Today’s guest post is from Theo Spencer, a senior advocate at the Natural Resources Defense Council’s climate center in New York. Theo, who is 43, is a great guy and a former colleague of mine at FORTUNE who left journalism in 2000 to join NRDC. He offered to write about his experience fighting coal plants; it’s a battle that environmentalists are winning. Theo is living proof, for all of you reporters and former reporters reading this blog, that there is meaningful life after journalism.
Coal has changed my life. I would like to take this opportunity to properly thank it.
You see, if it weren’t for coal, I wouldn’t have quit my job as a reporter at FORTUNE, and get out of journalism altogether after 10 years. Coal-fired power plants are one of the main sources of heat-trapping emissions, namely carbon dioxide (CO2). Around the time I left FORTUNE, about 175 new coal plants were planned in the United States. Over their lifetimes, these plants would have emitted as much CO2 as had been released by the burning of all fossil fuels since the Industrial Revolution.
Let’s not waste time debating whether or not global warming, climate change—whatever you want to call it—is real and caused by people burning fossil fuels like coal and gas. The Bush Administration said it was (Gleneagles G8, PDF]. So has all of the credible international scientific community and a who’s who of corporate America. Climate change is an extremely serious problem, and if we don’t do something to seriously reduce emissions, life on our planet will change dramatically, mostly for the worse.
But that’s not what got my goat about coal, and led me to quit my job at Fortune.
It was a sense of injustice. Environmental laws were passed for a reason—mainly because companies were doing things that were dangerous to people and our ecosystems. Think Love Canal or Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. These new laws such as the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act were and are being broken with a shocking impunity. The coal industry was and is a candidate for chief scofflaw. And some practices that are legal, shouldn’t be—ever heard of Mountain Top Removal coal mining? [PDF]
After FORTUNE, I was lucky enough to land a job at the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the nation’s largest and most-established environmental groups. NRDC is known for its science and fact-based analysis of issues, and for partnering with businesses to find solutions. My job was to fight proposed new conventional coal plants. That is, coal plants that do not capture and permanently store their CO2 in the ground.
Working with a coalition of other environmental groups, labor, progressive energy companies and concerned citizens, we’ve been able to stop two thirds of the new plants proposed. That’s a victory not just for us but for future generations. We’re still fighting the rest, using such tactics as legal challenges, VIP and media outreach, detailed analysis of alternatives, shareholder activism and gold old fashioned citizen organizing.
From most points of view—environmental, legal, energy needs—these plants are either irresponsible and/or just don’t make sense. However our most persuasive argument has been that these new plants just aren’t good business. One example pretty much sums things up:
Near the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia, Old Dominion Rural Electric Cooperative wants to build a coal plant [PDF] that it estimates will cost at least $6 billion. Company officials claim the plant will be the most “cost effective and sustainable” long-term solution to potential power needs for their 11 member cooperatives and approximately 1 million customers. It would be financed by debt secured on 45-year wholesale power contracts signed already by the member cooperatives.
But if you look a bit more closely at the deal — as we did — you’ll see that it’s a boondoggle subject to billions of dollars of cost over-runs under even conservative assumptions. What’s more, ODEC’s proposal includes no plan to capture the 10 million tons of CO2 it will emit each year; nor does it factor in the price it would have to pay under a climate bill for each one of those tons. It was for these types of reasons that the federal government, through the Department of Agriculture said it was no longer going to provide low-cost loans to co-ops wishing to build conventional coal plants
Now, Congress may not pass a cap on CO2 this year, although the House in the spring passed a fairly potent one. Yet pretty much any respectable industry analyst or CEO will tell you that such a bill will be signed into law soon. Even CEOs of utilities with big coal plant fleets are calling for such laws. (Duke Energy’s Jim Rogers is the most prominent.) And there’s a good reason why: They want economic certainty before they make multi-billion dollar capital investments.
All this said, the group I work for is not anti-coal. We believe that coal will be a part of America’s energy mix for many years to come, largely because of existing plants whose lifecycle is far from over. Coal interests are also an incredibly strong political force in Washington. We’ve smelled the coffee: no federal law will be passed to cap climate change emissions unless there are enough provisions to satisfy the coal guys. The recently passed House bill seems to have done that. The goal is striking a balance. And that means no new coal plants that don’t capture their CO2.
Even forecasts sponsored by opponents of action on clean energy and climate, when stripped of their ideological spin, show healthy economic growth under a climate bill. For instance, modeling by the National Association of Manufacturers and other groups showed that even in their worst-case scenario, the US economy would grow by 75% over the next twenty-three years. The logic is simple: Using energy more efficiently saves enterprises and households money, money they could otherwise spend on more employment and employment-intensive goods and services.
Reason is slowly prevailing. I love my job. Thank you, coal.