In Coal We Trust

Late last year, a filibuster in the U.S. Senate appeared to have killed a controversial and, by everyone's account, grievously pork-laden federal energy bill. But the tactic didn't actually kill the bill. It merely sent the legislation back to committee, where some of the most outrageous provisions could be excised. Some, that is, but not all.

As Minnesota Senator Norm Coleman bragged in separate interviews with the editorial boards at the Star Tribune and the Pioneer Press last month, it appears that an $800 million federal loan guarantee for the construction of a so-called "clean coal" power plant on the Iron Range will survive in the reconstituted bill. In Coleman's view--and that of the rest of the state's congressional delegation--this is a good thing. From a Minnesota politician's perspective, of course, any proposal that generates jobs in the economically depressed Iron Range is a good proposal. (See "In Pork We Trust," 12/10/2003.)

But in the view of serious energy policy experts, the project bears all the hallmarks of a boondoggle. True, the technology employed--called coal gasification--is much less polluting than the technology used in conventional coal-fired power plants.

However, Excelsior Energy's proposed Mesaba Energy Project--the brainchild of two politically connected former Northern States Power executives--does not promise any meaningful solution to the thorny problem of carbon dioxide emissions. Because carbon dioxide is the main cause of global warming, strict regulation of CO2 emissions is generally regarded as an inevitable component of a future national energy policy.

Which begs the question: Why should taxpayers and power consumers be put on the hook for an enormous project that will likely be rendered functionally obsolete by future regulation?

That's what environmental attorney Barbara Freese wonders. "As an investment matter, it only makes sense to build coal plants if you can operate them for decades and take advantage of cheap coal prices. But with global warming, that is now a fantasy," observes Freese. "Private investors would say, 'No way are we going to spend money on this facility.'" Which is exactly why Excelsior stuck its hand out to the federal government.

Freese, who spent the 1990s as a lawyer with the Minnesota Attorney General's office and is the author of the recently published and highly acclaimed Coal: A Human History, notes that even "clean coal" plants like the one proposed by Excelsior "represent a very climate-destructive technology."

There is, Freese acknowledges, a possible solution to the CO2 problem: capturing and then "sequestering" the emissions by pumping them deep underground. But whether or not that would work--practically and economically--remains an open question. "You can't just build it and assume that you're going to deal with the waste someday in the future," Freese adds. "That's what got us in so much trouble with nuclear power."

In fact, skepticism over the Excelsior project does seem to be increasing outside Minnesota. In a joint letter to the House and Senate energy committees, four U.S. senators, including presidential frontrunner John Kerry, singled out the project as an example of the wasteful and parochial aspects of the energy bill.

While the senators did not critique the project through the lens of global warming, that issue is becoming increasingly difficult to sidestep.

Last week, the British newspaper the Observer reported on a "secret" white paper examining some of the worst-case scenarios in the event of what the authors term "abrupt global climate change." The underlying theory--that the accumulation of greenhouse gases might trigger widespread droughts, floods, and radical changes in ocean currents--is nothing new. But in teasing out the geopolitical consequences of such events, the report strikes an unusually dire tone.

The paper, called "Imagining the Unthinkable," envisions a dramatic reduction in the earth's carrying capacity, meaning the number of people it can support. This, the authors suggest, could lead to a wave of food and water shortages that would trigger border conflicts and, ultimately, nuclear war--all within the next 20 years.

The study is less surprising for its conclusions than its origins. It was commissioned by the Pentagon under the aegis of Andrew Marshall, a legendary neo-con futurist and veteran Cold War gamer at the Department of Defense. The conclusions--that climate change should be viewed as a national security concern not unlike terrorism--stands in contrast to the official agnosticism of the Bush administration.

For Barbara Freese, that's a hopeful sign, in spite of the push for things like the Mesaba Energy Project.

"For many years, the right wing has tried to make it look like climate change is some sort of left-wing hoax," she says. "To have the Pentagon saying this is an issue we have to take more seriously undermines that argument."

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