Monday, December 29, 2008

Kingston Coal Ash Sludge Spill Over a Billion Gallons: Time to Take a Hard Look at the Coal Industry

Cross-posted from It's Getting Hot in Here - dispatches from the youth climate movement, by Richard Graves, founder of Fired Up Media.

One week ago, Kingston, Tennessee, woke up to find that over one billion gallons of coal ash sludge had surged out of a poorly built and poorly maintained containment pond, one of three at the Kingston Coal Plant, after the dam holding back acres of inky black and toxic coal ash sludge failed. The Tennessee Valley Authority, the federal corporation that operates the Kingston Coal Plant, first reported that 360 millions gallons of coal ash sludge had flooded over 400 acres of local watersheds and river, then the estimate was revised to 540 million gallons, and now the best estimate puts the amount as over 1 billion gallons. This puts the amount spilled as more than 100 times larger than the Exxon Valdez disaster and, in fact, more than every drop of petroleum used in the United States that day. This coal sludge spill is simply unprecedented in size and scale and should become the stunning example of exactly how dirty coal really is.

Numbers aside, as it is impossible to really comprehend the scale of the disaster in words - this is a very dramatic example of how our consumption and reliance on coal is quite literally reshaping our world. Whether by flooding 400 acres of beautiful Tennessee valleys and rivers with six feet of coal ash, or blowing the tops off of literally hundreds of mountains in Appalachia, or changing the global climate itself through massive releases of carbon dioxide - the coal industry has perhaps the greatest impact of any industry in the world - yet we barely know it.
Coal plants intake almost 20% of the United States' freshwater, uses almost half of our freight railroad capacity, and leaves behind scarred landscapes, poor and exploited communities, kills vulnerable people - in fact, the Kingston Coal plant is estimated to cut short the lives of over 149 people a year - and coal is the leading source of global warming pollutants from the United States.

Coal power devours landscapes, poisons the land and water, and yet it remains virtually unregulated in critical areas of impact. Smokestack emissions of sulfur dioxide (SOX), nitrous oxide (NOX), and mercury are regulated - to a certain extent - with SOX regulated through a Cap & Trade system that has been adopted by most large environmental groups as the mechanism to tackle global warming. However, federally mandated scrubbers on coal plants have led to the concentration of pollutants in coal ash, everything from arsenic, lead, mercury, thorium, and uranium. Yet, coal ash is not regulated as toxic waste - although the EPA is 'considering' doing so'.

The Bush Administration has even worked at redefining the word 'fill' to allow the coal industry to be unregulated by the Clean Water Act and allow the destruction of mountains and pushing the rubble into streambeds and valleys. Carbon dioxide is still unregulated, despite efforts to pass a federal climate bill and the Supreme Court ruling that the Executive Branch is obligated to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. Unregulated, unaccountable, and corrupt is the way that many coal companies operate. Little surprise then that TVA announced as a safety measure that residents impacted by the coal ash spill should boil their water - thereby concentrating the heavy metal contaminants - instead of providing safe drinking water to residents.

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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

This is "Clean Coal": Massive Coal Sludge Spill Dwarfs Exxon Valdez Disaster

Let's see how the "clean coal" PR hucksters at the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity try to spin this tragic news: a retention pond holding toxic coal ash slurry burst Monday in Roane County, Tennessee, releasing over half a billion gallons of potentially toxic sludge that swept into the nearby town of Harriman and contaminated tributaries of the Tennessee River. The resulting flood damaged 15 homes, injured one man as it knocked his house of its foundations, and has left over 400 acres of land covered by several feet of coal ash, mud and contaminated water (see video below).

Coal ash and slurry is the normal byproduct of coal-fired electricity generating, and is usually stored in giant retaining ponds near coal plants. The resulting coal slurry is frequently contaminated by heavy metals, mercury and arsenic.

Yesterday's tragedy struck at the coal ash impoundment associated with the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston coal-fired steam plant and released about 2.6 million cubic yards of slurry, the Tennessean reports. That's enough to fill nearly 800 Olympic-sized swimming pools, and is over 40 times more contaminated sludge than the infamous Exxon Valdez oil spill.

As usual, a picture is worth a thousand words - and a video is worth even more; you can see scenes from the environmental disaster at the photo gallery here and the video below:

Greenpeace has called for a criminal investigation into the disaster, noting that similar spills in the past have resulted in felony charges.

"Every facility like this is supposed to have a spill contingency plan to prevent this kind of disaster," said Rick Hind, Greenpeace Legislative Director. "The authorities need to get to the bottom of what went wrong and hold the responsible parties accountable."

The coal industry has a long and not-so-stellar record of coal slurry disasters.

"This is the kind of scary thing that people living with coal worry about every day," notes Dana, a West Virginia-based activist with the Student Environmental Action Coalition.

