SOMERSET, KY — This was the week 30 years ago, third week of June 1988, that global warming rose to the top of the list of national priorities. I was a young correspondent for the New York Times that summer, dispatched to Montana and the northern Great Plains to report on an unfolding drought so deep that elderly farmers told me it reminded them of Dust Bowl conditions a half century before.
On June 23 that week, the day after I returned to my desk in Washington, James Hansen, one of NASA’s top scientists, told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that Earth was warming. Hansen said he was “99 percent certain” it was the result of human activity. Hansen’s testimony received powerful validation from broad print and TV news coverage in the U.S. and in Europe.
Later that summer a mammoth wildfire raced across Yellowstone. It’s gotten steadily more dangerous since.
I was in the car two weeks ago listening to Rush Limbaugh aggressively make a religious case that, and I’m paraphrasing, mankind could not possibly be powerful enough to produce forces capable of altering the global atmosphere. Only God was capable of that. And, said Limbaugh, if there actually was any evidence of the meteorological disruption described by liberals, scientists, and the ridiculous mainstream media, God was responsible.
Limbaugh’s frustrating assessment reflects a popular theological doctrine that justifies a political construct. Half the country rejects irrefutable evidence of climate change. The back story, of course, is how impediments to climate action support the fossil fuel industry and its user group allies — utilities, railroads, airlines, vehicle manufacturers, elected officials. They are flat out scared breathless by the prospect that $20 trillion in black fuel reserves still in the ground will get stranded.
If God is to be thanked, we all should express our gratitude to her/him that the U.S., despite the Trump administration’s market-buffeting interference, has maintained a good bit of its Obama-era momentum to shift the electric-generating sector from coal and gas to renewables. Other nations in Europe and Asia are going there too, and much faster than anybody anticipated. Continue reading “30 Years Later — James Hansen Was Right”
MANILA — Valentino de Guzman, the energy campaigner for the Philippine Movement for Climate Justice, guided me to Mariveles to interview leaders of Limay Concerned Citizens. Guzman, a well-educated activist, once taught college level math before joining the Philippine climate justice movement. The citizens group on the Bataan Peninsula, across Manila Bay from the capital region, has been protesting the air pollution and disruption to their groundwater reserves caused by SMC Consolidated Power Corporation. The company’s 600-megawatt coal-fired power station is under construction along the Manila Bay shoreline in the community’s backyard.
On the way to Limay — a village of packed dirt, shade trees, and clustered homes — Guzman briefed me on the situation that the Philippines and much of the rest of southeast Asia faces. Government campaigns to build coal-fired power plants, and import most of the fuel from Indonesia, are running straight into the global energy revolution. Solar powered electrical generation is cheaper, easier to build, and prompting far less social resistance than coal-fired electricity. India is shifting to renewables. So are China, the United States (despite the Trump administration), and Europe.
For the time being, though, coal has the upper hand in the Philippines, and in Indonesia and Vietnam. Guzman said 26 coal-fired plants are operating in the Philippines and produce almost half of the country’s electricity. Thirteen more are under construction and 36 coal-fired plants are in the pipeline.
In some communities, Guzman said, public resistance is so keen that the plants are not likely to be finished. In other instances, companies and the government are reappraising the cost of building coal-fired plants relative to solar, which currently accounts for scant generating capacity in the Philippines.
Environmental resistance is dangerous. More Philippine environmental activists have been murdered over the last decade than in almost any other country, according to Global Witness, a London group that compiles an annual report.
The situation in Limay is emblematic of most of the frontline struggles. The ten men and women waiting for me around a big communal table in the shade of a pitched roof described their frustration with the new power plant. Fly ash from preliminary operations contaminated the soil, and their gardens were no longer were productive. People were coming down with strange skin ailments. Some neighbors had respiratory illnesses.
One of the leaders of the anti-coal movement on the Bataan Peninsula was Gloria Capitan, president of United Citizens of Lucanin Association, a community that has been peacefully opposing the operation and expansion of coal plants and open coal and ash storage facilities in the Mariveles region. Auntie Gloria, as she was known, had focused her work on a big ash storage pile on a coal loading dock along the shoreline in her community. Ash from the pile was causing respiratory difficulties and dirtying the homes of nearby residents.
Capitan was gunned down on July 1, 2016 by two men on a motorcycle. The murder occurred at Capitan’s roadside store and bar near Mariveles. Capitan’s eight-year-old grandson was grazed by a bullet. Like so many other killings of activists around the world, the police have no suspects.
The Philippine and local governments had paid some heed to the resistance. The coal ash pile that Gloria Capitan opposed was enclosed in an immense metal building soon after her murder. Not far away, due to activism from Limay Concerned Citizens, their village’s water supply was switched from groundwater to municipal water. In December 2016 and January 2017, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, then led by activist Gina Lopez, served SMC with notices of violation for haphazard fly ash management and for air pollution. SMC said it would send doctors to Limay and would stop dumping ash. The doctors never showed up, said the citizens group, but the ash dumping did stop.
