In Texas, a coal mine opens to power Mexico

by Ingrid Lobet

Many times we’ve heard coal is dead, and many times it’s been reborn. Usually the picture is more complicated. Coal companies are declaring bankruptcy and have lost monstrous market share — more than 50 percent on average, according to the financial news service SNL.

Yet new coal mines continue to open and others expand. In one Texas county on the Mexican border, local officials and residents seem nearly united in their opposition to a new coal strip mine, the Eagle Pass Mine. The company that owns it, Dos Republicas Coal Partnership, says it intends to ship out the first load of coal by train in September.

The Carbon II coal-fired power plant in Nava, Mexico, where coal from a new mine in Eagle Pass, Texas will be burned. (photo: Ingrid Lobet)

The Carbon II coal-fired power plant in Nava, Mexico, where coal from a new mine in Eagle Pass, Texas will be burned.
(photo: Ingrid Lobet)

Dos Republicas is backed, through layered ownership, by a major Mexican steel and coal firm, Altos Hornos de Mexico, S.A. (AHMSA). All the coal from the Eagle Pass Mine is bound for Mexico. It will fire the Carbon I and II power plants located half an hour south of the border in Nava, in the state of Coahuila.

“The excuse is that ‘we need energy,’” says Martha Bowles Baxter, a resident of Eagle Pass who has long opposed the mining plans. “Well, the energy is going to Mexico.”

It appears to be the first time a coal mine has been built in the United States to serve a power plant in Latin America.

Bowles Baxter’s husband, George Baxter, a civil engineer, says the smoke from the generating station in Mexico often drifts north here to Eagle Pass.

“You see the brown line, horizontal line of pollution,” he says. “It extends as far as the eye can see.”

Now, he says, in addition to the effects of burning coal, they’ll face the effects of mining it.

“Apparently the war on coal does not extend to Maverick County,” George Baxter says.

The Baxters’ chief worries are widely shared. The local school district, city council and hospital officials oppose the mine. Many concerns focus on water. The Eagle Pass Mine will discharge into Elm Creek, a creek which now runs through the mine, just before it joins the Rio Grande. Less than a mile downstream the city of Eagle Pass takes its drinking water.

Events in recent months have heightened a second water concern. The Eagle Pass area has experienced two 100-year floods in two years, according to David Saucedo, the Maverick County flood plain administrator.

“In 2013 we had 16 inches of rain in a 24-hour period. In 2014, we had 12 inches in a 24-hour period,” Saucedo says.

One hundred twenty houses were damaged or destroyed.

“You have seen these people go through these things. And on top of those floods, now you have to worry what is in the water? It weighs on you,” says Saucedo, who is also the county judge in Maverick County. County judge is traditionally a powerful position in Texas.

elm creek flood

The Elm Creek Subdivision, adjacent to the new mine, was flooded by rain-swollen Elm Creek in 2013. Residents fear future floods will carry mine silt and waste. (Photo courtesy of Eagle Press Business Journal)

Two successive floods, each with a one-in-a-hundred chance of happening in any year, would seem to indicate that what was rare, is no longer so rare. The chance of two 100-year floods occurring back-to-back, randomly, is one in 10,000. Texas mining regulations require that the ponds that are supposed to collect heavy rains before they carry silt into the creek be dug deep enough to withstand just a 10-year flood.

Flood maps from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) indicate an official flood zone along the creek where it runs through the mine. This prompted Judge Saucedo to oppose the mine’s flood permit. The company sued him. A lower court judge agreed Saucedo acted within his authority and that case is at the state’s Thirteenth Court of Appeals in Corpus Christi.

In the course of those arguments, the mine has gone from paper to reality. Already, $60 million dollars’ worth of equipment has arrived at the site, hundreds of acres have been excavated, and offices and parking lots for workers have been carved into the mesquite.

Yet Martha Bowles Baxter believes another flood, this time carrying mud or mine waste, is inevitable, and that many home will be in the path of the water. The local newspaper refers to the area directly adjoining the mine as “densely populated.”