At, Dana writes:

In February 1972, Buffalo Creek Sludge Impoundment, [burst and released] a mere 132 million gallons, killed 125 people, left 5,000 homeless and thousands more with post traumatic stress disorder. In 2000, a 2.2 billion gallon coal waste dam failed in Martin County, Kentucky. The largest dam in the hemisphere is the Brushy Fork Sludge Impoundment, which holds 9 billion gallons of toxic coal waste.

So, this is the history coalfield residents hold in our hearts when we open our emails and see “Slurry Pond Bursts.”
The Sierra Club's Bruce Nilles, writing at DailyKos, notes:
"There are literally hundreds of these sludge impoundments across the United States. As coal has dominated Appalachia, it has left behind a toxic legacy for residents, a legacy that will haunt the region for decades. For example, in Sundial, West Virginia, an elementary school sits just 400 yards downhill from a massive impoundment containing 2.8 billion gallons of toxic coal sludge."
Greenpeace notes that, like Exxon Valdez, the millions of gallons of coal sludge released Monday could take years to clean up, and some of the damage to the ecosystem could be irreparable.

"If the Exxon Valdez was a symbol of pollution 20 years ago, the Tennessee Coal Spill of 2008 is the symbol of it today," said Kate Smolski, Senior Legislative Coordinator for Greenpeace.

Smolski added that these local impacts represent only a small fraction of coal's negative impact.

"The really sad thing about this spill is that it's only a small example of the damage coal causes," Smolski added. "Add in global warming, tens of thousands of annual premature deaths from power plant pollution, and hundreds of mountains leveled across Tennessee, Virginia, Kentucky and West Virginia, and that's the real picture of coal."

Monday's tragic slurry spill puts the lie to the coal industry's recent multi-million dollar "clean coal" PR blitz. You simply can't argue with reality - at least not for too long.

See related posts:

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Thursday, December 18, 2008

Obama Taps Green Jobs Champion Hilda Solis as Labor Secretary

Names Two Strong Climate Scientists to other Posts

President-elect Barack Obama has tapped green jobs and immigrant rights champion Representative Hilda Solis (D-CA) to head his Labor Department, according to the Associated Press.

Representative Solis was the key sponsor of the Green Jobs Act of 2007 and has been a vocal champion in the House of Representatives for investments in a new, clean energy economy that can spark new innovation and offer pathways out of poverty for millions of Americans.

Upon passage of the Green Jobs Act, Representative Solis, who represents heavily Hispanic portions of eastern Los Angeles County and east L.A highlighted the "opportunity to advance not only the energy security of our nation, but also the economic security of our families. Through targeted job training efforts," she said, "we can support both our nation’s innovation and technological leadership and lift people out of poverty.”

As AP reports, the Democratic congresswoman was just elected to her fifth term . She is the daughter of Mexican and Nicaraguan immigrants and has been the only member of Congress of Central American descent.

[Update: 1:29 PM, PST]: Two other nominations were made public today, both scientists with strong records as climate change advocates.

Dr. Stephen Holdren, a professor at Harvard University and the President and Director of Woods Hole Research Center, a major center of climate science, will head the White House Office of Science Technology and Policy.

Dr. Jane Lubchenco, a prominent environmental scientist and marine ecologist at Oregon State University has been selected to lead the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Dr. Lubchenco has studied the effects of climate change on marine species and co-chaired Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski's Advisory Group on Global Warming which recommended actions the state could take to cut global warming pollution.

Official announcements of the appointments are expected from the Obama transition team in the next few days.

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Friday, December 12, 2008

Quote of the Day, December 12th, 2008

"We believe that aggressive support of energy science and technology, coupled with incentives that accelerate the current development and deployment of innovative solutions can transform the entire landscape of energy demand and supply.

What the world does in the coming decade will have enormous consequences that will last for centuries. It is imperative that we begin without further delay."
-Steven Chu (USA) and Jose Goldemberg (Brazil), Co-Chair's Preface, "Lighting the Way: Toward a Sustainable Energy Future." Dr. Steven Chu was just named as Barack Obama's choice for the next United States Secretary of Energy.

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BBC Says "Obama's First Real Challenge: Reducing America's Dependence on Coal"

An interesting look at coal, mountain top removal, and the challenges awaiting President-elect Barack Obama from our friends across the pond at the BBC:

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RFK Jr Condemns Bush Administration's Loot and Run Environmental Tactics and Mountain Top Removal in Bombshell House Testimony

From our friends at Appalachian Voices:

The House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming held an important hearing yesterday on Bush’s 11th hour rule-making (see my previous post here). As most of our readers will know, one of those last minute rule changes is a repeal of the 25 year old Stream Buffer Zone rule - an important guard against the dumping of mountaintop removal mining waste into our streams.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr gives the most significant and compelling testimony on mountaintop removal mining I have ever seen, and I hope you will take 10 minutes to watch him describe in his own words - and the words of his late father - exactly what is happening to the Appalachian Mountains.

Unofficial transcript below the fold (starting at about the 3:10 mark)...

