Moratorium On Coalfired Electricity Without Sequestration

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On a societywide scale, James E. Hansen, director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, proposed a number of policy-level solutions to the U.S. House of Representatives on March 19, 2007. First, and most important, Hansen recommended a ban on construction of new coal-fired power plants until technology for carbon dioxide capture and sequestration (that prevents the plants' carbon dioxide from reaching

Greenpeace "Save the Climate" balloon (Jeff Dixon)

James E. Hansen visiting his high school at Denison, Iowa, May, 2007 (PatriciaE. Keiffer)

the air) is available. In other words, the greenhouse gases that would enter the atmosphere from burning coal to generate electricity must be directed into the earth, below the ocean, or destroyed.

About a quarter of power plants' carbon dioxide emissions will remain in the air more than 500 years, long after new technology is refined and deployed. As a result, Hansen expects that all power plants without adequate sequestration will be obsolete and slated for closure (or updated with new technology) before mid-century (Hansen, March 19, 2007).

Hansen believes that

[c]oal will determine whether we continue to increase climate change or slow the human impact. Increased fossil fuel CO2 in the air today, compared to the pre-industrial atmosphere, is due 50% to coal, 35% to oil and 15% to gas. As oil resources peak, coal will determine future CO2 levels. Recently, after giving a high school commencement talk in my hometown, Denison, Iowa, I drove from Denison to Dunlap, where my parents are buried. For most of 20 miles there were trains parked, engine to caboose, half of the cars being filled with coal. If we cannot stop the building of more coal-fired power plants, those coal trains will be death trains—no less gruesome than if they were boxcars headed to crematoria, loaded with uncountable irreplaceable species. (Hansen, July 23, 2007)

By mid-2007, several new coal-powered plants were being canceled or postponed across the United States, as Hansen's advice began to sink in. By that time, 645 coal-fired plants were producing about half the country's electricity. As recently as May 2007, more than 150 new ones had been planned to meet electricity demand that was rising at an annual-ized rate of 2.7 percent. A private equity deal worth $32 billion involving TXU Corp. trimmed 8 of 11 planned coal plants, as similar plants were scuttled in Florida, North Carolina, Oregon, and other states. Montana and Iowa were debating whether to scrap plans for coal-fired power plants.

About two dozen coal plants have been canceled since early 2006, according to the National Energy Technology Laboratory in Pittsburg, an agency of the U.S. Department of Energy. Citibank downgraded the stocks of coal-mining companies in mid-July, saying, "[P]rophesies of a new wave of coal-fired generation have vaporized" (Smith, 2007, A-1). Climate change concerns are often cited when coal plants are canceled, especially in Florida, where rising sea levels from melting ice in the Arctic, Antarctic, and mountain glaciers are already eroding coastlines. Florida's Public Service Commission is now legally required to give preference to alternative energy projects over any new generation of electricity from fossil fuels. The states of Washington and California have been moving toward similar requirements. Xcel Energy and Public Service of Colorado were allowed to go ahead with a 750-megawatt coal-fired power plant only after they agreed to obtain 775 megawatts of wind power.

In the meantime, however, China was adding coal-fired power at a record rate to satisfy the needs of its growing economy. Any worldwide moratorium would have to include China, which gets the vast majority of its power from "dirty" (low-energy, high-pollution) coal. Nine of the ten cities with the worst air pollution are in China, and most of it comes from coal-fired power plants.

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