On Winners, Losers, and All of the Above

After the President’s State of the Union address and his call for an “all of the above” energy policy (actually, to quote, “an all-out, all-of-the-above strategy that develops every available source of American energy”), I tweeted:

 

I wasn’t kidding.  This “all of the above” approach to energy policy makes me cringe.  It’s a baseless and believes by mixing everything together, somehow we’ll come out with the best of everything on the other end.

The problem is, by mixing everything together, we rarely come out with anything good in the end (pancakes and sausage on a stick, anyone?).

And in the case of our energy, there’s a good reason for this.   It’s because an “all of the above” energy policy includes all of the worst kinds energy.   While my son mixing his sodas is gross, yet cute, an “all of the above” energy policy is downright disturbing.

Take coal, for example, which as I wrote before, actually costs our society more than the benefits it provides.

Or take natural gas, which scientists are increasingly finding can release significant amounts of greenhouse gases, to say the least about the water and air contamination it can cause.

And off-shore drilling?  Really?

I suppose “all of the above” makes for a good slogan.  Yet energy policy based on sloganeering is reckless.  It’s about as wise as making health care policy based on which pharmaceutical company has the hippest name for their prescription drugs.  That’s insane.

Which is the real problem here, that the President’s energy policy isn’t based on any rational assessment of what sources of energy really are good for our society.  It’s pure political pandering.

Sure, some would say that we shouldn’t pick winners and losers when it comes to our energy portfolio, but that’s absurd.  It’s like saying we shouldn’t pick winners and losers when dating.  Of course we should pick winners and losers, especially when it comes to something as important as our energy (or long-term relationships, for that matter).

In fact, I’ll take the liberty and help the President out here.  Below, I pick our nation’s energy winners and losers.  Simple enough.

Winners

Losers

Non-fossil fuels (e.g., wind solar, efficiency, conservation)

Fossil Fuels (e.g., coal, oil, oil shale, natural gas)

Tongue in cheek aside, I get that it’s laudable to want to keep all options on the able.  It’s like trying to spend a Friday night hanging out with friends at the bar and going out on a date.  Laudable, perhaps.  But perhaps not wise.

But what’s really bad about the President’s call for an “all-out, all-of-the-above” approach to energy development is that his Administration can’t even live up to this messed up ideal.

Take the latest decision by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to auction off more than 467 million tons of coal in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming, which produces 43% of the nation’s coal.  That brings the total amount of Powder River Basin coal recently auctioned or slated to be auctioned by the BLM to more than 6.8 billion tons.

Even though the President was recently in Denver pushing for 10 gigawatts of renewable energy development on public lands, the amount of coal slated to be mined in the Powder River Basin would be enough to power 100 gigawatts–10 times that amount–for nearly 25 years (an average 500 MW plant burns 1,430,000 tons of coal annually).

That’s on top of the fact that every mine in the Powder River Basin already has around 10 years of reserves to mine through.  Basically, under the Obama Administration, we’re being locked into another lifetime of coal.

Putting aside the grossness of an “all of the above” energy policy, it ultimately just seems to be a euphemism for “fossil fuels above all else.”  This isn’t an energy policy, it’s business as usual.

It’s time to pick winners.  And it’s time to embrace an energy policy that includes all the best sources energy.  President Obama can start by finally saying enough to this country’s destructive dependence on fossil fuels.

Unbelievably, in the wake of the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history, President Obama has actually called for more off-shore drilling.

Shutting ’em Down

Yes, it’s no surprise that WildEarth Guardians would like to see a coal-fired power plant that can’t comply with the Clean Air Act shut down rather than see it continue to pollute.

After all, we yank licenses from people who repeatedly violate traffic laws.  Why wouldn’t we do the same with polluters that put our air at risk?

But what of a coal-fired power plant that can comply with the Clean Air Act?  Should they all be shut down?

Well, from a practical standpoint, yes.

The evidence showing that coal plants cost more than the benefits they provide is mounting.  Not only have more and more economic studies confirmed this, but as The Economist reports in its latest edition, coal is certainly on the decline.  And news of more coal-fired power plant retirements just keep coming.