I’ve filed very detailed testimony about some of the worst of these actions, but I just wanted to give you a real life expression of what’s going on. I flew only a few weeks ago over the Appalachian Mountains over eastern Kentucky, and West Virginia mainly, and the Cumberland Plateau. If the American people could see what I saw on that trip, there would be a revolution in this country. We are literally cutting down the Appalachian Mountains, these historic landscapes where Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett roamed. The Appalachians, Chairman, were a refuge during the Pleistocene ice age 20,000 years ago when – where I live and the district Congressman Hall represents was under 2 miles of ice at that time. The rest of North America turned into a tundra where there was no forest. And the last refuge for those forests was the Appalachian Mountains. And when the tundras and glaciers withdrew, all of America was reseeded from the seed stock in those forests. So it’s the mother forest of all north America, and that’s why it’s the most diverse and abundant temperate forest in the world. Because it’s the longest living. And today, these mining companies with the help of their indentured servants in the White House are doing what those glaciers couldn’t accomplish. What the Pleistocene Ice Age couldn’t accomplish which is to flatten the Appalachian mountains and destroys those forests. They’re using draglines, which are 22 stories high. I flew under one of them in a piper cup. They cost 1/2 billion dollars and practically dispense of the need for human labor.

When my father was fighting strip mining in Appalachia back in the 1960s – I remember a conversation I had with him when I was 14 years old – where he said they are not just destroying the environment, they are permanently impoverishing these communities, because there is no way that they will ever be able to regenerate an economy from these barren moonscapes that are left behind And he said they are doing it so they can break the unions. And that’s exactly what happened. When he told me that there were 140, 000 union miners in WV digging coal out of tunnels in the ground. Today there are fewer than 11,000 miners left in the state, a very few of them are unionized because the strip industry isn’t. They are taking more coal out of WV than they were in 1968, but the difference is back then at least some of that money was being left in that state for salaries and pensions and reinvestment in that communities. Today, virtually all of it is going to leaving the state and going straight up to Wall Street to the big banking houses and to the corporate headquarters of Arch Coal, Massey Coal, and Peabody Coal – mainly Massey coal and then to the big banking houses like Bank of America and Morgan which own these operations.

95% of the coal in WV is owned by out of state interests which are liquidating the state for cash, literally, using these giant machines and 2500 tons of explosives that they detonate every day, in West Virginia - the power of a Hiroshima bomb once a week. They are blowing the tops off the mountains to get at the coal seams beneath, they take these giant machines and they scrape the rock and debris and rubble into the hollows and into the adjacent river valleys. They flattened out the landscapes, they flatten out the valleys. They have already flattened 400,000 acres of the Appalachian Mountains. By the time they get done, within a decade, if this rule goes through and you don’t succeed in getting rid of it, they will have flattened 2200 miles, - an area the size of Delaware. According to EPA they have already buried 1200 miles of America’s rivers and streams, these critical headwater streams that are critical to the hydrology and to the water quality and to the abundance of wildlife and the forests and the biota of those regions. Its all illegal. You can not in the United States under the Clean Water Act dump rock, debris, and rubble into a waterway without a Clean Water Act permit and you can not get such a permit.

So, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, and my good friend Joe Lovett sued the companies in federal court in front of a conservative Republican federal judge, Judge Charles Hayden, and he said during this hearing. He said to the Corps of Engineers Colonel, who was there to testify, “You know this is illegal. It says so in the Clean Water Act. How did you happen to start writing these permits to allow the companies to break the law, and engage in this criminal activity?” The Colonel answered, “I don’t know your honor, we just kind of oozed into it.” And Judge Hayden at the end of that hearing said exactly what I just said. Its all illegal, its been illegal since day one, and he enjoined all mountaintop mining. Two days from when we got that decision lobbyists for Peabody coal and Massey coal met in the back door of the Interior Dept with Gale Norton’s first deputy chief Steven J. Griles, who was a former lobbyist for those companies, and together they re-wrote they interpretation of one word of the Clean Water Act – the definition of the word “fill” to change 30 years of statutory interpretation and make it legal not just in WV, but in every state of this country to dump rock, debris, rubble, garbage, any solid material into any waterway in the united states without a Clean Water Act permit. All you need today, according to the Administration is a rubber stamp from the Corps of Engineers, which in some districts you can get through the mail or over the telephone. Now, the last vestige of protection that we had in WV was a Stream Buffer Zone law that was upheld also by Judge Charles Hayden, which said that you can’t do this if you are within 100 feet of a stream. Well this is the law today that this Administration is trying to get rid of before it leaves office to make it so there is absolutely no way - there is not a single obstacle or impediment - to these companies just coming and flattening the entire Appalachian chain.

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Rachel Maddow Pillories Bush's Loot and Run Tactics and Coal Industry Greenwashing

Picking up on topics we've been covering here at WattHead recently - including both the Bush Administration's 11th hour loot and run environmental strategy and the greenwashing shenanigans of the coal industry - MSNBC's Rachel Maddow pilloried both Bush and the coal industry yesterday in her regular weeknight segment, the Rachel Maddow Show. Bravo to Maddow for highlighting both of these dastardly moves:

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Coal Industry Front Group Cans Clean Coal Carolers

What happened to those adorable clean coal carolers?!