“When FEMA comes in, they are going to render all of that land completely contaminated,” Bowles Baxter says. “And those people are going to be losing all their homesteads, what they plan to give their children. And no one cares because this area is very, very poor and Hispanic.

But Rudy Rodriguez, who represents the mine owners, says not all of the mine area is in the flood plain, and engineered ponds at the mine will actually ameliorate flooding. Rodriguez says the mine plan also complies with numerous agencies’ requirements and all state and federal law.

Already, Rodriguez says, hard-hit Maverick County is benefiting from the tens of millions dollars the mine has spent on equipment. At the mine, he points to a mechanic changing a tire on a truck so large it makes his Cadillac Escalade look like a Matchbox car. The tire alone cost $35,000, he said. Under the current footprint of the mine, which the owners already seek to expand, it would inject more than $147 million dollars into the local and regional economy.

By one measure the project has been popular – when it held a fair to connect with local vendors and would be employees.

“We started at eight o’clock in the morning and went on in the evening,” Rodriguez said. “We had so many people want jobs – 680 applicants for 100 jobs.”

Judge Saucedo says most of the town would rather see retail employment. Eight thousand people signed a petition against the coal mine, he says.

“To put that in perspective, you had 5,500 people come out to vote in the last election,” Saucedo says. “Now, when you have more people signing a petition than going out to vote, that should send a message.”

On August 10, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers held a federal hearing in Eagle Pass to gather public comment following a request by Dos Republicas to add 25,000 acres of potential mine area to its existing 6,346 acres. According to the Eagle Pass Business Journal, all 28 people who testified, including Eagle Pass Mayor Ramsey English Cantú, spoke against the mine and its expansion.

 

Ingrid Lobet reported this story for BURN and the public radio show Marketplace.

 

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The little-known coal of Texas

By Ingrid Lobet

Oil, and then natural gas, made Texas famous. Now it’s famous as well for having far and away the most wind energy of any state. But here’s a little-known fact: Texas is a major coal producer, and its coal is not like most other states’ coal. It’s an infant phase, still damp, called lignite.

“Basically it is brown dirt,” says Fred Beach, assistant director at the University of Texas Energy Institute. “Oily mud is another way we commonly refer to it.”

Lignite in Texas

Half an hour out of Austin, a dragline removes earth to get to lignite coal below. (Photo: Ingrid Lobet)

Just past the town of Elgin, known for its barbecue and sausage, there’s a dragline practically hanging over the road on a recent day.

“Most people in Austin really have no clue that there is a strip mine located only 30 miles away from the city,” says Tom Edgar, director of the University of Texas Energy Institute. “We pay more attention to renewable energy. So it’s kind of a well-kept secret.”

About a dozen Texas coal mines lie in a necklace from Louisiana toward the border with Mexico, across the giant state. That line is no accident. It traces the ancient shoreline of Texas. Millennia ago, vegetation, trees and woody matter were deposited here.

“Given enough time, given pressure and heat, you actually form this coal-like substance,” Edgar says.

The coal-like substance is called brown coal in Europe, where it still makes up a substantial piece of the power pie.

But it’s not so carbon rich. You need to burn almost twice as much lignite as bituminous coal to get the same amount of energy, according to Coal Data, A Reference, and the Energy Information Administration.

“You also get a whole lot more ash generated,” says Beach. “You get more particulate in the exhaust fume gases. So lignite has a lot going against it.”

It’s also wet.

“A lot of the energy that could be used to produce electricity is actually used to evaporate the water,” says J.P. Nicot, of UT’s Bureau of Economic Geology.

But Texas figured out a way to make this low quality fuel pencil out nonetheless, about three decades ago. It started building the coal power plants right next to the mines. They’re called mine mouth power plants.

“You’re literally digging it out of the ground, putting it on a conveyor belt, and it’s going right into the power plant,” Beach says.

There are two reasons to avoid shipping lignite long distances. It’s expensive, and lignite has a tendency to catch fire.

