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Morning Reading

Posted on March 10th, 2015 in Energy by Robert Miller

Here’s a suggestion for this morning: Read Juan Cole’s article on “The “Hindenburg Trap”: Dump Oil, Coal & Gas Stocks if you Want to Retire,” wherein he points out that Iowa, hardly a bastion of liberalism and environmentalism, in just 8 years has gone from wind energy supplying 4% (2008) of the total energy budget of the state to an astonishing 28% (2013) of the energy budget. After reading this article you might want to dump your oil, coal and gas stocks, just to error on the safe side.

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Graphing America’s wage history and standing by as North America becomes a Third World petro-state

Posted on April 1st, 2012 in Economy,Energy,Politics by Robert Miller

Hacker-Pierson Winner-Take-All Politics

Graphing an American story: the Bill Moyers website shows a graph derived from Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson and their excellent book “Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer–and Turned its Back on the Middle Class.” The book itself is worth a read, while the graph, electronically upgraded so when you move your mouse pointer over different features of the graph (like the downward arrows at along the top), pop-ups appear and give some of the historical context to explain how income was  dramatically elevated for the top 1% while that for the bottom 90% changed very little. The graph uses the dollar value in 2008 to illustrate gains for the top 1 percent, while the bottom 90% have been flat-lined for 38 years. The period covered is from 1970 to 2008, so it included the decline and fall of The New Deal and the rise and dominance of the neoliberal financial agenda. During that period of flat-lining for everyone else,  the top 1% of wage earners started in 1970 at more than $ 318,000 and by 2008 they tipped the scales at more than $905,000. The graph covers the presidencies of Nixon all the way through to GW Bush; a few of the facts along the way included Reagan’s firing of PATCO (Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization), which began the steep downward decline in union representation in the United States work force and the introduction of supply-side economics, the idea that lowering taxes actually increases Federal Revenue: the execution of this concept pushed the Reagan budgets into deep debt. Before Reagan, America was the biggest creditor nation in the world and after Reagan, we were the biggest debtor country on the planet. If a graph about income distribution can make you angry this one should do the trick. We now have a culture where the neoliberals consider most Americans to be a bunch of losers, with a small number of winners based strictly on income; since the most recent recession/depression, we have done nothing to change this hostile dynamic, and, as we all know, this trend continues unabated and will not change until we change it. By change, I don’t mean just recovering what we lost during the current recession/depression, but making gains in such a way that everyone in our culture can be treated as a stakeholder, living a life with the expectations of someone who is living in a wealthy country that cares for its citizens, not the soundbite, throw-away culture that we have created by chasing the illusory objective of winning the lottery. This graph does not illustrate the creation of new wealth–that is not what happened–the differences between the 1% and the 90% were created by the transfer of wealth from the middle and lower classes to the wealthy. It does not reflect creativity, but exploitation and it cannot continue. Our current version of casino capitalism has failed to create a just and decent society and, if anything, the Tea Party members are merely the most recent victims, even though they are too obliging for comfort.  We need to demand changes in the way we grow, educate and care within our society. We need a new revolt!

Michael Klare on America as the new Third World petro-state. If you still have energy left after reading about our wage history from the 1970s on, then you won’t want to miss Michael Klare’s article in Tomdispatch which appeared today. Klare discusses how Big Oil has exhausted its search for oil reserves in Third World countries and is increasingly focused on North America as the new epicenter of oil and gas exploration. But to be successful in this new enterprise the major oil companies will have to roll back years of regulatory restrictions that have prevented oil and gas drilling because of environmental concerns. Of course the environmental concerns were precipitated by disastrous oil spills that did extensive environmental damage, like that in Santa Barbara in 1969, the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989 and the Macondo blowout in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.   Using their influential weight in the art of political persuasion, Big Oil is intent on unraveling these restrictions as they lay an aggressive  strategy to establish North America as another Third World energy source. One component to their motivation for refocusing on North America is the increasing resistance that Third World countries have against giving Big Oil a blank check for extracting their oil while trampling on the environment. Oddly enough this resistance to unfettered access to Third World oil has been created by more democratic or socialist governments who either nationalize their oil reserves or demand a far larger share of the oil wealth extracted from their oil fields. Thus, in North America, we can expect a far more intensive push from the oil companies in the coming months and the high cost of gasoline will keep pressure on any U.S. President to continue giving out leases for oil exploration even on our most environmentally sensitive regions that have heretofore been off limits. As Klare puts it, “in the process, as has so often been the case with Third World petro-states, the rights and wellbeing of local citizens will be trampled underfoot.” Will we allow oil companies to run roughshod over our national parks and other Federal lands that have long been considered off limits to these interests? Are we willing to reverse the long-standing taboos against oil exploration in sensitive regions in order to serve the interests of economic arguments and our failure to engage in a more robust development of alternative energy sources?