After just three days of online absurdity, the coal industry front group, "America's Power" canned the anthropomorphic singing chunks of coal from their website amidst a torrent of netroots pressure.

After getting kicked around by the blogosphere for a few days, the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity's absurd and more than slightly disturbing and sacrilegious effort to win the hearts and minds of Americans with doctored Christmas carols was eventually pilloried by Rachel Maddow on MSNBC:

"How about turning the most famous song in the English language about the birth of Jesus into a commercial for the coal industry? ... Where are all those war on Christmas people when you need them?!"

Today, the coal front group pulled the clean coal carolers from their website and took down the facebook page (which had been joined by about a dozen new Facebook members with names like "Asthma Al" and "Black Lung Billy" soon after it was launched!). The group's blog only had this to say by way of explanation: "We had fun this week with the Clean Coal Carolers and hope you enjoyed them. Now it's time for them to head home for the holidays."

Well WE certainly had some fun with them too, and I think we all know why they took down the clean coal carolers (right, like they planned to only have them online for three days and pull them 13 days before Christmas... Sure...). At least today, chock this one up as another win for the netroots and a loss for multi-million dollar industry-sponsored greenwashing. Happy Holidays!

(Luckily, someone caught the "Frosty the Coal Man" video on youtube for posterity before it's hilarity was lost forever. Check it out below the fold...)

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Thursday, December 11, 2008

Obama Picks Stephen Chu to Lead Energy Department

Barack Obama made public yesterday his intentions to appoint Dr. Steven Chu, director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, as Secretary of Energy.

Dr. Chu, a Nobel laureate clean energy expert, is well known for turning the Berkeley Lab into a center of clean energy and efficiency innovation, forging the Berkeley Lab-British Petroleum partnership, sitting on the Copenhagen Climate Council, and winning a Nobel Prize in physics in 1997. His appointment is probably most notable for the sharp contrast between the capable, knowledgeable academic and the past military officers, oil industry consultants and utilities executives who have served in the position.

Last year, Chu was the co-chair of an InterAcademic Council Paper entitled Lighting the Way: Toward a Sustainable Energy Future. The report proposes "best practices for a global transition to a clean, affordable and sustainable energy supply in both developing and developed countries," focusing on policies to support the development and deployment of technologies "that can transform the landscape of energy supply and demand around the globe." If Lighting the Way is reflective of Chu's understanding of the energy challenge, he clearly sees it as a technology-driven global development challenge, a good sign that Chu is the right pick to head up DOE and it's many energy RD&D programs.

Speaking at this summer's National Clean Energy Summit convened by Senator Harry Reid, Dr. Chu also evidences a keen understanding of the potentials of energy efficiency and the need for breakthrough renewable energy technologies. "Another myth is [that] we have all the technologies we need to solve the energy challenge. It's only a matter of political will," he says. "I think political will is absolutely necessary... but we need new technologies to transform the [energy] landscape." He then goes on to discuss the work on breakthrough solar and biomass technologies pursued under his leadership by LBNL's new Helios Project.

Coming, as he does, from within the National Labs system itself, it will be interesting to see if Chu will advocate the sweeping reforms to America's energy technology innovation system we need. It's also unclear if Chu's academic acumen will translate well to a more political stage. But what does seem to be clear is that in Dr. Chu, Obama has found an able technologist with a keen grasp on both the technical and political challenges of creating a new global energy economy.

Obama has also announced intentions to name Carol Browner, former EPA Administrator and current transition team advisor for energy and environment, as the administration's new "Energy and Climate Czar," and former New Jersey Environmental Commissioner Lisa Jackson to run the Environmental Protection Agency.

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Stop Stalling: Time to Hit the Reset Button on Detroit

Cross-posted from the Breakthrough Institute

Last night, the US House of Representatives approved $14 billion in emergency loans to keep GM and Chrysler on life support into the new year. Senate Republicans are in revolt though and may block passage without new amendments to allow more dramatic restructuring of the company's debt.

"If we don't have the forced restructuring plans in place, many of us don't believe that American car companies will come out of this in a competitive position and the taxpayers' money will be wasted," Senator John Ensign told the Washington Post (R-Nev.).

I hate to say it, but I'm forced to agree with Republicans on this account: $14 billion to prop up GM and Chrysler until Obama takes office is an obvious half measure, a stall tactic that will merely punt the tough decisions down the line another couple months. While it may buy us a month or three, the proposed bailout will amount to nothing in the long term unless more dramatic actions to restructure and reinvent the American auto industry are taken.

Congress is apparently set to sacrifice the only planned efforts to directly help the Big Three do the only thing that will make them competitive in the long run: produce more efficient, innovative and competitive cars. The bailout bill passed by the House will be paid for by raiding most of the funds set aside last year by 2007 Energy Bill to help Detroit develop and build more efficient, advanced vehicles.