Coal mining regions in Texas. (Source: Texas Almanac)

Coal mining regions in Texas. (Source: Texas Almanac)

But when the power plant is right next to the mine, the fuel is cheap, it’s steady and it’s local. In short, it’s irreplaceable, says Mike Nasi, an attorney with the Gulf Coast Lignite Coalition. Together with coal imported from outside the state, this is how Texas generates more than a third of its juice.

“It’s a significant hedge against price volatility,” Nasi says. “It’s only 38 percent of our grid, but it’s an extremely valuable part.”

(According to ERCOT, the independent system operator for Texas, coal generated 36 percent of electricity in 2014.)

Texas’ power-heavy industries, like refining and chemicals, rely on this inexpensive power. This is in large part why Texas so fiercely opposes the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, which forces reductions in carbon emissions from each state’s power generators.

“It’s not just the coal producers and power producers that show up and ask for policies to be reasonable,” Nasi says. “It is Dow chemical. It is Occidental Petroleum. It is Valero. And the reason is their single highest line-item cost is electricity.”

The CO2 cuts vary by state. Between a third and half of Texas’ coal power plants will likely close. But Nasi says that doesn’t mean Texas’ second-rate coal is going to stay in the ground now, as climate scientists say it should.

“Lignite is going to continue to power that fleet,” he says.

 

Ingrid Lobet reported this story for BURN and the public radio show Marketplace.

 

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Is ‘clean coal’ the only real choice?

smokestacks

Smokestacks in Illinois. (Photo: Dori)

Alex Chadwick, BURN host

The cover story in the current Wired posits coal as dirty, dangerous and the inevitable future of clean energy.

The reporter, Charles C. Mann, is a serious magazine journalist who writes about science for Wired, The Atlantic and Science. But he appears to know this article will not be welcomed by his usual audience, and he leads with data and numbers that bolster his argument: the world is burning more coal than it used to, and in places that will likely see a lot more growth in the decades ahead — especially China and India — there is no real alternative to coal, which is abundant, relatively cheap, and with existing infrastructure already in place, and a lot more of it coming.

Mann also includes data that shows how disastrous this could be for climate — and all of us — due to the high output of carbon dioxide from burning coal. But…there is an escape: carbon capture and storage, or CCS. This is an industrial process that allows for the removal of almost all CO2 in the process of burning coal for energy. He quotes former Secretary of Energy and Nobel laureate Steven Chu as saying that it’s hard to imagine a future without CCS.

The trouble with this argument is that the idea of CCS has been around for decades, and a lot of time, money and engineering talent has gone into trying to make the system work. And so far, it doesn’t. Coal-fired power plants are huge, highly-complicated industrial complexes, and trying to retrofit them to operate significantly differently than they have is expensive and very difficult – even for energy companies.

Mann details his long, repeated efforts to visit a new coal plant in China that has just invested $1 billion on an experimental CCS process. He could not get access to the plant, and was turned away by guards. Mann doesn’t speculate on why, but here’s a guess: It doesn’t work. The DOE, private companies, and certainly the coal industry have spent decades and billions of dollars trying to build a CCS demonstration project, and they still don’t have one that works at anything like the necessary scale.

Secretary Chu is not wrong. We need energy, and we will need very consistent, reliable energy for at least a century before renewables will be significant help. Coal is the screamingly obvious source. Except that its use looks suicidal.

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Bill McKibben’s lights-out plan for big oil & gas

Caroline Alden, BURN Contributor

Bill McKibben is a big name in the climate movement, and he’s got a game changing idea.

McKibben is the founder of 350.org, a grassroots organization aimed at stopping fossil fuel extraction (350 is the atmospheric concentration of CO2, in parts per million, above which leading scientists predict global warming may seriously threaten civilization).

 Since 2007, 350.org activists have been going big with their campaigns on behalf of the environment, from forming human chains around the White House, to promoting a global solar panel installation day (for the record, “PutSolarOnIt” predated “put a bird on it”).

Despite the aggressive work of 350 and other organizations, 230 billion more tons of CO2 have been dumped into the atmosphere over the last 6 years, putting us at  397 ppm today.

