblood.

A point I already wish I’d made more strongly is that airlines already have every economic incentive in the world to make their planes as efficient as possible, even if there are limits to how far that can go. It’s also spawned me an interesting e-mail debate on whether flying or driving is a more efficient way to cover a moderate distance.

Latest column, on the Asia-Pacific Partnership

My latest for the Ottawa Citizen, on how we’re billing helping India dig up more coal as an environmentalist project, is here.

Does India have much coal, you ask? Its state coal-mining company reports it dug up about 360 million tonnes last year, about one-third as much as the United States.

When subsidizing efficiency makes sense

New McGuinty shot… and the Dalton McGuinty pendulum swings back into “maybe he’s OK” territory again, with the Ontario premier’s latest environment-related announcement. This time, he’s promising $5,000 grants for energy-efficiency retrofits to Ontario houses and a tax break on energy-efficient home appliances.

This makes sense given the long-standing quirk of Ontario politics that providing cheap and abundant electricity is assumed to be a responsibility of the provincial government. In an effort to get coal plants closed and promote greener power, the government has been signing generous generation deals with solar, wind, and run-of-the-river hydro entrepreneurs for 42 cents per kilowatt-hour supplied to the grid, something like six times the market price of electricity on a day when the system isn’t strained. It adds up to billions in taxpayer support for green power.
But of course the cheapest and cleanest power is the power you don’t need to buy at all, and by that standard, $5,000 toward beefing up the insulation in an old house or knocking the sales tax off an efficient clothes dryer is small potatoes. Better would be the province withdrawing from guaranteeing cheap power, but that’s not likely to be a political reality any time soon.

Ontario promises to meet Kyoto targets (almost … kind of)

Dalton McGuintyAnother Canadian province, the industrial heartland in Ontario, is doing what the federal government has declined to try: Premier Dalton McGuinty is promising to cut Ontario’s greenhouse-gas emissions to six per cent below 1990 levels by 2014. That’s not quite what the Kyoto Accord calls for, but it’s surprisingly close. Um, if you can count on the premier to keep this promise, which is a somewhat less significant than it appears.

(Here’s an aside: we need some kind of an index that represents both the emissions cuts and the timelines the Kyoto Accord sets out, which in Canada work out to getting greenhouse-gas emissions to an average annual level between 2008 and 2012 that’s six per cent below the 1990 level. No non-specialist can process a formula that complex, meaning the target is wide open for bogus comparisons.)

Anyway, McGuinty’s promise will be easier to keep because of the McGuinty government’s longstanding promise to shut down several coal-fired electricity plants, including one that ranks with the biggest in the world (PDF from Canada’s Clean Air Alliance). Closing all those plants was supposed to be just about done by now, the subject of an overambitious election promise four years ago that his government realized was unkeepable almost immediately upon being elected, but they’re on it now and making good progress. This alone is supposed to get Ontario halfway to the goal McGuinty sets out, and it’s unquestionably a big deal.

The rest, I admit, I’m a bit skeptical of. Here’s the official breakdown of the remaining 50 per cent:

  • About 15 per cent will come from transit investments and working on initiatives with the federal government and other partners, including strong, national fuel-efficiency and auto emissions standards.
  • Some 15 per cent will result from policies recently or soon to be announced in Ontario, including home audits and incentives for municipalities to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.
  • The remaining portion will come from research and innovation into new technologies which would fight climate change and strengthen the economy.

The last point, 10 per cent, I think we can discard entirely. The Progressive Conservative party McGuinty’s Liberals defeated in 2003 had “balanced” the province’s budget by including $2 billion in unspecified savings in their last budget, which amazingly never materialized in time for the election, and this is exactly the same trick: “Somehow, things are gonna work out. We don’t know how, but trust us, it’ll be great.”

I’m going to start calling pledges like this “flying-car promises,” in honour of Lewis Black.

The other 30 per cent are real things, but they’re just guesstimates about the effectiveness of a whack of government programs, including some from other governments. There’s certainly no enforcement mechanism, like a self-correcting carbon market, if the promises aren’t met. They’ll probably have some effect, but let’s not count on them.

