News > NewsTHE COAL PARADOX
"The truth is, I don't know when things will get back to normal for me," says Orlando resident and University of Central Florida biology student Derek Sinns, as he flips through the channels on his friend's television set. "Those hurricanes got me pretty good. They cleaned out my wallet."
After staring blankly at the screen for nearly a minute, Sinns glances down at his fidgeting hands. His eyes grow wide and a strange grin passes over his lips. "Four hurricanes? Who's ever heard of such a thing?" He scrunches his facial features as if he was struggling to comprehend an absurdity. "And they're saying next year is supposed to be worse."
Like many Floridians, Sinns was left homeless after the hurricanes swept through the state. His rental property was damaged and he's been searching for a new place to live, but he doesn't have the money.
He stops his incessant channel surfing when an animated bald eagle on the screen catches his eye. The bird is shown flying through hazy, polluted skies, heaving, hacking and coughing until it's forced to land and rest. "Not a good day for flying," the eagle says between coughs. Then the music switches from bleak to hopeful, and a soothing female voiceover talks about the government's new "clean coal" technology that promises to reduce air pollution to below the 1970 levels.
"Yeah, cleaner air, but what about global warming?" Sinns erupts in spontaneous protest. "They were telling us in class last week that global warming is what's making our hurricane season so violent."
Without really knowing it, Sinns was touching on an issue that has been causing quite a stir among environmentalists who believe the United States is quickly becoming a global black sheep. What is the Bush administration doing about global warming? Not much of substance, say critics.
The evidence is right here in Central Florida. On Oct. 21, U.S. Department of Energy secretary Spencer Abraham, who recently retired from Bush's cabinet, awarded the Orlando Utilities Commission a $235 million grant, which will go toward building a $557 million, 285-megawatt coal gasification facility at OUC's 3,280-acre Stanton Energy Center in Southeast Orange County, about eight miles south of State Road 50.
OUC partnered with the Atlanta-based Southern Company and applied for the multimillion-dollar grant, which is part of the government's new Clean Coal Power Initiative. The utility companies will be responsible for paying for the remaining $322 million needed for the plant, which will be built next to two regular "pulverized coal"-burning plants already on the property.
OUC spokesperson Sheridan Becht says the utility company had plans to build more pulverized-coal plants by the year 2010 to meet the needs of their growing customer base before they received the government grant for this project.
"The grant [for the new coal gasifying plant] has fit in nicely with our long-term plans to provide more energy for our growing population," says Becht. The plant will be the first and only facility of its kind in the world, and could potentially create up to 1,800 jobs by the time of its completion in 2007. It will provide power for all OUC customers, as well as for a portion of the customers from other co-owning municipal utility companies, such as Southern Company.
Gov. Jeb Bush applauded the measure, saying, "This clean coal project is good for Florida's environment and quality of life. It is a strong boost to our economy as a direct source of job creation, as well as increased power to fuel future Florida businesses, and it improves the security of our energy supplies."
So did Abraham, who recently retired. "This project is a prime example of our administration's desire to develop cutting-edge technologies to help meet our nation's future energy needs. Advancing the technology for clean coal will go a long way toward giving us control of our energy future, and it will be an important part of safeguarding the environment for future generations."
What they aren't addressing is the issue of whether or not coal can ever be considered a truly clean source of energy.
"[Coal gasification plants] do nothing to address the problem of global warming," says Dr. C. David Cooper, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Central Florida. "And the government isn't spending near enough money to find alternative energy sources, such as wind and solar power. There is plenty of evidence out there that shows global climate change is a real and dangerous threat."
Clean coal technology is relatively simple. Heat coal until it turns into a gas, and burn the gas for electricity. "Gasifying" the coal nearly eliminates some of our most common and dangerous air pollutants, sulfur dioxide and mercury. However, it does nothing to decrease carbon dioxide emissions, which cause global warming. Cooper also points out that 60 percent to 80 percent of Central Florida's air pollution comes from mobile sources such as cars, trucks, buses, boats and lawnmowers not coal plants. Even more of a reason, says Cooper, for the government to invest in renewable energy sources to solve the nation's pollution problems.
Chris Miller, a spokesperson for Greenpeace's Clean Energy Campaign, says clean coal plants may not make a noticeable difference in air quality.