 McKibben recently teamed up with Naomi Klein to draft a new focus for 350: a campaign for divestment from the top 200 fossil fuel companies. So far, four colleges, one public university, one major city, and potentially one mega church have committed to freezing and ultimately withdrawing investments. The narrative driving this campaign is that investing in the fossil fuel industry promotes global warming.

 McKibben’s rhetoric – including a Rolling Stone piece he wrote last year – suggests he may be attempting to reframe global warming entirely, as a “good vs evil” fight against the fossil fuel industry.

 …[T]he planet does indeed have an enemy – one far more committed to action than governments or individuals. Given this hard math, we need to view the fossil-fuel industry in a new light. It has become a rogue industry, reckless like no other force on Earth. It is Public Enemy Number One to the survival of our planetary civilization. “Lots of companies do rotten things in the course of their business – pay terrible wages, make people work in sweatshops – and we pressure them to change those practices,” says veteran anti-corporate leader Naomi Klein, who is at work on a book about the climate crisis. “But these numbers make clear that with the fossil-fuel industry, wrecking the planet is their business model. It’s what they do.”

I got to hear the new McKibben pitch on his “Do The Math” tour in December. He painted a picture of a global society that wants electricity to come out of wall sockets, but doesn’t want to destroy the planet in the process. Standing in the way, to use McKibben’s rhetoric, are fossil fuel industry execs more interested in profit and far less concerned with the environment.

Also on tour were Ira Glass and Josh Fox (the banjo-wielding creator of Gasland), and an elaborate demonstration involving multiple cases of beer and Winona LaDuke drinking them: a witty metaphor for… wait… what was the point of that again? Largely, it seemed, to attract the college-aged demographic.

 But, back to McKibben. By his calculus, framing this global issue as an actionable fight against an antagonistic tyrant may mobilize people – especially young people, who will be most affected by climate change – to demand change from their universities, colleges, churches, and local governments.

 The question of whether the divestment campaign will succeed as a purely economic tool might be secondary to McKibben’s ability to rouse a new generation to take positions – and take action – in the climate debate.

In an interview with Gothamist last summer, McKibben frequently cited the economic success of divestment in ending South Africa’s system of Apartheid. That point is spelled out at gofossilfree.org – a base for McKibben’s investment freeze campaign.

There have been a handful of successful divestment campaigns in recent history, including Darfur, Tobacco and others, but the largest and most impactful one came to a head around the issue of South African Apartheid. By the mid-1980s, 155 campuses — including some of the most famous in the country — had divested from companies doing business in South Africa. 26 state governments, 22 counties, and 90 cities, including some of the nation’s biggest, took their money from multinationals that did business in the country. The South African divestment campaign helped break the back of the Apartheid government, and usher in an era of democracy and equality.

Economists point out that it wasn’t the direct economic instrument of divestment that ended Apartheid, but the combined social and economic pressures that mounted and prevailed, as the global community identified and rejected a moral wrong.

If the rabble gets roused, then we may find that McKibben is indeed onto something.

Caroline Alden is a graduate student at the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research in the Department of Geology at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

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The Hydrogen Economy, Hydrogen Sources, and the Science Behind These

The hydrogen-filled Hindenburg in 1936 or 1937. Photo from DeGolyer Library at Southern Methodist University.

THE HYDROGEN ECONOMY

The hydrogen economy is a hypothetical future in which energy can be bought, sold, stored, and transported in a currency of hydrogen, much like today’s energy is often exchanged in electricity. Because hydrogen doesn’t need to be attached to the electricity grid, it can be used in forms of transportation like buses and cars.

The end-user of the hydrogen, for example an automobile driver, doesn’t experience significant pollution beyond the formation of water from burning the hydrogen.

For more details about the hydrogen economy see here.

Hydrogen, a gas, isn’t a fuel like gasoline or coal; hydrogen is a way to store and transport energy made from other fuels, like a battery or electricity. Unlike fossil fuels, pure hydrogen isn’t stable, so forming hydrogen in the first place requires energy and produces carbon dioxide, and storing hydrogen involves special considerations because this light gas is very flammable and also quickens rust and oxidation in pipelines and storage containers.

