By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

You know that argument about how the U.S. can’t really impact greenhouse gases because they’re spiraling out of control in other developing nations like China and India?

It’s illogical on its face, but that’s not stopping fossil fuel interests from pushing this idea.

A coal hole in the ground in Wyoming that's not so small. (Photo: Bureau of Land Management)

I read one iteration in a slick piece designed to help us get more comfortable with cigare…I mean coal. It was in the Dallas Morning News, by way of the Manhattan Institute, a bastion of 20th Century thinking.

This is the argument in a nutshell: We have a lot of coal, and we always will, enough to last for decades. And even if we use less in the US, they’ll be using more of it all over the world. (That’s because, you know, there’s no such thing as technological advancement.) So relax. Let there be coal! It makes for cheap electricity.

The article slogged on, unfurling factoids about how much coal’s lying around (there does seem to be a lot of it) and feigning honest concern over coal’s dirty carbon footprint. Coal, yeah, it’s dirty, the author conceded, but quickly pivoted to its virtues: You can dig coal out of a little, old hole in the ground and it doesn’t take up a lot of real estate like solar and wind power. Here’s a sample paragraph:

“There’s no denying that coal has earned its reputation as a relatively dirty fuel. But those concerned about CO{-2} emissions and climate change should realize that the [Obama] administration’s attack on coal is little more than a token gesture. The rest of the world will continue to burn coal, and lots of it. Reducing domestic coal use may force Americans to pay higher prices for electricity, but it will have almost no effect on global emissions.”

It went on to talk about how coal produces more energy by weight than other forms of energy production.

Conveniently, though, the article didn’t seem to notice that once coal gets burned it’s gone. Poof, gone! But wind and solar and geothermal farms can last for decades or more with retrofits as technology improves. That’s why they get to be called renewable. So even though the energy derived from coal is efficient, in terms of Btu’s per volume, renewable replacements can generate energy for years and years. You can amortize the land and effort over decades.

Wind farms do take up vast tracts of land, but cattle can graze there and the wind farm doesn't have to be moved every few years to find more wind. (Photo: Argonne National Lab)

To not mention this huge difference between coal and clean energy sources, is an omission you could drive an earth mover through. Isn’t it worth more land for energy farms that produce year after year, compared with oil or coal that needs to be constantly rediscovered, unearthed and then, well, poof!?

Such attempts to gloss over the bad news (i.e., coal’s deadly carbon emissions issue) is reminiscent of the cigarette maker’s defense — “hey, not everyone who smokes gets cancer” — and those who argue that climate change is not so bad — forget that Dallas is uninhabitable, we could grow crops in Nova Scotia!

With this coal discussion, we’re at least beyond pure denial — what pollution? — but we’re now into slippery territory where the lawyer throws every other argument at the wall. Or in this case, the conservative Manhattan Institute, which is supported by foundations that fiercely defend the fossil fuels, such as the (Charles and David) Koch Family Foundation, throws it at the wall.

In particular, to justify a continued devil-may-care reliance on coal by declaring that everyone’s doing it makes no more sense than when your teen argues that he must stay out until dawn because it’s a universal behavior among 17-year-olds. You know it’s not. He knows it’s not and it’s time to call him on it.

We might be dependent on coal, but we can make plans to cut back. And that goes too for oil, another dirty-burning finite fossil fuel.

You need only to look around at the world to see that many nations are trying to curb coal and oil consumption.

  • This week India announced a $4.13 billion public/private partnership to accelerate the production of electric and hybrid vehicles from now until 2020, when the nation hopes to have 6 million more efficient cars on the road, according to Reuters. The country plans to subsidize consumers buying these cars as a way to curb carbon emissions (yes, electric cars powered by the grid may rely on coal, but only if the grid is powered that way).
  • China, the world’s biggest emitter of CO2 pollution because of its extensive use of coal also is moving away from this energy source. According to a Bloomberg series this summer, the emerging superpower has watched the cost of renewables plummet in comparison to a concurrent rise in the price of the cheap coal it once depended upon from Indonesia. While China did not fully engineer this re-structuring of prices, it is positioning itself to take advantage of it by aggressively building wind and solar capacity. It’s on a national mission to clean up its skies and become a leader in manufacturing for these new industries.

Not all nations are moving lockstep in the right direction. Germany has started burning more coal as it transitions off nuclear power, absurdly because it has carbon credits to spare under the European Union’s carbon trading scheme. (So much for carbon trading schemes). Brazil and Chile are both using more coal. But Germany’s also putting up solar panels and gets about 6 percent of its power from wind. Great Britain is marching forward with big plans for off-shore wind installations, with an eye to exporting wind-powered electricity, and in Mexico,wind grew by 60 percent in 2010.

It appears that many other countries, their citizens and their free industries, really do care about reducing carbon pollution, or at least diversifying their energy sources.  We really can’t point to “them” as a reason to drag our feet. Unless we just want to go along with disingenuous, illogical arguments that provide cover for dirty industries so they can plow ahead as always — while pushing us to the edge of the climate cliff.

Instead of being deluded or lulled or led by illogical arguments to maintain fossil fuels, we Americans could take control of the discussion, and ask, what is the responsible thing to do? How can the U.S. prepare for the future — regardless of what other countries are doing? What can we do to clean up greenhouse gases before they choke the life from the planet? How can we strengthen our security with domestic sources of power that cannot be exported? How can we create new, enduring, well-paying jobs in the energy field?

Would you answer, mine or burn more coal, to any of these questions?

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