And let's not forget that $14 billion essentially ensures the Big Three will be back for more in no time at all. GM, Chrysler and Ford asked Congress for $34 billion last week, and that was almost certainly a low-ball estimate. Mark Zandi of Moody's told Congress that the Not-So-Big-Anymore Three will require upwards of $125 billion to keep solvent through the end of 2009.

The restructuring plans proposed by the auto companies are too little too late to rekindle a competitive, vibrant American auto industry, and the efforts will be guided by the same inept management that already drove these companies into the ground. And the "car czar" Congress is set to create will have authority only to keep tabs on the Big Three's "progress" along their self-prescribed restructuring plans, not require a new direction for the mismanaged companies.

Finally, the bailout will do nothing to restore consumer confidence in the tarnished American car brands. Americans know a losing brand when they see one, and all the bailouts in the world will do little to restore consumer confidence unless they perceive dramatic changes are underway.

Let's face facts: GM and Chrysler are already bankrupt, for all intents and purposes. They're done. Finished. And Ford may not be far behind. The only reason there's anything left of the withering companies is because they were so big to begin with. So let's start treating them like failed companies - not like privileged children who just need a stern talking to before they get send back out to play.

Forget half measures; they simply won't do the job. It's time to hit the reset button on Detroit.

Remember: the goal of this bailout shouldn't be to save GM, Chrysler or Ford. It should be to protect the industry as a whole - and the American jobs it supports. That means we should put aside incremental steps and embrace a major industry reorganization.

The short-term goal of this taxpayer-funded bailout and industry reorganization effort should be to protect as many auto industry jobs as possible, providing a "soft landing" for the failing companies' employees at a time when a hard collapse would shatter an already ailing economy. The long term goal though should be to radically re-invent the American auto industry, helping birth a new, innovative and competitive industry.

I'll stop short of suggesting we completely nationalize the auto companies - although that position is increasingly appealing - and simply suggest the following as a prerequisite for any taxpayer support for the auto industry:

  • The bailout should treat the companies as bankrupt. They are. If they aren't heading to Chapter 11 bankruptcy court, Congress should appoint a blue ribbon commission of industry, finance and restructuring experts with similar far reaching authority to require changes in management, restructure the companies, and renegotiate with their creditors. The commission would act in the public interest to develop a real plan to restructure these companies and reorganize the industry. All options should be on the table, including dissolving the companies and creating new, smaller, more competitive companies that inherit their predecessor's divisions and assets. The commission will then present their plan to Congress who will vote up or down before it is enacted.

  • The commission should no doubt start by firing the current management of any company receiving a bailout You don't get to run a company into the ground, get a blank check from taxpayers and then go right along your merry way. Well, you did if you were a Wall Street exec getting money in the last bailout spree, but it's now (finally!) widely recognized that giving billions of taxpayer dollars to the same inept management that led a company to its current dire situation is idiotic.

  • In the mean time, Congress can and should approve loans to keep the doors open and workers employed. When the final tally comes in, this will no doubt cost more than $15 billion.
But this bailout and reorganizing plan is really just necessary to buy time for Congress to take up it's real task: developing a strategy to support the rapid development and commercialization of innovative new cars and trucks that can address pressing national interests - including breaking our oil addiction and slashing global warming pollution - while restoring the American auto industry's competitive edge.

However successful a bailout and reorganization effort is, there's simply no way American car companies will emerge from their sorry state in any condition to make serious investments in the technology innovation necessary to recapture a competitive position in the global auto market ... at least not without significant, direct support from the United States government. How can we expect GM, Chrysler, Ford (or their successor companies) to invest billions to rapidly develop and commercialize the cutting edge automotive technologies - including plug-in hybrid electric vehicles and advanced composite materials - that will be necessary to outcompete Japanese, European and even Chinese companies. Instead of raiding the modest funds set aside for advanced vehicle manufacturing, we should be putting billions more on the table to spur automotive technology development and deployment. And we should be willing to directly buy down the cost of emerging technologies - including advanced batteries - to quickly drive down costs as economies of scale are reached.

In short: it's time we accept that without new technology innovation policies and major new government investments, we will face the gradual extinction of the American auto industry.

If that sounds like the kind of "industrial policy" that has been anathema in the United States for so long, I'll leave you with this: it was the aggressive industrial policy driven by Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI, formerly the Ministry of International Trade and Industry) that helped Toyota and Honda grow into the global car companies now trashing American automakers in markets from Springfield to Shanghai.

METI also played a similar role in the ascendancy of the Japanese semiconductor industry in the 1980s. And don't forget that when Japanese companies started stealing market share from US-based chipmakers like Intel and IBM, the federal government responded with it's own form of industrial policy, launching the SEMATECH initiative. Seeded with half a billion dollars in public investments through the Department of Defense, SEMATECH helped American companies shoulder the high cost of cutting-edge research, helping them commercialize new, innovative semiconductor manufacturing solutions. Maybe technology innovation policy isn't such an un-American idea after all...

