October 21, 2007

Coal on the Ropes

So much coal news, so little time: Ranchers and farmers are banding together with greens out West to oppose the construction of new coal-burning plants. The state of Kansas just shot down plans for a new coal plant on the grounds that it would emit too much CO2. Around the country, at least 16 proposals for new coal-fired plants have been scuttled—and three-dozen plans—delayed thanks to "concerns over global warming and rising construction costs." Hell, even The New Republic is stumping for a coal moratorium.

Meanwhile, there's a new poll out showing that 75 percent of Americans would support putting the kibbosh on new coal-fired power plants for five years in exchange for stepped-up investment in renewable energy and conservation. If I'm not mistaken, this sort of groundswell was what convinced Austin Energy decided, back in 1982, to scrap plans for a coal-fired power plant and make up the difference in energy efficiency (plus renewables plus, yes, nuclear)—and that's worked out pretty well: Consumers haven't seen much in the way of rate increases and they never needed to build the plant (I'm told that hay now grows on the proposed plant site).

Lucky for them, though, the coal industry can always turn to Congress for help. I see that the new Lieberman-Warner cap-and-trade bill in the Senate would give away, for free, nearly half of its CO2 allowances to coal companies—handouts that will be worth anywhere from $62 to $375 billion in 2012. Now, the ideal "green" alternative would be to auction all of the credits off (in which case the cap-and-trade would work just like a carbon tax), and then use the proceeds to ease the burden on low-income folks or invest in stuff like public transit. It seems the Democratic front-runners are all, at least, moving toward this position.

Meanwhile, a dozen major utilities—including Duke Energy—are now lobbying Congress to weaken the Lieberman-Warner bill further by putting a price cap on emission allowances. They call it a "safety valve." The way it will work is this: Utilities and coal companies will ask Congress for billions more in R&D subsidies to look into clean coal and carbon sequestration and other harebrained schemes that may never work. And if these schemes don't, in fact, work, well, the safety valve will ensure that they don't get penalized too badly and will live to fight another day. Yes, I'm shrill, but this is all by way of saying: The Lieberman-Warner bill is an OK start, but hot damn it needs improving.
-- Brad Plumer 3:06 PM || ||