HOW HYDROGEN IS DIFFERENT FROM FOSSIL FUELS

Allowing hydrogen (a gas) to burn in the presence of oxygen releases that stored energy in the form of heat. Hydrogen can also be reacted in a fuel cell to produce electricity. In either case, electricity or heat can then be used to power cars or any number of other devices. Gasoline, biofuels, wood, and other carbon-based fuels all produce carbon dioxide when they are burned, and rising carbon dioxide levels are widely implicated in climate change. Burning hydrogen produces energy, water and a few trace compounds, but it doesn’t produce carbon dioxide.

2 H2 (hydrogen gas) + O2 (oxygen gas) = 2 H2O (water vapor) + energy

It’s unclear what widespread emission of water vapor could do. According to recent published estimates, atmospheric water vapor is responsible for 75 percent of the greenhouse effect. However, water vapor can condense, and it’s naturally-occurring in the atmosphere. It is much easier to trap and transform to liquid than the carbon dioxide normally emitted by burning gasoline. Carbon dioxide won’t form a liquid at atmospheric temperatures and will solidify into dry ice only below -108.4 Fahrenheit, so proponents say it can be easier to trap the vapor in hydrogen-powered machines.

If the energy used to generate and purify and store and ship hydrogen doesn’t require emitting greenhouse gases or toxics, proponents argue that hydrogen is a clean alternative.

SOURCES OF HYDROGEN: THE UNFORTUNATE REALITY TODAY

Hydrogen, not carbon, is the most prevalent atom in the human body. There are two hydrogen atoms in every water molecule, and as many as hundreds of hydrogen atoms on the basic building blocks of life, from DNA to plant fibers. Nonetheless, harvesting the hydrogen atoms out of any of these structures to make hydrogen fuel isn’t easy because hydrogen likes to be bonded to carbon or oxygen; it doesn’t like to be elemental gas.

To produce pure hydrogen today, industries use primary fuel source like petroleum, natural gas, coal, or biomass. Through chemical processing, the hydrogen atoms are stripped from the fuel by way of an input of energy from electricity (more than 80 percent of which comes from fossil fuels in the United States). Furthermore, the leftover material from the stripping is carbon dioxide, the same carbon dioxide that would have been produced if the fuel was burned in an engine.

The reactions for various fuel to hydrogen conversions can be found on the U.S. Department of Energy website here.

Hydrogen can also be produced, at great energy loss, through the electrolysis of water: using electricity, water is divided into its constituents, hydrogen and oxygen. However, water electrolysis is the least carbon-neutral hydrogen production method, and it is very expensive ($3 to $6 per kilogram instead of a little more than $1 in the case of using coal for hydrogen), according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. All hydrogen production methods result in a net energy loss.

 

 

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Major sources of energy/their advantages and disadvantages

There is no easy answer to what is the best source of energy or electricity. Is the priority reliability, affordability, the economy, international human rights, limiting greenhouse gas emissions, preserving environmental resources, or human health?

x

It’s undeniable that today — whether we like it or not — humans worldwide are overwhelmingly dependent on fossil fuels: coal, oil, and natural gas. Everything eaten, worn, lived in, and bought is tied to availability of fossil fuels. Even if 100 percent of politicians were determined to stop using them today, society has neither the electricity grid nor the vehicular and industrial technology to sustain the current American lifestyle on non-fossil sources of energy. Yet.

When comparing sources of energy, it’s easy to forget how universal fossil fuels are. These sources continue to dominate for reasons that are difficult to measure, like political influence, advertising clout, and control over energy infrastructure. Other sources have disadvantages purely because they don’t fit in as well.

Volume brings another difficulty in comparing sources of energy. There is so much more fossil energy, and it’s been used for a long time, so we know a lot more about its hazards and benefits. More modern technologies are harder to quantify. Some are renewable but still pollute (biofuels), some are very clean except in accidents or waste disposal (nuclear). Most electricity sources (renewable or not) use steam turbines, and all the water to make steam has to come from somewhere, but how important should that factor be?