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Obama Says Time to Repower America

The President-elect joined Al Gore yesterday to say:

"...we have the opportunity now to create jobs all across this country, in all 50 states, to repower America, to redesign how we use energy, to think about how we are increasing efficiency, to make our economy stronger, make us more safe, reduce our dependence on foreign oil, and make us competitive for decades to come, even as we're saving the planet."

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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

"Clean" Coal Front Group Hucks "Frosty the Coal Man" and Other Brazen Assaults on Christmas Spirit

When you peddle a product that blows the tops off of whole mountains, is the leading contributor to global warming and toxic air pollution, and is facing an increasingly effective grassroots and legal assault, what are you to do? Well, apparently what you do is dress up your ugly product in cute Christmas garb, pen some songs to the tune of favorite seasonal carols, and then sit back and wait for the public to rush to your side.

At least that's the apparent logic behind the coal lobby's new "Clean Coal Carolers" web page, (and FaceBook group) where - I'm not making this up! - you can dress up little, floating, anthropomorphic chunks of coal in scarves and ear muffs and have them sing versions of your favorite carols, brazenly updated to shill for the mythic "clean coal" the industry is peddling these days. "Silent Night" is now "Clean Coal Night" and "Frosty the Snowman" is the "portable and adorable" "Frosty the Coalman."

The Union of Concerned Scientists put out this excellent response today:

Ah, if only fun outerwear and corny songs could erase coal's dirty statistics. The 1,430,000 tons of coal burned in a typical 500 megawatt coal plant produces:
  • 3.7 million tons of carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the main greenhouse gas, and is the leading cause of global warming. There are no regulations limiting carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S.
  • 10,000 tons of sulfur dioxide. Sulfur dioxide (SOx) is the main cause of acid rain, which damages forests, lakes and buildings.
  • 10,200 tons of nitrogen oxide. Nitrogen oxide (NOx) is a major cause of smog, and also a cause of acid rain.
  • 500 tons of small particles. Small particulates are a health hazard, causing lung damage. Particulates smaller than 10 microns are not regulated, but may be soon.
  • 220 tons of hydrocarbons. Fossil fuels are made of hydrocarbons; when they don't burn completely, they are released into the air. They are a cause of smog.
  • 720 tons of carbon monoxide. Carbon monoxide (CO) is a poisonous gas and contributor to global warming.
  • 125,000 tons of ash and 193,000 tons of sludge from the smokestack scrubber. A scrubber uses powdered limestone and water to remove pollution from the plant's exhaust. Instead of going into the air, the pollution goes into a landfill or into products like concrete and drywall. This ash and sludge consists of coal ash, limestone, and many pollutants, such as toxic metals like lead and mercury.
  • 225 pounds of arsenic, 114 pounds of lead, 4 pounds of cadmium, and many other toxic heavy metals. Mercury emissions from coal plants are suspected of contaminating lakes and rivers in northern and northeast states and Canada. In Wisconsin alone, more than 200 lakes and rivers are contaminated with mercury. Health officials warn against eating fish caught in these waters, since mercury can cause birth defects, brain damage and other ailments. Acid rain also causes mercury poisoning by leaching mercury from rocks and making it available in a form that can be taken up by organisms.
  • Trace elements of uranium. All but 16 of the 92 naturally occurring elements have been detected in coal, mostly as trace elements below 0.1 percent (1,000 parts per million, or ppm). A study by DOE's Oak Ridge National Lab found that radioactive emissions from coal combustion are greater than those from nuclear power production.
For more information on coal, go to "How Coal Works."
To put visually, it does this:

and this:

and this:

And regardless of how incrementally cleaner burning coal gets, you'll still have to dig it out of the ground, a process that will never be clean. And now, more and more coal is being mined through the process known as mountain top removal, which blows the tops off of entire mountains in Appalachia and dumps the remains onto streams and valleys to get at the coal underneath - a process that destroys ecosystems, communities and coal mining jobs, which are replaced by the less labor intensive (and more explosives intensive) mining practice.

As long as coal mining does this...'ll NEVER be anything close to "clean," and to use the Christmas spirit to peddle lies is about as dastardly a move as you'd expect to see coming from industry front groups.

Check out,, and for the truth on coal.

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Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Which Path Will the Youth Climate Movement Take?

By Richard Graves, originally posted at

The world is halfway through the process to create a global climate treaty to respond to Global Warming. In the halls around me, government, NGO, and UN negotiators are painstakingly working through the process to create a draft text for this treaty. The last decade has been a period where climate campaigners and negotiators knew where they stood, with the Bush Administration blocking progress, the European Union leading on the UN process, and environmental organizations facing off against the Oil, Gas, and Coal industries. Suddenly everything has changed, with Obama’s election, the EU Climate Package failing, and the Canadians having a parliamentary crisis - a financial crisis dragging down the automobile companies - and newly emergent actors like the youth movement, trade unions, and justice advocates showing up onto the global scene.