None of us expect that North America will become another Nigeria, which has been described by NY Times writer Adam Nossiter as (quoting from Klare’s article) “the Niger Delta, where the [petroleum] wealth underground is out of all proportion with the poverty on the surface, has endured the equivalent of the Exxon Valdez spill every year for 50 years by some estimates.” But do we carry with us today, the same capacity for public outrage that we demonstrated over the Exxon Valdez oil spill (where today you can put a shovel into the nearby shoreline and see oil oozing around the shovel mark)? And will it make any difference who is elected President and who controls Congress in this coming debate? The oil companies see our internal weakness in the form of a bad economy and deep concerns about our economic future and they see the opportunity to strike while the iron is hot, while we are disarmed and confused.  Oil exploration will be pushed as a source of new jobs and the model of North Dakota, with the lowest unemployment in the country as a result of their oil reserves, will make it difficult for any politician to resist, especially if the environmental lobby remains on life support. It seems that in the present climate, Big Oil may have the upper hand.  Congress has already banned the EPA from regulating the controversial method of hydro-fracking in which huge quantities of water and toxic chemicals are forced under pressure to release oil and gas and the growth of this technique is unparalleled as a potentially dangerous source of contamination to our water supply.  We cannot allow energy companies to make decisions about threats to our health and safety and yet this is precisely what Big Oil is pushing to achieve in this coming election. If the oil industry gets their way, then as Micheal Klare would say, stay tuned for the Third Worldification of the North American continent. To win this war we will first have to mobilize and declare one of our own.


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A documentary worth seeing: The Last Mountain

Posted on November 25th, 2011 in ecology,Energy,Government,Health,Technology by Robert Miller

Mountaintop removal eliminates the mountain and fills the valley below

I have been waiting for the documentary “The Last Mountain” to be released to my  Netflix streaming queue for sometime and then it suddenly showed up, so I watched it a few nights ago. Directed by Bill Haney, it tells the gripping story of the fight to keep Coal River Mountain West Virginia from being destroyed by the Massey Energy  Company.  The residents of Coal River Valley have been threatened for years by mountain top removal in a region of the state that has breath-taking, tree-covered hills and valleys; this region however has been progressively destroyed by coal mining through the technique of  mountaintop removal, based on massive, mechanized  machinery and explosives. Although Robert Kennedy played a major role as an activist and adviser in the documentary, and clearly adds a sense of national urgency to the issues addressed, the story is also about how local residents of Coal River Valley got together and formed an activist resistance to the Massey Coal Company’s plan to remove Coal River Mountain, a mountain that serves as a watershed for residents of the valleys below.  Many other mountains in the region have already been destroyed by coal mining, such that Coal River Mountain was and is the “last mountain standing”  of significance for the region. The removal of this mountain will destroy the water system of people living downstream and increase the severity of flooding, two well-known, obligatory features of mountaintop removal.  Many residents believe that Massey Coal wants to depopulate the Coal River Valley and eliminate downstream community occupancy, to give them more space for strip-mining. It is a very ugly process.