Update, almost immediately: Tyler Hamilton of the Toronto Star sat in on an editorial-board meeting today where McGuinty fleshed out some of the details. Hamilton shares my skepticism of the flying-car element:

“Research and Innovation” … will account for 17 per cent of reduction by 2014. We asked McGuinty what this is exactly, and he said we have to have faith in new innovation to help us bridge the innovation gap that exists today. So, basically, 17 per cent of the province’s target is based on… well, nothing. It was a mistake to make this it’s own category, because presumably research and innovation will be a large part of what helps us achieve targets in other categories

Hamilton has the impression McGuinty is promising to make his targets a legal obligation, though I don’t see that in any of the literature the premier put out today — and as I say, there’s definitely no mechanism described for enforcing the obligation, any more than there is for the Kyoto Accord targets that are also the law of the land in Canada.

Running cars on coal is a bad idea: CMU researchers

Energy researchers at Carnegie Mellon University say that if the government’s going to spend tax money in support of cars that don’t run on foreign oil, it should focus on developing plug-in hybrids rather than turning coal into gasoline.

Back in April, I wrote about a couple of startling examples where figuring out a way to “skip steps” in an industrial process served up incredible increases in efficiency. Add another case to the list.

This one’s more of a counterexample, illustrating what a colossally bad idea it would be to spend a lot of money on turning coal into liquid fuel that cars, for example, could run on.

The basic technology is largely proven; the Germans liquefied coal in the Second World War when they couldn’t get enough oil anymore, and the South Africans did it in the 1950s and became heavily reliant on coal-based synthetic fuel when they were embargoed over Apartheid. The U.S. Congress is considering elaborate subsidy measure aimed at following suit. The argument is twofold:

  1. America produces quite a bit of coal, and if it could run cars on liquid coal, it’d be a lot less dependent on oil that comes from people who don’t like America very much.
  2. A lot of congressmen who have a lot of say over the energy-related legislative agenda come from coal-producing states and we wants your money! WE WANTS IT!

The problem, though, is that while you can certainly run cars on liquid coal, it takes a lot of energy to turn coal into something that’ll flow out of a gas pump, and it’s dirty, dirty, dirty along the way.

Carnegie Mellon’s Paulina Jaramillo and Constantine Samaras ran the numbers. They compared the energy required to turn coal into fuel for a traditional car to the energy required to run a plug-in hybrid car that gets plugged into the wall at night, then driven until the battery’s dead and the power supply is switched to gasoline. They used middle-of-the-road assumptions about efficiency for both types of vehicle (actually, they assumed the traditional car gets 35 miles to the gallon, which is somewhat generous — it’s the fuel-efficiency standard the Big Three are begging Congress not to set as the average for all the vehicles they sell), and used middle-of-the-road assumptions about the sources of electricity. They didn’t figure the energy for converting coal to oil comes from coal plants and the energy to run the hybrids comes from the beating of fairy wings or anything like that.

Indeed, the only questionable thing is using plug-in hybrids as a comparator. There are no mass-market plug-in hybrids available yet, although after-sale conversions aren’t that hard to come by if you’re will to pay. But then, there’s no liquid coal on the market yet, either.

What they came up with is that driving a coal-powered car for a year would lead to total emissions of 14,200 pounds, or about 6.5 tonnes. A plug-in hybrid driven the same way would lead to total emissions of 2,800 pounds, or about 1.25 tonnes.

If you don’t like the assumptions, Jaramillo and Samaras figure that jigger the premises as you will, a traditional car would need to get 69 miles to the gallon before catching up in efficiency to a plug-in hybrid.

The key point is that taking coal and burning it to make electricity and storing it in a battery that runs a car is vastly more efficient and cleaner than taking coal and burning it to make electricity to take other coal and make it into fuel that runs a car.

The paper’s available from Carnegie Mellon’s Electricity Industry Center, although for reasons I’m not at all clear on, given they sent out a news release about it, it’s password-protected. Some judicious Googling reveals the Username you need is ceicpaper and the password is EnergyResearch.

If the link fails, let me know and I’ll repost the paper myself.

The Green Party’s green plan

Elizabeth MayCanada’s Green party released its own detailed climate-change plan today, calling for a $50-a-tonne carbon tax, rising to $100 a tonne by 2020, among many other things.

That’s the big newsmaker. The tax would translate to 12 cents a litre more on gasoline (about a 10-per-cent hike), rising to 24 cents a litre over 12 years, and the Greens promise to cut income and payroll taxes by equivalent amounts, plus remove subsidies for the fossil-fuel industry. If you’re going to go with a carbon tax, which I’m increasingly of the opinion is a fundamentally bad idea with certain specific things in its favour, this is the way to do it. It can’t be a money-grab.