The question then becomes, should we spend more money on making coal clean, or invest that money in energy that’s clean from the start?

Case in point is here in the West, where dozens of aging coal-fired power plants are facing multi-million dollar clean air upgrades.  Take the San Juan Generation Station in New Mexico where Public Service Company of New Mexico, or PNM, is facing the prospect of spending hundreds of millions of dollars to make their coal-fired power plant cleaner than it is now.

Or take the Navajo Generating Station in Arizona, which the U.S. Interior Department says retrofitting with up-to-date clean air controls could “significantly increase water rates” for indigenous communities in the Four Corners region and Arizonans dependent upon the water pumped by this coal-fired power plant.

Sure, we need clean air, and we certainly need water, there’s no doubt about that.  But with the mounting liability of coal, the smarter choice seems to be to change course and start investing in energy that’s clean from the start.  And with the President himself calling for a national clean energy standard that will lead to a sharp reduction in coal use, the writing seems to be on the wall (true, there’s devils in them clean energy details, but the bottomline is it would mean less coal).

For the San Juan and Navajo Generating Stations, this means charting a path away from coal as soon as possible, rather than saddling New Mexico and Arizona citizens, as well as indigenous communities in the Four Corners region, with the cost of clean air upgrades that ultimately the debt of more coal.

This isn’t radical environmentalism, folks.  This is the plain and simple truth that coal carries liabilities that in this day of age, just aren’t acceptable.  As recent Colorado College polling data confirms, westerners overwhelmingly support clean energy over coal.

It’s one thing to violate the Clean Air Act.  That’s reprehensible.  It’s another to violate the laws of common sense.

As the liability of coal continues to mount, then yes, it makes sense to shut down coal-fired power plants and invest in a better way to generate electricity.  For those of us in the American West that cherish clean air and water, the shift can’t come soon enough.

Coal can do that?

The reality of coal.

Coal Continues to Take Ugly Center Stage in West

Yes, President Obama rejected the Keystone XL pipeline for now, giving us some hope that perhaps our government might be able to make the hard decisions needed to confront global warming and move beyond fossil fuels.

But then again, it’s hard to see this as real progress when the overall challenge we face seems to show no sign of diminishing anytime soon.  I’m talking about coal, of course, which as the EPA noted last week, continues to be the number one contributor to global warming in the U.S.

Here in the West, the challenge of coal seems to be mounting almost daily, with the industry digging in, literally, to keep mining and burning.  Just in the last two weeks, WildEarth Guardians has played defense on a number of new proposals, including:

Of course, there are some good signs here and there.  The latest Energy Information Administration electricity monthly report confirms that in 2011, all of Colorado’s new electricity generators were wind and solar, while all of the state’s retired generators were coal.  The retirement was a 100 megawatt coal-fired boiler at Xcel Energy’s Cherokee power plant in North Denver, which was spurred by the State’s Clean Air-Clean Jobs Act.

At the same time, however, a good friend of mine, Leslie Glustrom with Clean Energy Action, pointed out that although 16 gigawatts of new wind generation in Colorado are in the “queue,” all of it has been put on hold by Xcel until 2028.  And while the company intends to take 1,268 megawatts of coal-fired capacity offline by 2017, the company has also been seeking rate increases to keep 2,229 megawatts of coal-fired capacity operating to 2035 and beyond.

Adding to this, the company intends to repower some of its coal-fired power plants, including Cherokee and Arapahoe, both in Denver, with natural gas, yet another fossil fuel.

I’ve already pointed out the dangers of simply replacing coal with natural gas in Colorado.

We’ve beat back the XL pipeline, but in the end, it seems like we’re being beat back even more by one coal project after the next here in the West.  It doesn’t help that the Obama Administration continues to make excuses for endorsing ramped up coal mining in the Powder River Basin and elsewhere in the West.

So let’s savor the setback of tar sands, but not forget that unless and until we can rein in coal, especially in the West, our progress is fleeting, at best.

