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Big Coal Tries to Control Global Energy Debate

Climate

There is a growing drumbeat being played by the coal industry around the idea that their product will "save" developing African and Asian regions that are deprived of a reliable energy source or what is known in policy circles as energy poverty.

New global marketing campaigns like "Advanced Energy For Life" have projected the fantasy of "clean coal" as the solution for energy poverty.
Photo credit: Shutterstock

But I would say these countries deserve something much better than the old, dirty energy that we in North America no longer want.

New global marketing campaigns like "Advanced Energy For Life," which is sponsored by Peabody Energy, the world's largest private-sector coal company, have projected the fantasy of "clean coal" as the solution for energy poverty. If the developed West with its environmental and health standards would simply get out of the way, Africa and Asia could coal-fire their way to economic prosperity.

The timing is uncanny for this burst of random benevolence on the part the coal industry. After all, the idea of energy poverty is not new, and neither is coal.

Or could it be that as coal is becoming less favorable in places like the U.S., where strict new environmental and health concerns have all but halted any new domestic growth, these companies are looking to hawk their "clean" coal product in new markets.

Call me cynical, but I would say this poor-need-coal concept is a Hail Mary attempt by a dying industry to find the few last markets for a product that nobody seems to want anymore. Markets susceptible to being convinced by sophisticated marketing techniques that coal is somehow "clean."

First, let's get one thing straight, there is no such thing as "clean coal." Mining and burning coal remains one of the most destructive of all human activities. It flattens mountains, poisons rivers and drinking water supplies, pollutes the air, causes severe respiratory illnesses, and is over-heating our planet.

The phrase "clean coal" is no more than a clever bit of marketing—an advertising slogan that cannot honestly define any physical thing. Industry definitions of "clean coal" shift whenever its strategically expedient/convenient.

Big coal continues to hail the promise of carbon capture and storage (CCS)—remember all the commercials during the 2008 Presidential election? Carbon capture, we were told, would "soon" be commercially viable. Except we never reach that horizon. High profile CCS projects like FutureGen continue to struggle, with more than 11 years of promises, hundreds of millions of taxpayers dollars spent, and still not a spade in the ground.

And then there is the copycat "clean" coal carbon capture and storage project GreenGen in China, which is supported in part by none other than Peabody Energy, the same company behind the Advanced Energy for Life campaign.

So if coal has been, for all intents and purposes, essentially banned in the U.S., for environment, health and climate concerns. Why is it seen as a solution for other nations in Africa and Asia? Especially when there are cheaper, cleaner, more high tech 21st Century options.

Just as cell phone technology has helped the developing world leapfrog landline telecoms and their costly infrastructure, advanced renewables like distributed solar and wind can help the world's poor electrify, skipping the the centralized coal-utilities entirely.

The coal industry predictably argues that renewables are still too expensive, and that we have a "moral obligation" to provide "low cost" fossil fuels (read: coal) to lift the developing world out of energy poverty. However, commercially viable carbon capture and storage, and advanced coal gasification remain elusive pipe dreams that will likely be prohibitively expensive if they ever prove to be a workable solution.

None other than the International Energy Agency (IEA), the traditionally conservative Paris-based organization, recently argued that coal is not the best option for Africa and developing Asia.

In its latest Solar Roadmap report, published in September, the IEA made a strong case for solar as the best path out of energy poverty.

"The rapid cost decrease of photovoltaic modules and systems in the last few years has opened new perspectives for using solar energy as a major source of electricity in the coming years and decades," said IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven, introducing the report.

The report showed how, by 2030, 500 million people with no current access to electricity could enjoy light in their homes with solar photovoltaics, describing the "considerable merits" of both on-grid and off-grid solar.

Provided financing options for the considerable upfront costs of solar, the IEA argues that photovoltaics are already competitive with fossil fuel alternatives.

Compared to coal with carbon capture and advanced coal gasification, solar photovoltaics, solar thermal, wind, and other advanced renewables are already a bargain.

Ultimately, it shouldn't be for the coal companies or western think tanks to decide what's best for Africa and developing Asia.

In India, a country with both extreme energy poverty and massive coal deposits, the recently elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi has announced a goal of delivering electricity to all Indian citizens by 2020. Modi's plan for delivering power to the roughly 300 million that currently live without: mostly solar.

Last year, at a climate and development conference in Ethiopia, delegates from throughout Africa met to discuss economic growth in the face of climate change and energy poverty. One main conclusion from their summary report speaks volumes:

"There is no question of a choice between economic growth and environmental protection. The green economy is about achieving green growth while at the same time protecting our environment."

Over the past 200 years or so, the Western world has learned so much about what works and what doesn't when it comes to powering a sustainable economy and planet. Developing nations in Africa and Asia don't need to learn those lessons all over again.

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"The temperature of the Gulf of Maine is creating the right conditions for lobster, so it's helped our industry—and it's been a big boost for the Maine economy," Porter, the current president of the Maine Lobstermen's Association, said. "But you never know what lies ahead. If it continues to warm, it may end up going the other way."

The Gulf of Maine is setting frequent temperature records and warming faster overall than 99 percent of the world's oceans, due in large part to climate change. Meanwhile, its lobster population skyrocketed by 515 percent between 1984 and 2014. In 1990, for example, lobster landings in Maine totaled 28 million pounds. Ten years later that figure was up to 57 million pounds. And in every year since 2011, the take has exceeded 100 million pounds, peaking at 132.6 million pounds in 2016 and turning lobster into a half-billion-dollar industry for the state.

