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Cross-posted from the NC Conservation Network blog. Written by Dan Conrad.

When President Obama gives his upcoming State of the Union address we will hear those famous words uttered: “Ladies and Gentlemen: the President of the United States.” After the recent Supreme Court ruling regarding campaign contribution limits, one has to wonder if in 3 years we will hear something slightly different: “Ladies and Gentlemen: the President of the United States presented by AT&T.” As the new president enters the magnificent chamber of the Cheetos House of Representatives, filled with both House members and members of the Flomax US Senate, it may be a good time to pause and wonder where it all went wrong.

On Thursday the Supreme Court made a sweeping ruling regarding the treatment of corporations and limitations in campaign spending placed on them by numerous laws. [Note that you can download the entire ruling (Citizens United v. Federal Election Comm'n) from the Supreme Court website.] The Roberts Court, which pledged to follow precedent and decide only narrow issues of law to avoid so-called “judicial activism”, went far beyond the narrow issue of the case in its ruling to make drastic changes to the law. The actual issue of the case involved part of the McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Reform Act that prohibited “electioneering communications” paid for by corporations or unions from being broadcast or transmitted 30 days before a presidential primary and 60 days before the general election. The case was brought by a conservative non-profit group Citizen’s United, that wished to air a scathing documentary about Hillary Clinton on the eve of presidential primary elections. Their argument was that this provision allowed the Federal Election Commission to limit free speech.

Instead, the Court went back and reevaluated the entire treatment of corporate contributions in campaign finance. For decades there have been laws limiting the ways that corporations may participate in political campaigns. Essentially, the law allowed limits to be placed on personal contributions directly to a candidate, however, there is no limit on contributions that an individual makes on their own. Individuals are free to spend as much as they want in support of a given candidate so long as they purchase the airtime, ads, etc. themselves. This policy, however, did not extend to corporations, and laws routinely placed limits on the amounts and times when a corporation could spend to support a specific candidate. Thursday’s ruling essentially breaks down the distinction between corporations and people for free speech purposes in campaign finance and election spending.

It appears a corporation could now spend whatever they want, whenever they want, in support of a specific candidate, so long as they do not give directly to the candidate. Justice Stevens, joined by Ginsburg, Breyer and Sotomayor, read his dissent from the bench (a rarely exercised act used to express extreme displeasure in the Court’s ruling.) He stated that the ruling was “profoundly misguided” and that “[t]he court’s ruling threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions around the nation.” According to the NY times article, President Obama concurs as he:

“…called [the ruling] “a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans.”

This ruling could have a chilling affect on the environmental community given the fact that many of the opponents of environmental regulations are large corporations. Politicians will now not only fear they will not get corporate donations by supporting a certain issue, but will also fear that supporting an issue may result in a corporation spending millions to campaign against them during the next election. For the sake of knowing where we stand, I propose that politicians should be required to wear NASCAR jumpsuits and adorn their desks with the logos of those who paid to get them there. At least then we will all know who they really represent. When a Senator votes to allow drilling in the Alaskan Wildlife Refuge we can simply look at the giant Exxon emblem on their jacket and know who placed the vote. While the ultimate ramifications of this ruling remain to be seen, don’t be surprised if we look back at this day with nostalgia as we do on New Year’s Day now, when you look at your buddy and say “I remember back when the Peach Bowl was actually called the Peach Bowl and not the Chick Fil-A Bowl.”

Cross-posted from the NC Conservation Network blog

Over the past several years, I’ve heard a lot about the concept of “clean coal technology.” In theory, it sounds great…I mean, I know that the burning of coal has severe environmental and health impacts, and I also know that coal energy is realitively cheap, and supplies over half of the electricity in the United States. So it’s nice to think that there’s a “clean” option out there to hold back those nasty pollutants, and still provide a cheap, plentiful source of fuel. “Clean coal technology” says, “you can have your cake and eat it too.” Seems great…right?