While the Obama administration has been more sensitive to the destruction of the water supply by mountaintop coal mining and violations of environmental laws, the original permits to remove Coal River Mountain were given during the Bush administration and Massey Coal has proceeded to execute its march towards mountain destruction. However, in a somewhat duplicitous manner, the Obama administration continues to issue permits for more mountaintop removal in the region. An interesting feature of this controversy was revealed in the documentary based on studies  that raise the feasibility of putting windmill generators across the top of Coal River Mountain. Those who have studied this suggest that wind power generation would produce more jobs and give the neighboring communities more long-term income through power generation and improvements in the tax base, when compared to the resources generated by the Massey mountaintop removal project,  which  of course will end at some time in the future. The demonstrations, sit-ins and tree sitting by environmentalists and residents are greeted with hostility by the miners who still have jobs working for Massey Coal. Oddly enough, I didn’t see many of the mountain top removal defenders (50 percent of our electricity comes from coal) argue that the future of the industry depends on the development of new clean coal technologies, none of which were on display or even discussed. Many coal-based power plants claim that they are ready for “carbon-capture” technology when it becomes available. But that possibility is very remote because once in service, the public will not tolerate retrofitting for carbon-capture, even if the technique becomes feasible, as it would add enormous costs to existing energy production. If carbon-capture or some similar clean coal technology ever comes along, it is likely to increase the cost of coal-based power plants to a prohibitively high level. Coal is currently the worst source of air pollution and the long list of its pollution offenses  goes beyond carbon dioxide and includes such things as mercury contamination, which accounts for warnings we get about eating fish too often because of their high mercury content. Mercury is toxic to the brain and impacts on brain development. It might be that Republicans have been eating too much fish.

Robert Kennedy is articulate in pointing out that the impact of Massey Coal has been to increase the poverty of the region, first by destroying the unions in the 1980s (companies close mines, send unionized workers home and then reopened the mines with non-union miners, complete with reduced salary and benefits) and second, by reducing the labor force through automation and modernization of equipment and techniques: strip mining is replacing deep hole mining, with a reduction in the labor force needed.  But if the true cost of coal mining was reflected in the price of coal, including the serious health care costs and safety issues, the cost of this form of energy would be prohibitively expensive. We are not just trapped by the history of the region as a long-standing coal-mining center, but also by the powerful lobbying interests of coal mining and transportation (trains) that thrive on their operations in West Virginia and other coal-intensive states.  One can add that Wall Street has billions invested in these companies because they are profitable and seem to be free from serious regulatory control. Add to that formula the corrupt organization of the state’s environmental protection agency, which allows coal companies to violate water and air quality standards without fines, and you have an updated version of “Love Canal.”

The environmental damage does not stop with a disappearing mountain top. The heavy coal mining leads to toxic waste sites in the mountain regions above the valleys, created from the water used to wash the coal before it is shipped and these sites leak and pollute the water supply downstream, carrying highly toxic material.  Several websites have been put up to monitor the mining operation, but the state and Federal Government seem to collude as obstacles for better environmental regulation. The trouble is that while wind energy might be successful for the future of local inhabitants, how will the energy needs of others be met who receive the coal over long distance railroad shipments? You have to decommission these coal plants one at a time, when you have a suitable alternative and until that can be achieved, the forces promoting mountaintop removal will keep going with few obstacles in sight that can stop them. If you had only two solutions to our energy needs, nuclear power and coal mining, the preferred choice would be obvious.  The solution at hand is to build a new, modern transcontinental power grid that collects electricity from all forms of power generated in different ways and distribute that power efficiently to homes and businesses. This is an infrastructure issue. Yes, it would be better to replace coal-fired power plants with natural gas in the short-run, and it seems obvious that the wind turbine option for the people of Coal River Valley makes far more economic and environmental sense, but how to resolve the challenges of implementing this new technology in place of coal is something we can only achieve through the force of a national government, not a state government, which, in the case of West Virginia seems hopelessly corrupt and entirely devoted to the private, rather than the public interest.


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