Clicking the graphic above will give an abbreviated chart comparing sources line by line, but that doesn’t provide anywhere close to the whole story.

Each of the following topics compares the major sources of energy  through a different lens. Though environmental and local issues may seem the most important to those of us who don’t own power plants or utility companies, the cost of energy drives which sources are actually in place today and which sources will see investment tomorrow.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration

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The Connections Between Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Energy

Most of the greenhouse gas emitted through human activity comes from the production of energy.

This group of gases is thought to contribute to global climate change, long-term shifts in weather partly due to the tendency of these gases to trap energy, in the form of electromagnetic radiation from the sun, that would otherwise have been reflected back out into space. For more about the relationship between the climate and greenhouse gases, go here.

Noteworthy greenhouse gases  are carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, methane, hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), and sulfur hexafluoride (SF6).

Energy creation results in such a high level of greenhouse gas because the vast majority of energy we use — regardless of what country we live in — comes from burning something, usually coal, petroleum fuels, natural gas, or wood. More than 80 percent of U.S. energy in 2009 came from the combustion of fossil fuels.  Go here for more information about how combustion works.

WE’VE BURNED THINGS FOR EONS, WHY IS IT DIFFERENT NOW?

Plants and some types of microscopic organisms take carbon dioxide gas out of the air and turn it back into solid, carbon-based materials like plant fibers, using the energy of sunlight. The basis for all of our fuels, even the fossil fuels, comes from exploiting the fact that organisms convert  light energy into chemical energy, a potential energy source inside the plant or organism’s cells, whether the energy was converted in the last few decades (wood, biodiesel, ethanol) or millions of years ago (fossil fuels). Today, however, organisms don’t have the capacity to capture anywhere near as much of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide as we produce, partly because we are burning fuels produced over millions of years.

EMISSIONS ARE A WORLDWIDE PHENOMENON

The United States produces more greenhouse gas each year per person than most other countries. However, even if we stopped producing any carbon dioxide at all, which is unlikely, the world would still keep producing 80 percent of its former output. Other regions produce just as much as we do, particularly Europe and China.

Furthermore, instead of holding steady at a particular emission rate, every year we use more energy and therefore emit more greenhouse gas. For a graph of atmospheric carbon dioxide by year, go here.

When we talk about energy-related emissions, we don’t only mean electricity. Energy involves burning oil and natural gas for heating, burning gasoline, diesel, and jet fuels for transportation. Transportation accounted for just over a third of all carbon dioxide emissions in 2009, electricity was almost 40 percent and residential, commercial, and industrial production, excluding electricity, made up roughly 26 percent.

Some greenhouse gases are thought to alter the climate more than others. Nitrous oxide is a much smaller percent of the gas mix than carbon dioxide, but for its weight it has a much stronger heat-trapping capability.

For more information go to The connection between greenhouse gases, climate change, and global warming.

Each year what proportion of emissions are man-made are carefully tracked by several agencies nationally and internationally, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Weather Service, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Sources:

U.S. Geological Survey
U.S. Energy Information Administration

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
CIA World Fact Book
World Energy Council
National Renewable Energy Laboratory
Emissions of Greenhouse Gases in the United States 2009: Independent Statistics & Analysis. U.S. Energy Information Administration, Department of Energy. March 2011.

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The Connection Between Greenhouse Gases, Climate Change & Global Warming


 

WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN CLIMATE CHANGE AND GLOBAL WARMING?

Climate change is the shift in long-term, global weather patterns due to human action; it’s not exclusive to warming or cooling.

Climate change includes any change resulting from different factors, like deforestation or an increase in greenhouse gases. Global warming is one type of climate change, and it refers to the increasing temperature of the surface of Earth. According to NASA, the term global warming gained popular use after geochemist Wallace Broecker published a 1975 paper titled Climatic Change: Are We on the Brink of a Pronounced Global Warming?