BENZONIA — June 1, yesterday, was miserable and infuriating. President Trump announced that the U.S. is withdrawing from the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. It was a decision as foolish and dangerous as the one George W. Bush made on August 6, 2001, when he tossed aside the intelligence briefing — “Bin Ladin Determined To Strike in US” — that warned of an imminent and monstrous Al-Qaeda attack.
My thoughts on why:
First, I’m heart sick that the president abdicated America’s responsibility to set a high standard and help lead the work of solving a planetary crisis. But I’m not surprised. I travel the world. I spend a lot of time reporting overseas. It was plain to me several years ago that the disorder in Washington and the doctrinaire policymaking in most states were fracturing the authority and unity and opportunity that the world admired about the United States. China and India are more than capable of leading the council of nations in reducing carbon emissions. The American century is over. Rejecting the Paris Climate Agreement, approved by over 190 countries, is more proof of that.
Second, I find the president’s case against the Paris Agreement outrageous. Almost every point he made yesterday is wrong. To cite the agreement as a threat to the American economy because it tilts economic advantages to India and China flat out ignores real world conditions. To assert that the agreement provides space for China and India to increase coal consumption brushes aside what is actually happening in the world.
Heavy snow and winter cold settled this month on thousands of Native Americans and their supporters encamped on Standing Rock Sioux tribal lands south of Bismarck, North Dakota. Nearby, the Missouri River slipped past. The river’s clean waters serve as the wellspring in what has steadily become one of the storied confrontations over energy development, justice, finance, and human rights in the American West.
Viewed in one dimension, the standoff over construction of a 1,172-mile, $US 3.8 billion oil pipeline pits thousands of First Nation protestors massed on the prairie to safeguard their sole source of drinking water from the fossil fuel industry and its allies in government and finance. But so many other dimensions of history, law, human rights, justice, finance, and climate change motivate the campaign to halt the Dakota Access pipeline. What has emerged on the wintry plains of North Dakota is a distinctive, if not unique event in the history of American environmentalism, and a seminal struggle over civil rights.
Risky proposals for big dams and mines, and actual environmental disasters like oil spills and chemical plant explosions have long stirred public protests. Such campaigns form the lifeblood of environmental advocacy.
Rarely, though, has such a big and expensive American industrial project, in the midst of construction, encountered opposition significant enough to threaten its opening. Perhaps the only comparable campaigns, according to environmental historians, are the direct actions to protect the endangered spotted owl that halted timber cutting in California and Oregon in the late 1980s and early 1990s. If the Sioux succeed in halting the Dakota Access pipeline, it would be seen by First Nation leaders as comparable to the legal battle that re-established Native American fishing rights in the Northwest in 1979.
“The fight in North Dakota has attracted a lot of national and international attention,” said Sarah Krakoff, a law professor at the University of Colorado and a noted authority on tribal treaties and law. “But you have to remember tribes have been on that land a long time. Tribes are amazingly resilient.”
The campaign to halt the pipeline gained even greater gravity after the election of Donald Trump, who owns shares in Energy Transfer Partners, the pipeline’s developer. Trump vowed during the campaign to void U.S. commitments made in Paris last year to curb climate-changing carbon emissions, and to tear down regulatory barriers that he viewed as impeding development of coal, oil, and natural gas.
Campaign With Momentous Implications
In sum, what started last August with a call to action to join the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe to prevent a mega fossil energy project from threatening a primary source of fresh water has grown into a public interest campaign with powerful implications for energy development, the environment, and the rule of law. Next week 2,000 veterans are scheduled to arrive in North Dakota to establish what they call a “human shield” to protect the thousands of “water protectors” that have already joined the campaign.
“It’s so obviously driven by civil rights issues on top of environmental concerns,” said Bill Kovarik, a professor of journalism and an environmental historian at Radford University in Virginia. “That’s a dimension that’s been hidden for so long.”
Two 21st century tactical innovations are empowering the protest and putting government authorities and Energy Transfer Partners on the defensive. The first is social media, especially Twitter and streaming video, that provide immediacy to the hour-by-hour shifts in strategy on both sides, and drawn thousands of tribal members and supporters to frontline demonstrations that have gotten ugly. Continue reading “A Storied Battle Over North Dakota Oil Pipeline”
EMALAHLENI, South Africa – Not far from Johannesburg, set amid the corn and sunflower fields of the Highveld in Mpumalanga province, stand two unusually thick and tall candy-striped smokestacks, dozens of stout concrete support columns, and the tangled steel superstructure of the unfinished 4,800-megawatt Kusile coal-fired power station.