The Greens talk about using the federal government’s spending powers in some pretty clever ways. City governments are always coming to the feds with their hands out, for example; the Greens propose making funding for city projects contingent on municipalities’ adopting policies to reduce their own greenhouse-gas emissions (they’d apply the same standards to anybody who gets federal funding, in fact). This is the kind of really excellent idea that the Greens can propose because they stand no chance of forming a government, with all the compromises and informal debts that winning an election requires. Having someone on the national political scene making the argument is certainly refreshing, though.

The Greens also insist on meeting Canada’s Kyoto targets, with the proviso that basically everything would be done, at least at first, through the treaty’s Clean Development Mechanism. Buying credits from abroad, that is. That’s also honest, if politically problematic.

The rest of the document — dozens of items, from rebuilding the national rail network to retrofitting 100 per cent of Canada’s buildings to be more energy-efficient by 2025 — is more a laundry list than a set of proposals one could reasonably expect a government to adopt. It’s in keeping with Green leader Elizabeth May’s plea to other Canadian politicians: “Please steal these ideas.” They’re evidently from people who know what they’re talking about on climate change and how we might avert it, but have no particular philosophy of government to apply. There are a lot of promises to “work to assist…” and “work with all governments and businesses in Canada to…”.

What there isn’t, to the Greens’ enormous credit, is any pure insanity. Where they propose relatively loopy things — phasing out all coal, oil, gas, and nuclear power plants — they acknowledge that the time horizons are long (no sooner than 2040 for that one) and all the authority is not in the federal government’s hands. That’s an important improvement even from the Greens’ 2006 election platform.

Every time they speak up, they’re worth paying more attention.

Liquid-coal subsidies aren’t needed, but are probably coming anyway

The New York Times reports on a passel of subsidy programs winding their way through the U.S. Congress, aimed at boosting the production of coal-based liquid fuel.

The ostensible purpose: independence from foreign oil for security reasons. A major factor: an amazing number of powerful congressmen and -women come from coal-producing states, including Rep. Nick Rahall of West Virginia, who’s chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee (what could possibly be wrong with that?).

The downside: coal is, well, coal, and liquefying it apparently produces twice as much greenhouse gas as producing the same amount of diesel, and about half again as much as the same amount of gasoline. Those in the industry insist they can capture and sequester the CO2, to be fair, although they’re not noticeably doing so yet.

The subsidies and subsidy-like proposals:

Among the proposed inducements winding through House and Senate committees: loan guarantees for six to 10 major coal-to-liquid plants, each likely to cost at least $3 billion; a tax credit of 51 cents for every gallon of coal-based fuel sold through 2020; automatic subsidies if oil prices drop below $40 a barrel; and permission for the Air Force to sign 25-year contracts for almost a billion gallons a year of coal-based jet fuel.

The truly mystifying bit:

Industry executives contend that the fuels can compete against gasoline if oil prices are about $50 a barrel or higher.

Oil closed at $63.15 US a barrel today.

Wouldn’t energy independence be better achieved by kicking the habit, rather than finding a more reliable dealer?

A coal-plant subsidy that won’t die

FDR statueGovernment programs — any government programs — develop clients, people with vested personal interests in seeing them continue, even when the programs aren’t needed any longer, even when they’ve become counterproductive.

Which is why, according to the Washington Post, 3,000 people from the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association descended on Washington’s Capitol Hill last week. That’s about six for each senator and congressperson. All of them arguing for continued life for the descendant of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Rural Electrification Administration.

In 1935, with the Depression raging, rural electrification was a massive make-work project that also brought modern convenience and industry to dirt-poor farmers, whom private utilities said they couldn’t serve economically.

Now it basically provides low-interest loans so people can build coal-fired electricity plants, and the co-ops it helps include suburban Atlanta and Dallas. According to the Post, the Rural Utilities Service provides loans at interest 2 to 2.25 points lower than the best commercial rates.

The beneficiaries of the government’s largesse — the nation’s rural electric cooperatives — plan to spend $35 billion to build conventional coal plants over the next 10 years, enough to offset all state and federal efforts to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions over that time.

Digging the electricity portion of the RUS’s work out of its budget numbers is a challenge, but it seems (.doc file) to lend out about $1 billion a year and has about $27 billion in loans outstanding (PDF). With America’s rural parts now pretty much fully electrified, the official justification is that power needs to be kept cheap and reliable, and coal is, at current prices, the cheapest and most reliable way to provide it.