Since 1880, the average surface temperature of the Earth has increased by roughly 0.9 degrees Fahrenheit, but the rate it’s increasing is faster than that, depending on which region you live in. If you’re closer to the equator, temperatures are increasing more slowly. The fastest increase in temperatures in the United States is in Alaska, where average temperatures have been increases by more than 3 degrees Fahrenheit per century. For a graph of average global temperatures by year, see the NASA website here.

 

HOW GREENHOUSE GASES RELATE TO CLIMATE CHANGE

Greenhouse gases are those thought to contribute to the greenhouse effect, an overall warming of the Earth as atmospheric gases trap electromagnetic radiation from the sun that would otherwise have been reflected back out into space.

Noteworthy greenhouse gases are methane, nitrous oxide, carbon dioxide, hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), and sulfur hexafluoride (SF6). These gases are thought to affect the climate directly and indirectly, even though they constitute only a small fraction of the blanket of gases that make up the atmosphere.

Currently, the composition of the atmosphere is mostly nitrogen and oxygen, with just 0.033 percent carbon dioxide and all other gases accounting for even less.

 

WHICH GASES CONTRIBUTE THE MOST?


According to 2010 models cited by NASA, 20 percent of the greenhouse effect is attributed directly to carbon dioxide and 5 percent to all other greenhouse gases. The remaining 75 percent of the greenhouse effect is thought to be due to water vapor and clouds, which are naturally-occurring. However, even though carbon dioxide and the other greenhouse gases are such a small percentage of the total gas in the atmosphere, they affect when, where and how clouds form, so greenhouse gases have some relevance when it comes to 100 percent of the greenhouse effect. Carbon dioxide is thought to modulate the overall climate, like a atmospheric thermostat.

Some greenhouse gases are produced in natural processes, like forest fires, animal manure and respiration, or volcanic eruptions. However, the majority of new greenhouse gases are produced from industrial processes and energy production.

The four largest human sources of U.S. greenhouse gases in 2009 were energy, non-fuel use of fossil fuels, natural gas production, and cement manufacture, in descending order. Non-fuel, greenhouse gas-producing applications of fuels include industrial production like asphalt, lubricants, waxes and other . Emissions related to cement manufacture happen when limestone (calcium carbonate) is reacted with silica to make clinker, the lumps ground to make cement. ( Emissions of Greenhouse Gases in the United States 2009: Independent Statistics & Analysis.)

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“Cap-and-Trade” and Carbon Tax Proposals

CAP AND TRADE

Phosphorus factory smokestack in Muscle Shoals, Alabama.Source: U.S. Library of Congress.

The idea of “cap-and-trade” first emerged in the United States in the 1960s as a device to get the free economy to control pollution, folding in the cost of pollution instead of telling industry how to stop polluting. Often called emission trading, in a working cap-and-trade system, industries that release undesirable compounds into the air, water, or soil have limits of how much they can emit based upon pollution permits. Depending on the system, polluters either are given or have to buy their permits. The government establishes how much total pollution that the permits will grant, an umbrella cap on the economy. If an industry participant wants to release more than the permit allows, they buy the right from another industry player, if available, or perhaps face penalties, depending on the details.

Cap-and-trade can be used to regulate any pollutant, not only carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has three cap-and-trade programs, none of which apply to greenhouse gases. They aim to combat acid rain by reducing sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide compounds, mostly an issue with coal power.

There is no U.S. cap-and-trade for carbon dioxide, though proposals have been raised regularly, and the U.S. House of Representatives passed an emissions trading program  in an energy bill in 2009, but the bill hasn’t been approved by the U.S. Senate, as of June 2011.

Australia has been considering a cap-and-trade program for carbon dioxide, but that too hasn’t been implemented as of June 2011. The European Union has had a carbon emissions trading program since 2005.

For more about greenhouse gases, climate change, and their relationship to energy go here.

 

CAP-AND-TRADE IN THE UNITED STATES

In the United States, the Acid Rain Program‘s cap-and-trade system has successfully reduced pollution and cost industry far less than expected, at $3 billion per year instead of the feared $25 billion per year, according to a study [that I haven’t found yet] in the Journal of Environmental Management. Savings from cleaner air and water and avoided death and illness are estimated in the range of $100 billion per year, according to the EPA.