In an effort to find out more about what clean coal technology actually is, I did some digging on the web. I was shooting for unbiased info, but that seemed to be hard to find as the idea of “clean coal technology” is a controversial issue. Even Wikipedia’s page on the subject is being disputed as biased. This article by howstuffworks.com did provide helpful information about the science behind the concept. Below are some highlights:

“Clean coal technology seeks to reduce harsh environmental effects by using multiple technologies to clean coal and contain its emissions.”

“Some clean coal technologies purify the coal before it burns. One type of coal preparation, coal washing, removes unwanted minerals by mixing crushed coal with a liquid and allowing the impurities to separate and settle.”

“Wet scrubbers, or flue gas desulfurization systems, remove sulfur dioxide, a major cause of acid rain, by spraying flue gas with limestone and water.”

“Low-NOx (nitrogen oxide) burners reduce the creation of nitrogen oxides, a cause of ground-level ozone, by restricting oxygen and manipulating the combustion process. Electrostatic precipitators remove particulates that aggravate asthma and cause respiratory ailments by charging particles with an electrical field and then capturing them on collection plates.”

“Gasification avoids burning coal altogether. With integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) systems, steam and hot pressurized air or oxygen combine with coal in a reaction that forces carbon molecules apart. The resulting syngas, a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen, is then cleaned and burned in a gas turbine to make electricity.”

“Carbon capture and storage — perhaps the most promising clean coal technology — catches and sequesters carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from stationary sources like power plants.” (There are many different ways “carbon capture” can be executed. Click here for more details.)

I have to admit, after reading about some of the science behind “clean coal technology,” I was impressed. It seems like scientists are thinking more strategically now about the long-term effects of burning fossil fuels. Unfortunately, though, there’s more to the “clean coal fairy tale” that groups like the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity don’t want you to hear. According to their website:

[...]coal will remain a low-cost energy option in the future even considering the cost of new technologies to capture and store CO2 – a common greenhouse gas. Technologies to capture carbon at coal-based power plants are already under development, and experts agree that we can safely store CO2 safely underground – putting the CO2 back where it came from.

and…

The coal-based electricity sector is committed to continuous environmental improvements in the coal-based electricity sector, including the capture and storage of greenhouse gases. That is why the industry has invested billions of dollars in new advanced technologies that will pave the way for design of the world’s first pollution-free, carbon-neutral coal-based power plant.

However, just last week, a coaltion of organizations including the Alliance for Climate Protection, Sierra Club, National Wildlife Federation, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the League of Conservation Voters, unveiled a new project entitled The Reality Project (click for the press release [pdf]). According to their website:

In reality, there is no such thing as ‘clean’ coal in America today. Coal cannot be called ‘clean’ until its CO2 emissions are captured and stored safely.

Let’s be clear: there are no US homes, factories, shopping centers or churches powered by coal plants that capture and store their global warming pollution.

The Reality Coalition cites articles such as this one from the Wall Street Journal:

The coal industry is spending millions advertising “clean” coal, but not a single “clean” coal power plant exists in the US today.

They also include a citation from the Union of Concerned Scientists [pdf]:

Although carbon sequestration has been the subject of considerable research and analysis, it has yet to be demonstrated in the form of commercial-scale, fully integrated projects at coal-fired power plants.

In fact, the more I dug around (see here and here, the more I began to realize that while clean coal technology seems to be based on some fascinating, innovative science, the reality is that it doesn’t seem to be economically feasible now, or at any point in the near future.

And just to drive this point home further, in this Newsweek article, the VP of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity himself is quoted as saying,

With the current research being done, we think we can get the technology up and running within 10 to 15 years.

Wow. A lot of damage climate change-wise can be down in 10-15 years…and what if it takes even longer than that to implement the new technology? So in essence, the concept of “clean coal technology” seems to be less of a “you can have your cake and eat it too” concept, and more of a “you can have your cake and eat it too…but chances are the cake will never be made in the first place.”

For me, this leads to the question…can we afford to wait and see if clean coal technology actually becomes a real option? Or are our impacts on global climate change so severe already that it’s time to look outside the coal mine, and start implementing energy alternatives such as solar, wind, and energy efficiency methods?

Frankly, I’m not sure that waiting for clean coal technology to become a reality is a gamble I’m willing to take.