Writes’s Maria Surma Manka:

This is going to be a tough political issue for Congress to tackle. Both sides may have valid points, but the system must be restructured to be a more efficient process that emphasizes clean, renewable, local energy. If not, than all the state and federal goals, programs, and initiatives that aim to cut climate change emissions will be simply blown away.

I think this is much too generous. It’s not clear at all that the program any longer serves any legitimate purpose at all, to the extent it ever did. Guaranteeing cheap and reliable power in extremely remote areas — let alone populous ones — isn’t a proper function of government, and certainly not when it’s directly at odds with other government policy.

But on it lives, in part thanks to the bullying of the co-op association’s head, Glenn English. Reports the Post:

English rallied the association’s members to fight proposed laws on climate change that might hurt the rural co-ops. Such proposals would mean higher electricity rates, he said, and that would anger voters.

“So are we supposed to tell members of Congress that you’ve got to be willing to sacrifice your seat for the sake of energy efficiency?” he said. “I don’t think the political community wants to take out the knife and commit hara-kiri.”

Those voters. Totally uninfluenced by the coal-plant-owning co-ops, no doubt.

The long-term, big-picture lesson here is that ongoing subsidy programs, even in the form of cheap loans, are permanent bad news. The same thing will happen with subsidy programs for solar panels and wind farms.

(Photo credit: “FDR Memorial,” Flickr/dbking)

An appealing and inadequate (so far) plan for Ontario

Dalton McGuintyThe Toronto Star has a leak of some version of the Ontario government’s “green plan,” meant to position Premier Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals for an election due this fall. The full thing is to come out in a couple of weeks. Greenhouse gases figure prominently, but this is a much more sweeping document than the federal Conservatives’ “green plan,” which was very specifically about reducing heavy polluters’ air emissions.

First of all, let me say that we need some sort of Kyoto Aggressiveness Index, to help compare numbers such as these:

[T]he government will announce greenhouse gas emission reduction targets more aggressive than federal Environment Minister John Baird’s 20 per cent cut from current levels by 2020.

The Liberals are not expected to match the standard promised by NDP Leader Howard Hampton – a cut in emissions to 6 per cent below 1990 levels by 2012, as set out in the Kyoto Protocol. But they will eclipse Progressive Conservative Leader John Tory’s promise of a 10 per cent reduction in 1990 emissions by 2020.

Or, actually, it’d be better if the people proposing greenhouse-gas reduction targets would routinely tell us what their targets mean in actual megatonne reductions from today’s emissions levels.

Anyway, bullet points:

  • Close the last of Ontario’s coal-fired generating plants, probably by 2014. Was originally supposed to be done by this year, turned out to be harder than they thought.
  • To that end, start replacing coal in those plants with agricultural and wood waste. The Star reports that this is to be considered “carbon neutral” on the grounds that other plants will reabsorb the released carbon, but presumably that’s true of the carbon from coal, too.
  • An additional 1,000 megawatts of renewable electricity projects, possibly including a major wind farm. At peak times, Ontario uses about 25,000 megawatts.
  • Also a program offering a fixed price for power from small, low-impact generation sites. Not clear what’s new, since the government already does this at a very high 42 cents a kilowatt-hour, but probably something.
  • “The province is also expected to expand the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standard to promote the construction of efficient new buildings.” The Ontario government doesn’t control the LEED standard, so what’s meant by “expand” here I’m not sure, but maybe some kind of rebate system for buildings that meet its higher requirements.
  • Various internal government efficiency measures. More insulation in government buildings, etc.
  • Possibly an enhanced rebate on hybrid cars (though it should be on fuel-efficient ones, not just hybrids per se).

All this stuff sounds good, and generally pretty easy (the energy stuff isn’t easy, but they’ve been working away it it for a whole term of government now and are really just rolling existing programs and policies between new green covers).

It also does not sound like stuff that cuts Ontario’s greeenhouse-gas emissions to 10 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020, even if you factor in the federal Conservatives’ regulation of heavy emitters. It certainly doesn’t “stomp” the federal plan, as TreeHugger’s Lloyd Alter has it.

But this is only a leak, presumably intended to generate some positive buzz early since there’s nothing in it anybody could really object to or complain about. The full deal will have to be a lot more ambitious.