The Canary in the Coal Mine
- Awhile back we broke down the Trump administration's plans to roll back Obama era regulations on coal-burning power plants. In the latest episode of the saga, a group of 29 cities and states are suing the administration. It's a dicey plan — if the Trump administration wins in court, it could "weaken the ability of future presidents to regulate carbon dioxide pollution from power plants."
- Meanwhile, coal is still trending downward in the US. Coal plants have been steadily closing over the past decade, moving from the smaller, less productive ones to the heavy hitters. Power sector analyst John Larsen says, "You notice the average size of retired plants going up over time. There are not a lot of small plants left, period. Once you’ve cleared out all the old inefficient stuff, it’s logical the next wave would be bigger and have more implications for the climate."
- As coal becomes less economically viable, some workers are feeling the effects. Over 100 miners blocked the tracks of a Kentucky coal train last week after the mining company Blackjewel filed for bankruptcy and denied their workers backpay. Five major coal producers have gone bankrupt in the past year.
- The coal miner payment debacle highlights a fascinating and important difference between the coal and oil industries. As Timothy Mitchell has written about at length, coal requires human labor to transport. As a consequence, its workers can strike and physically disrupt the industry by stopping the flow of material (as these miners are doing). Industrial elites shifted their focus to oil partially to eliminate the leverage of human laborers — gas that flows through long pipelines can bypass the concrete pressures imposed by individuals. Follow this thread further in Mitchell's book Carbon Democracy.
- Carbon Brief released a beautiful, interactive map of all the existing coal plants globally — check it out to get a better grasp on how the landscape of coal has changed over time.
Insane In The Methane
- The latest absurd proposal from the EPA would end direct federal regulation of methane leaks that occur during the production of oil and natural gas, despite major companies like BP and Shell saying they're against the proposal (it's not great for the old public image).
- Although methane doesn't hang around in the atmosphere as long as CO2, it traps way more heat. It's estimated that 25% of human-caused global warming comes from methane emissions.
- A new study shows that government estimates of methane emissions from oil and natural gas production are crazy low — underestimating by as much as 60%. While natural gas companies like to paint it as a greener alternative to coal, the methane leaks effectively cancel out the benefit.
- Atmospheric methane levels have been rising at an increasingly fast pace over the past 20 years. Scientists haven't been able to definitively identify the culprit — they aren't sure if the fault lies with agriculture (i.e. cow farts) or with the fossil fuel industry. But recent research pins the majority of the blame on shale-gas production from fracking.
- The US produces 89% of the world's shale gas — and the problem isn't going anywhere, as the US is in the process of seriously expanding their natural gas infrastructure.
Bowls, Bowls, All Types Of Bowls
- In a story broken by the New Food Economy, journalist Joe Fassler found that molded fiber bowls, which are pitched to consumers as "compostable" and certified by the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI), contain PFAS.
- PFAS are a dangerous class of chemicals that contain fluorinated compounds and do not naturally biodegrade — obviously a problem for a product certified as compostable.
- Restaurants across the US have adopted the ubiquitous "compostable" molded fiber bowl en masse, assuring customers they're doing their part to leave the planet better and combat the restaurant industry's waste issues. You see them everywhere now, from Chipotle and Sweetgreen to your favorite trendy fusion bowl spot.
- When these molded fiber bowls are thrown into the compost bin with food scraps, the plant materials break down but the PFAS never do, hanging around for over 500 years as they leach into the water and soil. PFAS are cutely named "forever chemicals" and are linked to kidney and testicular cancers, birth defects, thyroid problems, etc.
- The city of San Francisco is banning the use of molded fiber products with PFAS in them by January 2020.
- Safer solutions do exist (like wax-paper-lined bowls) — restaurants just have to make the switch. However, if you are eating out, it's always better to dine in rather than using disposable take-out containers. If you have to take-out, bring your own reusable containers and ask restaurants to put your food in them.
- The solar tax credit, which gave businesses and home-owners the chance to deduct 30% of solar panel installation costs from their taxes, may be ending soon. Starting in 2020, the subsidy amount will decline for 3 years until it ends for home-owners (and stays at 10% for businesses).
- The solar tax credit, which began in 2007, was considered a huge success. It spurred the growth of the solar industry with a "10,000% increase in solar capacity, nearly a quarter-million new jobs, and $140 billion in investment as evidence of the subsidy’s effect."
- 1000 solar companies signed a letter to Congress asking for the subsidy to be extended, but the likelihood of an extension is uncertain.
- Economists argue that subsidizing energy production per kilowatt instead of investing in startup infrastructure (like the solar tax credit) results in more electricity production, more cost savings, and more greenhouse gas reductions.
- Cornell Economist Todd Gerarden explains that renewable energy plants "operating on a production subsidy are incentivized to produce as much energy as possible. To the extent that the amount of electricity produced by [renewable energy] reduces the amount of electricity produced by fossil fuels, production tax credits are therefore more effective at reducing pollution."
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