Thursday, June 26, 2008

Wise County Plant Permitted


I've been away a few days, over in Wise County, Virginia, at the far western tip of the state. I was testifying before the Air Quality Board against the proposed Wise county coal-fired plant, know officially as the Virginia Cities Hybrid Energy Center--makes it sound like a Prius, doesn't it?

Tough trip for a 3-minute gig--9 hours each way--but statewide representation was called for and TWCAN and our eco allies have been battling this plant for a couple of years now. There was a good showing; we mustered about 110 people from all over the state, not bad for a hearing spanning a couple of weekdays out in the middle of nowhere (largest gathering of Toyota Prius' (Prii?) I've ever seen: 15).

Unfortunately, I just read in the news this morning that the Air Board approved the permits last night. Still this was a qualified "win" for us as opponents forced several amendments. Dominion Power will now cut allowable Mercury output from ~10 lbs per year to 4 lbs and Sulfur Dioxide from 2,400 tons per year to 600. We did not convince the Air Board they had a duty to regulate Carbon Dioxide, despite the recent Supreme Court ruling. That was disappointing. By the way, Dominion could still do better on Mercury emissions. There is a Pennsylvania plant that has Mercury down to 1 pound per year. Since every fresh water body in the Commonwealth of Virginia has a warning about consuming fish because of Mercury contamination from coal-fired plants, the Air Board should have gone for the 1 lb standard.

Also as part of the deal, Dominion is going to convert two nearby coal-fired plants--built in the 50's and real polluters--to natural gas, which reduces the state's overall pollutants profile considerably, and was the rationale for allowing the 4 lbs of Mercury. But that was really a case of making necessity a virtue, since Dominion would soon come under considerable pressure to do something about the pollutants from those ancient plants in any event.

From the beginning this plant was designed as a fairly innovative circulating fluid bed "hybrid" plant that could burn waste wood and piles of coal left all over the ground from previous mining operations in the region. That left over coal is called "gob piles" by the locals. Runoff from gob piles has been polluting streams and rivers in Virginia for decades. There was a amendment added to the permits to prohibit the cutting of standing timber for fuel, only waste products.

The downside of this ruling:

* there's still no such thing as "clean coal," and mercury and acid gases--CO2 and SO4--are still being emitted,

* there is no requirement to actually collect and burn the gob piles,

* the plant is required to burn Virginia coal, which means more mountain top removal mining--which is really heartbreaking to see,

* while this plant might meet all existing state and federal regulations, if national politics continue as forecast there will be a substantial change in clean air regulations after the November elections, probably making this plant obsolete before it is built,

* no compromises were made on increasing statewide energy efficiency. According to the DOE EIA the average Virginian still uses twice as much energy (per capita, less transportation) as the average Californian, yet California has the world's 7th largest economy,

* at $2 billion this plant is no bargain for Dominion ratepayers as a guaranteed 14% increase in rates is built into the legislation. Not included in the future costs are adding carbon capture and sequestration capabilities as they become available--if they ever becomes available. (and if it will even work here. It is still not proven that abandoned coal seams are sufficiently air tight hold the carbon).

* Plus we should add in the costs of disease from the pollutants, lost work time and productivity due to those diseases, and lost revenue from eco-tourism, not to mention the costs of more CO2 emissions, if Congress implements some sort of Carbon cap and trade system.

Water quality is a real mixed bag in this deal. Dominion is reducing treatment of returned water by boiling most of it off in the operation. But the water will still comes from the scenic and environmentally sensitive Clinch River--home of many lucrative eco-tourism businesses. The Clinch River is also the source of water for the nearby Cabo coal-fired plant, which will lower water levels even more during dry season.

I'm still digesting it all. On the one hand, not a bad showing in the heart of coal country, I suppose. But on the other, you have to wonder about the folks of that region who showed up supporting this plant.