4115934072_a7ae06578f_b

In 2009, WildEarth Guardians called on Colorado Governor Bill Ritter to stop clowning around when it comes to confronting climate change and power past coal.  It’s high time to call on President Obama and others to do the same.

Xcel Hedging Bets on Imaginary Coal

The cost of coal is going up, but rather than find a cleaner, more affordable path forward, Xcel Energy is hedging its bets that it can simply pass along these rising costs to ratepayers.

But at the company’s Hayden power plant in northwestern Colorado, betting on coal seems to be defying all odds.  In fact, they seem to be betting it all on a new coal mine that doesn’t exist.  All this just exposes just how tenuous the future of the Hayden power plant really is and how Xcel’s betting is likely to backfire big time.

In testimony filed yesterday before the Colorado Public Utilities Commission (PUC), Xcel Vice President Karen Hyde revealed that “coal supply is more expensive than what we are currently paying at Hayden…” (see Hyde testimony at page 18).  Boy was she right.  According to supporting testimony from Xcel employee Susan Arigoni, by 2018 the cost of coal will be nearly 70% higher than previously estimated (see Arigoni testimony at page 12).

This testimony is significant because it comes as Xcel is trying to convince the PUC that retrofitting the Hayden power plant with modern air pollution controls is cheaper than shutting down the power plant altogether.

In other words, if Xcel wins, they get their retrofits and ratepayers get stuck with the bill.  If Xcel loses, the Hayden plant goes down.

It’s a pivotal moment, and although the odds seem even, if not stacked in favor of Xcel, in reality, the odds are much worse for the company and its Hayden plant.  Here’s why.

To begin with, although Susan Arigoni claims that a growing coal export market is fueling price increases, the reality is prices are going up because Hayden’s supply is dwindling.

Here’s the pickle:  The coal mine that currently  fuels the Hayden plant, the Twentymile mine, is slated to play out by 2013.  And although there is another coal mine nearby, the ColoWyo mine, that could fuel the plant, that mine is not only slated to play out by 2017, but the remaining production is already under contract.

Put another way, the Hayden power plant will have no coal after 2013.

So how has Xcel proposed to get out of this pickle?  They’ve proposed to lock into a long-term coal supply contract from Peabody Energy’s Sage Creek coal mine.  As Susan Arigoni testified:

The Peabody interests of developing a structure for a long-term contract that would underpin Sage Creek development align with Public Service’s need for a long-term, reliable supply to support the long-term operation of the plant. Public Service was able to balance its lack of competitive options with Peabody’s interests to achieve a transaction that provides a long-term supply for Hayden.

Of course, there’s only one problem.  The Sage Creek coal mine doesn’t yet exist (check out the map of the “proposed” coal mine).  It hasn’t been constructed, hasn’t even permitted, and doesn’t even have the necessary federal coal lease.

So the long-term contract is, for all intents and purposes, make believe.  There is no coal.

And it’s truly questionable whether there will be coal.  Although the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is proposing to issue a federal coal lease to Peabody for the Sage Creek mine, the proposal so far has been riddled with flaws.

As WildEarth Guardians commented last September, the BLM’s proposal makes a mockery of the environmental review process.  The agency went so far as to claim the environmental impacts associated with burning the coal would be speculative, yet it’s been clear from day one that Sage Creek was intended to fuel the Hayden power plant.

To say the least, the BLM’s proposed lease is vulnerable.  And that means the Sage Creek coal mine is far from a done deal.

Which also means the future Hayden power plant is far from certain.  And yet, as the latest filings show, Xcel seems committed to risking it all on coal.  In this case, imaginary coal.

It’s a dangerous dirty energy gamble that seems destined to leave Xcel, and in turn its ratepayers, broke.

Hayden Station
Every year, the Hayden coal-fired power plant contributes to 6 deaths, 10 heart attacks, 120 asthma attacks, and other adverse health impacts, all at a cost of $46 million.

Singing Solar Telegram

WildEarth Guardians’ week of clean energy action in New Mexico peaked with the delivery of a singing solar telegram to Governor Susana Martinez and was capped not only by a great night with Bill McKibben in Santa Fe, but news the next day that the Obama Administration was thankfully delaying a decision on the Keystone XL Pipeline.