Nevertheless, with a financial crisis diverting attention from the climate crisis and backsliding among traditional advocates for strong international climate action - there is a lot of frustration and fear on the behalf of many Non-Governmental Organizations. One of the bright spots of the Poznan climate talks has been the arrival of large and energized youth delegations, including representatives of countries such as India, that have inspired many people here. Yet, despite the ever-growing level of international cooperation there remains two paths that this movement could take - that will have major consequences on the outcome of the global negotiations.

Youth have strengths that they bring to these negotiations, but nothing is stronger than the moral voice and clarity they bring to the often intentionally complicated policy discussions that occur at the UN. Youth also have the potential to move, organize, and act on a speed that is matched only by the sophisticated online organizing outfits, like, that have arisen recently. Young people represent more than the NGO sector and have government delegates, media representatives, youth union reps, and more. They also are willing to call for bold action, develop innovative strategies for advocacy, and have a passion that is palpable to anyone that has spent any time in their presence.

Yvo de Boer, the president of the UNFCCC, in an Inter-generational Inquiry on the role of youth at these negotiations, was asked as to what role young people should play in these talks. He said that too many NGOs have bureaucratized and dropped their banners to put on suits. He said young people must raise the profile of this issue in their home countries, until their governments are forced to listen, if they hope to influence the outcome. For a UN diplomat, it was quite a statement - acknowledged that governments need to be pressured publicly and NGOs were failing to act and remained myopically focused on research, policy expertise, and lobbying meetings.

Yet, it is not entirely clear which path the youth climate movement will take. Many of the delegations represented here have enormous policy teams, drawing students from research universities, that write policy submissions, follow discussions, and lobby delegates. One major proposal, has been for youth to serve as adjunct staff to delegations from Small Island and Developing States that are calling for strong action. Actions often remain rooted in efforts to influence particular policies being debated or discussed. Young people in suits are in abundance everywhere. Will these youth climate activists follow down the path of many NGOs and serve as a next generation of policy analysts, diplomats, and advocates? Will the main focus be on side-events, submissions, interventions, tracking the many ad-hoc working groups, and developing experience with the policy process?

Or will youth climate advocates take another path? Will they develop campaigns that are fearless in their demands, huge in scale, and undertake actions even if it costs them access to delegates or representatives? There are campaigners here, from groups like the Rainforest Action Network (slogan: Environmentalism with Teeth”) that are willing to pick targets and hold people accountable. and youth delegates last year served as the voice of conscience and fought a bruising battle with delegates from Japan, Canada, and USA last year. Will an international youth climate network serve as a secretariat and liaison group with the UN, or will it coordinate a global campaign that targets fossil fuel companies, politicians, and their lobbyists? Can these young people shake the pillars of power and authority with fearless tactics, digital strategy, mass mobilization, and boots on-on-the ground organizing?

Now, before someone accuses me of promoting a false dichotomy or pigeonholing a movement that embraces a diversity of tactics - I understand that any movement needs a diversity of actors, but the question remains of how the effort, energy, genius, and resources of the youth climate movement will be directed.

To read more about the emerging international youth climate movement, goto or

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Friday, December 05, 2008

Too Big To Fail? Too Big, Period.

Cross-posted from the Breakthrough Institute

The executives of General Motors, Ford and Chrysler made yet another trek to Washington DC this week - this time ditching the corporate jets to drive hybrid cars - and once again pled for a federal bailout to prop up their struggling companies. Up to $34 billion taxpayer dollars are apparently all that stands between at least two of the "Big Three" automakers and bankruptcy.

GM's executives told Congress the company will fail very, very soon unless it receives at least $12 billion in loans in the coming months. Chrysler warned they could go belly up by year's end without $7 billion in government aid. Even Ford, which is doing a bit better than its two Detroit brethren, is asking for an open, taxpayer-funded line of credit of up to $9 billion dollars.

All this means its time for Congress and the American public to face two basic facts.

First, GM and Chrysler are essentially bankrupt already, and Ford may not be far behind. The insular management of the Big Three has already run their companies into the ground, and if a massive government loan is the only thing that will keep them afloat, we might as well consider them failed companies, for all intents and purposes. So let's start treating them that way. With the economy in recession already, we certainly need to ensure a soft landing - rather than a hard collapse - for the auto companies and the millions of Americans who depend on them for their paychecks. But the objective of the bailout should be to preserve American auto industry jobs, not to preserve the Big Three companies themselves. GM, Chrysler, and perhaps even Ford are done. We shouldn't be afraid to turn the page on this chapter of the American auto industry and usher in something entirely new - and better.

Second, if GM, Chrysler and Ford are too big to fail, then it's time to realize that they are simply too big, period. If taxpayers are going to put their money on the line to bailout Detroit, we should be taking advantage of this opportunity to make fundamental changes to the American auto industry. It is time to say, "Never again!" to auto companies that are so large that they can hold taxpayer's hostage because the consequence of their failure is too great - companies that are so large that competition and innovation are stifled by their vast and unwieldy bulk.

