30 May 2007 - 09:18
  • News Code: 105903

Even in this “era of corporate social responsibility,“ employing legislative processes to promote ideological agendas and higher profits is still Job One for many organizations. The recent “Coal is filthy“ ad campaign in the United States is a perfect example.

Featuring misleading claims about pollution from coal-fired electrical generating plants, and a CleanSkyCoalition.com Web site, 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 the Web site. It was a cabal of natural gas companies, led by Chesapeake Energy of Oklahoma. Their goal wasn’t really 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 US$1 increase in natural gas prices costs US consumers another US$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 US Energy Information Administration. Indeed, consumers paid US$140- billion more in 2006 for gas and electricity than they did in 2000--an extra US$1,900 a year for every family of four.

That hit poor families especially hard, and the US manufacturing sector lost three million jobs.

Chesapeake has nine 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 Americans to import the difference, largely from less than friendly countries and in competition with other nations. Substituting gas for coal-fired electricity, as the ads suggest, would exacerbate these problems.

Geologists say the US Outer Continental Shelf could contain 420 Tcf--enough to meet current US demand for 15 years. But more than 85% of these areas are off limits to drilling; the situation is similar with onshore public lands; and eco purists want to keep it that way.

Electricity provides 40% of the energy the United States uses, and the country will need 100,000 megawatts of new electricity by 2020, according to analysts. Conservation and efficiency efforts would reduce demand somewhat. But growth in population and technologies that use electricity mean Americans will need every available source: gas, nuclear, hydroelectric, wind, biofuels, waste-to-energy--and coal. Right now, coal generates 50% of US electricity, and there are no viable alternatives in the near term.

The ads and environmental group Web sites say coal-fired power plants are responsible for scary-sounding portions of total US air pollution. But under scrutiny, some inconvenient facts make their Pollution Monsters look more like Sesame Street Cookie Monsters.

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%. And yet, during this period, aggregate air pollution was halved, thanks to improved efficiency and pollution control, air-quality expert Joel Schwartz points out. New rules require large additional reductions during the next decade 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 or increasing, 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 is now so low that it poses no significant health risks, even for children. (Asthma rates have been rising as air pollution was falling, so air pollution cannot be a factor.) Moreover, coal-generated electricity costs much less per kilowatt-hour than alternatives--leaving families with more money to spend on nutrition and health care.



News Code 105903

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