Even some in Congress are starting to question why this country is continuing to pay for the full economic costs fossil fuels, in particular coal.  It’s no wonder, the latest study in the American Economic Review found that the economic damage of coal-fired power plants outweighed the benefits by up to 5.6 times.

In other words, we pay $5.60 for every $1.00 in benefits that coal may provide.  That’s nothing short of insane.  It’s like paying someone to paint your house while they tear it down.

Or in New Mexico, it’s like paying PNM for electricity while they destroy our air and water.

In the meantime, enjoy our singing solar telegram video (check out the lyrics on our website) and stay tuned for more clean energy action.

WildEarth Guardians and Moving the Planet

Hundreds of dedicated bike riders, mounds of creativity, and a vision of something better.

That was the Moving the Planet Ride this past September 24, 2011. WildEarth Guardians helped raise awareness over the impacts of fossil fuels in the Denver metro area and together with everyone else, helped call attention to one simple, immovable fact:  that global warming is this generation’s greatest challenge and that without action today, we stand to lose so much tomorrow.  Check out our photos and check out 350.org:

Moving Beyond Fossil Fuels

EPA Pulls Through

I previously posted about the pressure the Environmental Protection Agency was getting from the State of New Mexico and Public Service Company of New Mexico, or PNM, to bail on a clean air plan for the San Juan Generating Station.

Happy to say, the EPA stood strong against the pressure and last Friday finalized its plan.  The final rule puts this massive coal-fired power plant located in the Four Corners region of northwestern New Mexico on the path to a much-needed clean up.

Of course, EPA was legally required to finalize the plan.  New Mexico was not only years late in submitting a plan to retrofit the aging San Juan Generating with up-to-date air pollution controls, but the plan it did submit in June of this year was, to put it mildly, incredibly impotent.  To top it off, EPA was under a court-ordered consent decree with WildEarth Guardians to finalize the plan by August 5.

Unfortunately, PNM seems to be going ballistic in response to the final plan.  In news stories, the company threatened to jack up electricity rates for New Mexico ratepayers and to top it off promised to sue EPA.  Very disappointing coming from a company that is supposedly committed to environmental sustainability.

Their rhetoric is nothing but political hot air, as we pointed out in an Albuquerque Journal op-ed earlier this year, but it’s a disappointing display of what I can only describe as meanness.  Remember, PNM gets to decide how much to charge ratepayers, and even then, they only get to recover what is prudent.  The company seems to be saying that now that the EPA’s plan is final, they intend to screw New Mexico ratepayers to the fullest extent possible.

To be sure, the EPA’s plan will cost money.  The agency estimates the plan will cost around $345 million.  That’s a far cry from the nearly $1 billion that PNM claimed the plan will cost, but the fact is, it costs money to clean up coal.

And that’s where WildEarth Guardians really sees the opportunity.  Although this new clean air plan is a milestone, it really provides a powerful springboard to make the case for transitioning to cleaner energy.  As we said in our press release:

WildEarth Guardians has called on PNM to instead spend its money to fully retire the San Juan Generating Station and offset the electricity it generates with renewable energy.  New Mexico already has a 20% renewable energy standard and reports show that a combination of rooftop solar and wind energy could meet New Mexico’s power needs by more than seventy-fold. Utilities in Colorado and other states are beginning to retire coal-fired power plants, opting against investing millions in the face of mounting environmental liability.

After all, why should we spend millions to make coal clean when we could invest that money in energy sources that are clean from the start?  Especially considering that the health impacts of the San Juan Generating Station alone cost us more than $250 million annually, we stand to save considerably by making a full transition from coal.  That’s why we’ve been calling on our members and supporters to sign a petition calling on PNM to power past coal at the San Juan Generating Station.

In the meantime, we can at least be assured that air quality in the Four Corners region will take great strides forward.  As we said, this is great news for public health and the environment.

San Juan Power PlantThe San Juan Generating Station, with Four Corners power plant and hazy skies in background (photo by EcoFlight).