Cross-posted from the NC Conservation Network blog

Was anyone else bitterly disappointed this morning after reading the News & Observer's headline that "Democrats cry uncle on drilling?" From the article:

"Democrats have decided to allow a quarter-century ban on drilling for oil off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts — including North Carolina's shoreline — to expire next week, conceding defeat in a months-long battle with the White House and Republicans set off by $4-a-gallon gasoline prices this summer."

Basically, now we have both parties of Congress supporting offshore drilling which, as laid out in our action alert, would do the following:

  • jeopardize NC's fishing industry;

  • threaten the rare coral wilderness off NC's coast; and

  • permanently change the face of coastal communities.

At the same time, offshore drilling would not lead to significant (or timely) oil production. [For a recent Op-Ed on this issue written by a state legislator, see http://www.fayobserver.com/article?id=305388.]

From a recent poll conducted by Elon University:

"The poll also found that most people expect the drilling to affect gas prices in the near future. About 14 percent expected that permitting drilling would lower prices immediately or within one year. Another 53 percent expected gas price relief in one to 10 years.

The federal government disagrees. A report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration last year found that new exploration in the Pacific, Atlantic and eastern Gulf of Mexico would produce an extra 200,000 barrels of oil a day by 2030. But U.S. oil consumption is currently 100 times higher than that. Since oil prices are determined on a worldwide market, the new oil would not affect oil prices, the EIA said." [emphasis mine]

So why, oh WHY do more than two-thirds of North Carolinians support offshore drilling?

Cross-posted from the NC Conservation Network blog

Imagine this: an energy-efficiency program that "encourages" consumers to conserve energy by charging them higher rates to make up for any lost profits the power company may lose for not needing to produce as much energy. Because if consumers DON'T conserve, new power plants will have to be built; but if these "virtual power plants" don't have to be built, consumers will get a fabulous 10% savings on the cost of the power plants…that don't exist.

I'm sorry, what?

This rather confusing and underhanded strategy describes Duke Energy's proposed Save-a-Watt program, which has been the subject of much debate this week. From the News & Observer:

"What makes Duke's proposal different from other energy efficiency plans is that the company would not be paid for the actual cost of running Save-a-Watt. Instead, Duke says it should be paid 90 percent of the cost of building new power plants. Duke officials describe Save-a-Watt as a 10 percent savings for customers on the cost of new power plants that would otherwise have to be constructed to meet energy demand."

And from the News and Record:

"Duke would recoup the cost of programs that help consumers save energy by recouping 90 percent of what it would cost to build a power plant to meet the energy needs offset by the conservation effort."

The plan's many critics (including consumer and environmental groups and, uh, Wal-mart…) fail to see this plan as any sort of incentive to save energy because it would price-gouge consumers, only provide modest power savings, and allow Duke to rake in huge profits—literally charging consumers for the lack of using power. [As a side note, I think many groups understand the charges that would be associated with starting an energy efficiency program, but I think it's the exorbitant profit margin of 61% that's causing the real debate.]

The program is currently before review of the Public Utilities Commission, and is being discussed this week.

In the meantime, I encourage Duke Power consumers to start conserving energy now—while it's still affordable.

Cross-posted from the NC Conservation Network blog 

During my lunch break today, I headed over to my local precinct to do my civic duty (you know, vote). The street as I walked up was deserted, the fire station void of any life except for the fabulous poll workers (thank you!)

Out of curiosity, I asked the gentleman in charge of the ballots how many folks had voted already. (Now keep in mind the polls had been open for over 6 hours by the time I showed up.) He said, "Ma'am, you're our afternoon rush. You're the eleventh person to vote here today."

Hearing about this low turn-out, I started thinking about the voting process. Do people not know about these smaller elections (I had almost forgotten myself)? Or do they not care? What makes people vote or not vote? What are the best ways to get voters out to the polls at lower-profile elections? Would more people vote if the voting system was set-up differently?

And please, if you haven't voted, you don't get to complain about decision-makers. The next time a non-voter starts griping about a certain person in charge, I'm going to hand them this fine sticker:

shouldve_voted