For 100 years coal has promised to pave their streets with gold, yet they're still the most economically depressed, polluted and diseased area of the state with the state's highest per capita suicide rate, alcoholism rate, lung disease rate, and exodus rate. In the end, Virgina missed an opportunity to bury coal as a source of power.

Already nationwide 80 coal-fired plants have been taken off of the books n favor of alternative energy and energy efficiency. Even the Department of Energy has abandoned its efforts at to build a super efficient coal fired plant as unworkable. There is no such thing as Clean Coal.

Friday, June 20, 2008

The Great Oil Stampede of 2008

So much smoke all of a sudden and so little fire, not just drifting out of the Great Dismal Swamp, but belching from the proponents of offshore oil and gas drilling. I've watched for a couple of weeks now as conservationists, democrats, liberals, foreigners and just about everybody else except the real culprits were dragged through mud in the press as being the cause of our sky high gasoline prices. There are a lot of reasons why they're wrong.

First of all gasoline is expensive because we allowed our economy to be driven into the ditch, and the value of the dollar has fallen on the world market. If we were buying gasoline with Euros, gas would be the equivalent of about $2.50 US per gallon. A weak dollar makes all foreign purchases more expensive.

Second, despite what Newt Gingrich and his cohort has been busy preaching on every talk show on TV and radio, there is no ban on offshore drilling to lift. Oil companies can still drill on the offshore leases they own, and they own a lot. There is only a ban on new offshore leases. According to evidence obtained through congressional oversight hearings (the first such hearings on energy of this president's two terms), as reported by Oregon Congressman Peter DeFazio, inside the continental US offshore waters there are "44 million acres off the coast leased, 10.5 million acres of that has been developed, but the other 33.5 million acres are available for offshore drilling." According to the United States Department of Minerals Management Services, 80% of the potential offshore oil is available to be developed through existing leases, but has not been pumped by the lease holder. From the report of hearings before the congressional Committee on Natural Resources, "Between 1999 and 2007, the number of drilling permits issued for development of public lands increased by more than 361%, yet gasoline prices have also risen dramatically contradicting the argument that more drilling means lower gasoline prices. There is simply no correlation between the two."

Further, back in the 90's former President Clinton leased what used to be known as the Naval Petroleum Reserve, now known as the National Petroleum Reserve of Alaska, to the oil companies, a field which contains a known 13.4 billion barrels of oil & is the largest reserve on the continent. Since the Clinton presidency, the lease holders have drilled 25 wells and capped them all. Because oil has gone from some $20 per barrel to it's current $135 mark since those leases were let, the Oil and Gas companies have increased the value of their underground stores without pumping a single barrel from under federal lands. In short, they're sitting on their investment and watching it grow in value. Why should they pump more oil to lower the price when we're willing to pay four to five dollars per gallon?

Finally, none of the sturm und drang over offshore oil leases really matters much when the United State's oil reserve numbers are compared to the world market, which produces (and consumes) 300 billion barrels of oil per year. According to the Department of Energy's Energy Information Administration the technically recoverable oil in the lower 48 states amounts to 40.92 billion barrels of oil, a drop in the bucket. Of that, only 18.17 billion barrels of oil are "unavailable for leasing or development." Compared to the worldwide oil production, the much disputed ANWR (Arctic National Wildlife Refuge) fields contain about 17 days of world oil usage. All told, US estimated oil reserves (Alaska plus the oil in and offshore of the lower 48 states) are 221 billion barrels--period. That's less than one year's worldwide production of oil or, if dedicated to the US market alone, 1000 days of US usage.

In short, we pumped America dry first and that hurts us now. But here's the real pain: within the lifetime of the graduating class of 2008, China alone--at it's current rate of growth--will demand about 300 billion barrels of oil per year, the today's total production. So we're at an energy crossroads in the United States.

We can either doom our children and grandchildren to endless wars over a depleting resource like oil, or we can put this nation's talents and considerable might behind greater energy efficiency and developing alternative energy options to fuel this great nation. This is a patriotic duty we owe our country and a parental duty owe our kids. Take up the challenge of developing alternative energy today.