About 370 kilometers (230 miles) northwest, spread across a stretch of dry scrubland in Limpopo province, is the construction site for Kusile’s unfinished twin, the 4,800-megawatt Medupi power station.
More than a decade ago, at the turn of the 21st century, South Africa conceived the idea of building Kusile and Medupi, two of the four largest coal plants in the world. The proposal gained significant public prominence around the century’s end when South Africa’s bid to develop its own nuclear reactor design, and build several plants, was rejected by the global finance community.
Medupi and Kusile, designed with advanced water conservation cooling and pollution control systems, and due to be completed by 2014 and 2015, respectively, at a cost of $US 6 billion each, were greeted as both momentous and logical. For over a century South Africa’s economy fueled itself with the nation’s ample coal reserves, which today generate 90 percent of the nation’s electricity and 35 percent of its liquid fuel, employ tens of thousands of workers, and consume two percent of the water.
Kusile and Medupi were promoted by South Africa’s elected leaders as signature statements of the new era of liberty, the freedom to think big, and the determination to power a modern economy of opportunity that would serve all of the people. That sense of optimism and zeal was reflected in Kusile’s Zulu name, which means “new dawn.”
Over the last several years, dawn has evolved into a gathering storm. Long construction delays and escalating costs, engineering challenges, and the intensifying risk of scarce water have pushed Kusile and its sister plant into the eye of a typhoon of economic, ecological, and social disturbances engulfing South Africa. In so many ways, the troubled development of Kusile and Medupi, and the tumult enveloping South Africa’s deteriorating financial and social condition, are not just mirror images of each other.
The two plants, projected to be almost a decade late in completion and $US 20 billion or more over budget, are among the principal causes. The trouble is not simply a matter of managerial missteps. The vortex of disruption that envelops Medupi and Kusile reflects the clash between the economic and ecological operating systems of two centuries. Kusile and Medupi arguably represent the most prominent global examples of big projects that do not fit their time.
Conceived in the resource-rich, more ecologically stable, and capital-abundant turn of the century, the two plants were viewed as reasoned answers to South Africa’s growing demand for electricity, and as evidence of a new government’s capacity to execute complex industrial projects. South Africa sees its global reputation as tied to completing the two plants.
“They must finish and they will finish,” said Jacob Misimango, a 54-year-old business executive in Emalahleni who is seeking permits to start an open cast coal mine outside the city, in part to supply fuel for Kusile. “These projects have drawn the world’s attention. They have to finish. Why?
“Number one. There is a shortage of electricity. The only solution is these stations. We have coal to fuel them.
“Two. It’s important for our government to prove we can do this thing. Our national pride is at stake. Not being able to finish is demoralizing. We must prove we can finish.
“Three. There is a lot of interest on loans that we have to pay back. We need to finish to pay back those loans.”
Big Ideas Encounter Tumult
But well over a decade after they were initially proposed, both plants, and their builder, are crashing into the project-debilitating limits of the resource-scarce, ecologically unstable, and nervous financial markets of the advancing 21st century. Said another way, the narrative of economic progress, expressed by gargantuan industrial projects and centralized management practices, is breaking apart under intense ecological pressure.
Taking its place are two new stories. The first documents the advent of new energy generating technologies – solar, wind, and small hydropower plants – that are less expensive, consume smaller amounts of critical resources, especially water, and take a year or two instead of a decade to build. From 2010 to 2015, South Africa brought 1,900 megawatts of renewable energy online – most of it wind and solar generated – at an average cost of around $US 1.5 million per megawatt.
Wind and solar generating stations, according to the South Africa Department of Energy, now add roughly 1,000 megawatts of new generating capacity annually to the national grid, take up less space and cause much less damage to the land than coal mines, and use scant amounts of water. The new plants also take 15 months to two years to complete, says a Department of Energy report made public late last year, and produce power at about half the current estimate of the cost of electricity that will be generated by Medupi and Kusile.
The second and more disturbing story describes the pernicious stubbornness of global financiers and industrial developers who persist in building immense energy and mining projects that cause severe environmental dissolution and financial distress. Building mega energy projects, never easy, is more difficult now in South Africa and around the world because evidence of permanent harm to the environment and communities also is activating a swarm of civic rebellions to halt construction.
“Medupi and Kusile are examples of large-scale mega infrastructure projects that countries see as the basis of a development model that started after World War II,” said Janet Redman, director of the Climate Program at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C., and an authority on World Bank loan programs. “Projects this large are seen as transformational. They cost a lot. They employ a lot of people. Their effects are meant to be big. But it’s a model that doesn’t make much sense now. “Large projects, like Medupi and Kusile, are so vulnerable to delay, to land disputes, to disputes over water supply, to changes in markets, and to big cost overruns. Yet big institutions continue to support them.”