However, acid rain chemicals are easier to tame than carbon dioxide. The goal for the subjects of U.S. regulations today – nitrous oxide and sulfur dioxide – is as little as possible. Everyone agrees that these pollutants are bad for the environment and people, and there was a commercially-available solution for nitrous oxides and sulfur dioxide emissions when the cap-and-trade system began in 1990: scrubbers on the smokestacks. Even though the U.S. Congress could have ordered industry to buy the scrubbers, it was easier to pass cap-and-trade politically, and only a certain sector of energy production emits a significant volume of these chemicals. Today, there isn’t consensus about the effects of carbon dioxide gas, which isn’t toxic to humans. There isn’t consensus about how much carbon emissions is acceptable, and there is no viable carbon capture technology. And more than 80 percent (by volume) of energy production methods still produce carbon dioxide, whether that’s from biofuels or coal.

A dynamic map of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions.

 

CAP-AND-TRADE IN EUROPE

In 2005, the European Union passed its own cap-and-trade program to limit carbon dioxide emissions, applied to more than 12,000 factories and power plants in 29 countries. The program includes some limits to nitrous oxide, and airlines will be obliged to participate by 2012. The carbon “cap” on total emissions decreases 1.74% per year.

Some regulators have already claimed success, as the carbon dioxide emissions were reduced in 2009; they increased again a little in 2010. However, the EU admits it gave out too many permits and that future permits will need to be tighter. Furthermore, the recession has acted as a major factor in lowered emissions, and European industries haven’t needed to make any technological changes because of lower demand.

“Power companies were given free carbon permits, but they raised electricity fees anyway — as if they had paid the market price for their permits — and pocketed the markup. Many companies were allocated too many allowances, often the result of powerful industries lobbying the governments that give the permits,”  Arthur Max of The Associated Press wrote from Belgium in a 2011 story about the Europeans’ progress.

If the EU’s carbon dioxide emissions will be reduced in coming years has yet to be determined since the real effects of the cap haven’t truly set in.

For more information about the EU’s program see the EU FAQ here.

 

CAP-AND-TRADE IN INDIVIDUAL STATES

Ten states in the Northeast have applied a cap-and-trade system to carbon dioxide as of 2008, in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, with the goal of reducing greenhouse gas 10 percent by 2018.

California is planning its own cap-and-trade program, slated to begin December 2011. Ten Canadian provinces and Western U.S. states and have joined California in the Western Climate Initiative, with the hope that there will be a regional cap-and-trade program too.

 

CARBON TAX

Carbon taxes are another way to integrate emissions reductions into the economy. The taxes makes a beeline for fossil fuels, which are far and away the main source of carbon dioxide emissions, whether they’re burned in vehicles or for electricity. A carbon tax on fuels raises the overall price, in theory reducing our ability to buy too much.  That means that industries or individuals can still produce as much carbon dioxide as they please, but they’ll have to pay for it.

Some economists prefer carbon taxes, as they are simpler to enforce, particularly internationally, and there’s likely to be less dramatic shifts in pricing. Others prefer cap-and-trade because there’s a finite ceiling to emissions. Many other arguments support either measure.

From a carbon tax perspective, diesel fuel and natural gas have an advantage over gasoline and coal, respectively, since they produce less carbon dioxide for the energy they generate. Of course, solar and wind produce none, but biofuels are more complex. Many carbon taxes in effect exclude biofuels like wood waste, even though they produce carbon dioxide.

Several European countries and individual U.S. states have various carbon taxes, applied from anywhere in the range of cents to close to $100 per ton, about as much carbon dioxide as would be emitted from using roughly 103 gallons of gasoline. These taxes are still low enough that they aren’t halting emissions. (For more details about calculating carbon emissions, see The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.)

In the United States, carbon taxes in individual states are currently insignificant compared to other market pressures on the price of fuels, particularly in the case of petroleum.

 

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