Here's what we propose: offer government loans to the Big Three to ensure the companies don't collapse now during the midst of recession. But the conditions of those loans should be similar to the conditions of the Chapter 11 bankruptcy the companies would enter in absence of the loans. No blank checks for the Big Three to continue business as usual.

Instead, Congress will appoint an independent blue ribbon commission. They'll staff that commission with the best bankruptcy judges, restructuring consultants, and industry experts in the world. This commission will be charged with breaking the company up into several smaller companies that will inherit the different divisions, car models and assets of the parent. The commission will then seek new management to run each new company, deploying head hunters to recruit top talent from mid-level management within the Big Three, or even in the ranks of foreign companies like Toyota, Volkswagen or Hyundai.

The new companies - Baby GMs, or Baby Chryslers - will then be turned back over to the private sector and they'll be encouraged to issue new common stock to raise more operating capital. The government will have to vigorously enforce anti-trust laws to ensure these companies remain small, at least for the time being, and to keep foreign automakers or governments from gobbling them up (the Chinese government has already been shopping for one of the Big Three, and would gladly snatch up the new companies if we let them).

In the end, we'll have a new kind of American auto company - leaner and nimbler, and under a new class of managers - and a new kind of America auto industry - one that's more competitive and fosters the continual innovation that's been absent in Detroit for too long.

In the short run, we'll protect as many automaker jobs as possible by injecting capital into these new companies to help them weather the transition period. In the long run, some of these new companies will fail, but when they do, they won't be large enough to send the entire economy into tailspin. And for every company that fails, others will succeed by adopting a corporate culture that embraces innovation and produces high-quality cars that match the American consumer's demands.

The net result will be a vibrant and innovative American auto industry that sustains good manufacturing jobs here in the United States. The new competitive environment will foster the adoption of more efficient vehicle designs, encourage the development of cutting-edge technologies like plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, and create space for up-and-comers like Silicon Valley-based electric car manufacturer Tesla Motors to enter the field.

That's the future of the American auto industry. Anything short of this kind of dramatic restructuring of the industry will merely prolong the inevitable day when GM, Chrysler and Ford fall under their own weight, taking American jobs, taxpayer dollars and our economy with them. Too big to fail? Too big, period.

[Image source:]

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Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Bush Continues "Loot and Run" Strategy, Wins Approval to Expand Mountain Top Removal

Like a losing army that loots and then sets fire to a village before retreating, the Bush Administration continues to employ a "loot and run" strategy, gutting as many environmental regulations as they can before leaving office.

As I reported in October, the Bush Administration has been rushing to codify new mining waste rules that would clear away a critical protection against the devastating practice of mountaintop removal coal mining that is decimating mountains, watersheds and communities across the region. Yesterday, they won approval of the new "Stream Buffer Rule" - I put that in quotes since it's not much of a buffer for streams anymore - which will make it even easier for mining companies to dump "mining waste" - aka the tops of whole mountains! - on top of running streams.

According to Bush's Interior Department spokesperson crony, Peter Mali, “This rule strengthens protections for streams." Of course, that's the kind of bold-faced lie we've come to know and love from the outgoing administration. In reality, as the New York Times makes clear, "The rule gives coal companies a legal right to" dump mining waste in streams, which, "in the past, they could do only in exceptional circumstances, with special permission from the government."

But the Bush Administration's scorched earth environmental policy doesn't stop there... According to the Times:

The Environmental Protection Agency is trying to finish work on a rule that would make it easier for utilities to put coal-fired generating stations near national parks. It is working on another rule that would allow utility companies to modify coal-fired power plants and increase their emissions without installing new pollution-control equipment.
“This is unmistakably a fire sale of epic size for coal and the entire fossil fuel industry, with flagrant disregard for human health, the environment or the rule of law,” said Vickie Patton, deputy general counsel of the Environmental Defense Fund.

In fact, the outgoing administration is rushing to complete work on regulations to which President-elect Obama and his advisers object, including new rules dealing with air pollution, auto safety, abortion and workers’ exposure to toxic chemicals, among other issues.

As the Times also points out, President-elect Obama has voiced criticisms of mountain top removal mining:
As a presidential candidate, Mr. Obama expressed “serious concerns about the environmental implications” of mountaintop mining.

“We have to find more environmentally sound ways of mining coal than simply blowing the tops off mountains,” Mr. Obama told one environmental group. At the same time, he proposed a major federal investment in clean coal technology.
Whatever your views on the promise or merit so-called "clean" coal technology - the capture and storage of greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants - coal will never approximate clean as long as we continue to decimate mountains, the forest ecosystems that live on them, the streams nearby, and the Appalachian communities that reside downstream.

This comment line at is still open and you can head over to to tell President-elect Obama that one of his first executive actions upon taking office should be to reverse the Bush Administration's "loot and run" environmental provisions and urge Congress to quickly pass the Clean Water Protection Act, which would instate real protections for Appalachian streams, mountains and communities.

January 20th can't come soon enough...

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