CRAIG — The area’s biggest economic players took a hit this week as President Barack Obama announced Tuesday his climate change initiative to reduce carbon emissions from the nation’s fleet of coal-powered electrical generation plants.
That has significant implications for northwest Colorado’s power plants and coalmines, though those implications might not play out for several years. The coal industry — so important to Moffat and Routt counties — already has problems in the United States, losing market share to the natural gas industry as power plants shift from coal to less expensive and cleaner natural gas.
Speaking before a Georgetown University audience of students, Obama said, “I refuse to condemn your generation and future generations to a planet that’s beyond fixing. And that’s why, today, I'm announcing a new national climate action plan.”
Sidestepping a gridlocked Congress and using authorities under the Clean Air Act, the President said he will issue a series of executive orders to federal agencies — particularly the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Key components of the plan to reduce U.S. carbon emissions:
• The EPA will issue draft emission rules for existing power plants by June 2014, to be finalized a year later. States will be required to file implementation plans by June 2016.
• EPA will expedite finalizing rules for new power plants that the agency issued last year.
• A pledge that the federal government will draw 20 percent of its power from renewable sources (wind, solar, tidal, geothermal) by 2020.
• Calls for an additional 10 gigawatts of renewable energy on public lands by 2020.
• Sets goal of 100 megawatts of renewable energy on federally subsidized housing by 2020.
• Sets up a new, $8 billion loan guarantee program for advanced fossil fuel projects at the Department of Energy (clean coal, high-efficiency power plants, carbon capture and sequestration, etc.).
• Directs the Department of Transportation and EPA to work on fuel economy standards for heavy-duty trucks, buses, and vans for after 2018.
• Creates goal of cutting at least 3 billion tons of carbon pollution by 2030, via energy efficiency improved standards.
• Ends U.S. funding for fossil fuel energy projects overseas, unless they include carbon capture technology.
Obama took a tough stance with those who would deny that climate change is a problem.
“I am willing to work with anybody … to combat this threat on behalf of our kids,” he said. “But I don’t have much patience for anybody who argues the problem is not real. We don’t have time for a meeting of the Flat Earth Society.”
Obama has overwhelming support from the world’s scientific community. A new study published in the journal “Environmental Research Letters” pored over nearly 12,000 peer-reviewed scientific papers from 1991 to 2011 — the work of 29,083 authors and 1,980 scientific journals. The study found that 97 percent of the nation’s and world’s climatologist scientists say climate change is driven by humans burning fossil fuels.
Two Craig men have wildly different views about climate change, but both have years of community service and a deep regard for the people of Craig and Moffat County.
Moffat County Commissioner John Kinkaid is a recent retiree from Tri-State Generation and Transmission, and Dr. Allan Reishus, M.D., retired after 30 years of treating patients in Craig.
A control room operator for 33 years with Tri-State, Kinkaid ran for county commissioners last year on a platform of pro-energy development and against regulations.
He hasn’t changed his stance since then, and not in the wake of a new climate change action plan presented by President Barack Obama last Tuesday.
“Diversity in the economy is all well and good, but energy is our bread and butter,” he said. His son works as a miner at Twentymile Mine, so he values the good paying jobs at Tri-State and area coal mines.
He flat-out does not believe that humans have anything to do with climate change and states that temperatures have stopped rising. Kinkaid emphasizes that scientists used to say in the 1970s that an ice age was coming — now they’re saying the opposite. He’s also heard negative things about climate researchers in Great Britain and Pennsylvania.
No fan of Obama, Kinkaid expressed alarm about the national debt, scandals in Washington and the over-regulation of business. He closed his email, saying “The only engine powerful enough to pull our economy out of the great recession is domestic energy production. Moffat County has what the nation needs. Energy. Let us keep doing what we do and let us do more of it.”
Dr. Reishus said there’s not a doubt in his mind that climate change is real and is driven by humans burning fossil fuels.
“The science is clear, and I’m a scientist,” he said.
Understanding basic science, the scientific method, the value of peer review, Reishus doesn’t understand why people can’t see what he sees. He’s traveled extensively in Europe, where the majority takes climate change seriously and invests in renewable energy like wind and solar.
“It is kind of like discussing religion,” he said, recognizing that people have dug-in positions.
He appreciates the quote by muckraker Upton Sinclair, who once said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it.”
“That’s Craig,” he laughed.
Yet Reishus recognizes the seriousness too — that his neighbors and former patients all worry about what might happen to the local mines, power plant, economy and their jobs.
“I don’t want to see draconian or rapid change,” he said. Incremental changes, like lowering emissions and expanding renewable energy are preferable.
The President’s climate action plan has no immediate impact for coal mining or coal-burning power plants. It will take a couple years at least for the EPA to figure out regulations and for states like Colorado to work out the implementation.
In the meanwhile, national market forces will likely continue to encourage power companies to switch from coal to natural gas. That trend also makes it unlikely that any power company will want to invest in a new, coal-burning power plant, which in turn means that national consumption of coal will level off (best-case scenario) or decline (worst-case scenario for coal mining).
Conservation groups report that over 170 coal-burning plants have been cancelled in recent years and predict that a quarter of the nation’s 500 coal-burning plants will be retired within a decade.
The outlook for coal is wildly different at the global level.
The International Energy Agency reports that global coal consumption is now up to 8 billion tons a year, driven mostly by increased demand by India and China.
Indeed, the U.S. Energy Information Administration reports that of the 2.9 billion tons of global coal demand growth since 2000, China accounted for 2.3 billion tons (82 percent).
China now accounts for 47 percent of global coal consumption — almost as much as the entire rest of the world combined.
Comment from Tri-State Generation and Transmission
“We are fundamentally concerned that the EPA is attempting to craft greenhouse gas regulation under the Clean Air Act. Greenhouse gas issues are a substantially different regulatory proposition from other regulated emissions and should be addressed by Congress. If carbon regulations are to be considered, the most appropriate course of action is to craft and debate the approach in the Congress,” wrote Lee Boughey, senior manager of corporate communications.
“Cooperatives are forward thinking about how to manage carbon. As a consumer-owned, not-for-profit utility, we must be able to manage the risks and costs of carbon regulation for our members. We are investing in a wide range of carbon management technologies that could help us address the risks that come with carbon regulation.”
Brodie Farquhar is an award-winning freelance journalist who has worked extensively in Colorado, Wyoming, Washington and Arizona. He has a master’s degree in natural resource policy from the University of Michigan and served the Colorado School of Mines as public information officer in the early 1980s.