"The idea that you can somehow make coal clean is an oxymoron," says Miller. "It's akin to suggesting there is a safe cigarette. Furthermore, what good can two or three clean coal facilities do for cleaner air when they're arranged in a sea of over 500 regular coal plants, whose numbers are also growing?"
FEELING THE HEAT
World leaders from nearly every industrialized country have harshly criticized the Bush administration for bowing out of the Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty that would require 180 nations to reduce combined greenhouse emissions so that by 2012, we'll be 5.2 percent below the 1990 levels.
Greenhouse emissions, a catalyst for global warming, are caused largely by burning fossil fuels. The United States is dependent on coal for energy because it is cheap and plentiful. But when coal is burned to produce electricity, carbon dioxide gas goes into the air, "blanketing" our atmosphere and exacerbating the "greenhouse" effect. Heat in the form of sunlight enters the atmosphere, but carbon dioxide prohibits the heat from escaping, leading to an ever-increasing average global temperature.
Many scientists, including Cooper, agree that a warmer global climate could generate flooding, trigger drought, melt glaciers, change ecosystems, cause significant land loss from rising sea levels, increase the insect population and, to the dismay of Floridians, spawn more and bigger hurricanes.
There are still people who believe global warming is a hoax. Last fall, the Senate debated a piece of legislation that would have imposed regulations to reduce global warming, and Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., was leading the opposition. According to National Public Radio, Inhofe based his arguments on the findings of John Christy, a professor of earth science at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. After studying millions of weather satellite measurements of the earth, Christy hypothesized that there exists no real threat of global warming, according to his satellite data.
However, many scientists believe global warming is real, not only in the Arctic where glaciers are melting, temperatures are increasing and polar bears are dying, but also in the United States.
Camille Parmesan, a biologist at the University of Texas at Austin, released a report in early November called "Observed Impacts of Global Climate Change in the U.S." She says evidence of global warming in the United States is apparent through the emergence of earlier spring seasons, the migration of tropical bird species to Florida and the deaths of climate-sensitive butterflies in the southern states.
Bush opted out of the Kyoto Protocol for economic reasons. "It is going to cost us jobs," he said in 1999, during his first presidential campaign in Des Moines. The protocol was signed by President Clinton in 1997, but was never ratified before his term ended. Bush reversed the U.S. stance on the Kyoto Protocol for fear that the cut in emissions (i.e., doing away with cheap coal), would cause energy prices in America to soar. He also labeled the protocol "flawed" because underdeveloped countries do not have to participate in cutting back on emissions.
The drafters of the Kyoto Protocol reasoned that the biggest environmental "bullies" should be responsible for most of the cleanup. Bad news for the United States, whose citizens account for just 6 percent of the world's total population, yet produce one-fourth of the world's carbon dioxide.
On Oct. 27, Russia officially ratified the Kyoto Protocol, leaving America to stand alone as the only industrialized nation on Earth refusing to cut emissions as outlined in the agreement. University of Miami environmental science professor Dr. David Fisher says that while clean coal technology is a good thing to explore, there's no valid excuse for Bush refusing the Kyoto Protocol.
"I think it's safe to say that clean coal plants are just a Band-Aid for a much larger problem," Fisher says. "And I find it ridiculous that we're the only country on the planet refusing to cut emissions through Kyoto. At the rate we're producing greenhouse emissions on this planet, we've only got about a hundred years left before we run into some serious problems on a global scale. That means our children and grandchildren will be faced with the pretty heavy burden of cleaning up our mess."
Senior technology and management advisor Michael Eastman, 30-year veteran in clean coal technology at the DOE's National Technology Laboratory, says America should trust clean coal to help solve its environmental problems.
"Coal can, even in a world where carbon emissions are constrained, play a key role in the future of America. We can meet these challenges if the technologies needed to accomplish the desired performance objectives are developed in time," he wrote in an article entitled "The Case for Coal," published in the National Journal of Technology Commercialization in September 2004.
Eastman told Orlando Weekly that in the future, DOE hopes to combine clean coal technology with carbon sequestration a process that involves trapping carbon dioxide from a power plant and storing it underground.
But carbon sequestration comes with its own list of hazards, including the fact it could trigger mass asphyxiation should even one underground storage seam rupture or leak.
As for Sinns, he remains distrustful of the Bush administration's environmental policies.
"In terms of the bigger picture and global warming, [the Bush administration] has already showed me what they plan to do to fix the problem," he says as he turns off his television. "Absolutely nothing."