Fishermen like Porter have been reaping the benefits of the boom, but he's right — as the Gulf of Maine's waters inevitably continue to warm, lobster populations will almost certainly decrease. The crustaceans thrive at temperatures between 61 and 64 degrees Fahrenheit. Once the water hits 70 degrees, its oxygen levels plummet, to the detriment of a host of marine plants and animals, lobsters included. According to a 2018 study, the gulf's lobster population could fall by 40 to 62 percent over the next 30 years, returning the industry — the nation's most valuable fishery — to early-2000s numbers.

"Temperature is a big part of the story here," said Andrew Pershing, chief scientific officer at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute (GMRI) and a coauthor of the study. "Lobster is likely to decline, and that's obviously more worrisome in the North, where it has been booming."

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Marine scientist Susie Arnold of the Rockland, Maine–based Island Institute notes that rising temperatures have also contributed to a decline in other fisheries like shrimp, cod and scallops, leaving fishermen in Maine precariously dependent on the thriving lobster populations. "A lot of fishermen in coastal communities in Maine are relying on just one fishery, and as we're seeing the impacts of climate change, that definitely gets people worried," she said. In response, Arnold and her colleagues are encouraging fishermen to think about diversification opportunities like aquaculture. "We're trying to help coastal communities maintain their cultural heritage, and a large part of that has to do with making a living off a healthy marine ecosystem."

State lawmakers, too, are taking note of the warming trend and rising up in support of climate action. Maine Governor Janet Mills cited concerns about climate change impacting the lobster industry in her February announcement that the state would join the U.S. Climate Alliance. She has also linked the recent creation of a Maine Climate Council and ambitious statewide renewable energy goals to the health of local fisheries. (Mills recently signed several climate bills into law that will help the state transition to 80 percent renewable energy by 2030 and reduce emissions 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.)

Such a head-on response to the impacts of climate change facing Maine offers a much-needed boost to the future of both lobsters and the coastal communities that rely on the fishery. Meanwhile, the iconic sea creatures have already benefited from generations of conservation efforts, as noted by Pershing and his fellow researchers. In addition to heeding minimum and maximum catch size limits, fishers must refrain from taking any egg-bearing female lobsters. Instead, when they catch these breeders, they clip their tails with a "V notch,"—a mark that will stay with a lobster through several molts—then release them. (The clipped tail signals to other fisherman who may encounter the same lobsters that they are off-limits.)

Porter and other fisherman liken this investment in the future of the industry to putting money in the bank. And marine scientists, including NRDC's Lisa Suatoni, call it smart climate policy. "Leaving these large, fecund females in the water is a really good idea in the context of a rapidly changing environment," Suatoni said. "It isn't just fixated on how to get maximum sustainable yield but also expanding our objective to also get increased ecological or evolutionary resilience."

The decline of the lobster industry in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island, where waters are warmer and regulations less stringent than in Maine, serves as a cautionary tale for their northern neighbor. Landings in southern New England shrank by as much as 70 percent from 1997 to 2007, but the industry has resisted many conservation measures, and again rejected fishing restrictions brought to the table by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission in 2017.

The proposed restrictions would have changed the legal harvesting size and reduced the number of traps allowed per fisherman, among other regulation changes. Had Maine followed the same lax approach, Pershing and his colleagues estimate that lobster populations in the Gulf of Maine would have increased by less than half as much as it did during their 30-year study period.

While Pershing praises Maine's forward-looking approach for boosting the resilience of its lobster industry in the face of the growing climate crisis, "there's a limit to how much we can adapt and how much we can manage around it," he said. "When you look beyond 2050 in a high-CO2 world, it's a scenario where fisheries are really challenged no matter where you look in the country. We have to figure out how to avoid that because everything gets so much more difficult in that world—and we can make that case in a really concrete way with some of the fishery models."

Pershing says that climate change is having impacts up and down the food chain in the Gulf of Maine. For example, a sharp decline in a species of tiny copepod — a shrimp-like creature that is a favorite food of herring, seabirds and endangered right whales — is putting further stress on these creatures.

"These aren't just faraway changes that are happening in the ocean where nobody really sees them," Pershing said. "There are real consequences for the Gulf of Maine and the communities that live on the coast."

Nicole Greenfield is a writer at NRDC whose articles on religion, the environment, popular culture and social justice have appeared in many publications.

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Speaking during a conference in Washington, DC in June, Derrick Morgan, senior vice president for federal and regulatory affairs at the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM), touted "model legislation" that states across the nation have passed in recent months.

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"Big Oil is hijacking our legislative system," Dallas Goldtooth of the Indigenous Environmental Network said after the Texas Senate passed the bill in May.

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"The AFPM lobbyist also boasted that the template legislation has enjoyed bipartisan support," according to Fang. "In Louisiana, Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards signed the version of the bill there, which is being challenged by the Center for Constitutional Rights. Even in Illinois, Morgan noted, 'We almost got that across the finish line in a very Democratic-dominated legislature.' The bill did not pass as it got pushed aside over time constraints at the end of the legislative session."

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