Occult energy futures

In Tarot, the Wheel of Fortune card often signifies sudden or random events. It is the unexpected, the beginning or end of cycles, even opportunity. As never before in human history, we’re finding ourselves firmly strapped to the cosmic Wheel, with each jolt and revolt reverberating on a planetary scale. Just look to our conjoined market wobbles and increasingly desperate climate crisis. Who would have thought that home-mortgage chicanery would steamroll in a matter of months into a global bank-devouring monstrosity stalking Finland, mawing Chinese manufacturers, and surfing South American economic tremors?

Loping alongside to the global market’s dyspepsia is the Midnight Ride of would-be U.S. energy reformers, who are responding to a set of interlocking fears: rogue oil-rich states using their crude capital to do nasty things like bring affordable heating oil to New England; global-warming prognostications reminding startled Americans that they are, in fact, part of larger, interdependent systems (see Banking); and increasing resource scarcity threatening fuel, food, and water shortages as homo sapiens plan a truly massive festival to herald reaching the 7-billion population mark (up from a mere 150 million two millennia ago).

It’s no wonder that after summer pump prices exploded under the crush of global demand and limited new oil-field discoveries, alternative energy has finally found a starring role in a U.S. presidential election. Plans aplenty are batted about, promoted, and savaged in increasingly shrill strains as November 4 nears. You know we are in strange times when a candidate for president feels compelled to deny he is opposed to nuclear waste.

Yet Obama and McCain are not the only keepers of significant plans likely to impact Texas’s energy future. One-time Swiftboater and would-be Texas water baron T. Boone Pickens has spent tens of millions promoting a simplistic yet massive wind and gas retrofit. And answering Al Gore’s call for a cold-turkey detox from fossil fuels, Google Labs has issued Clean Power by 2030 — the most comprehensive and detailed of the bunch.

As global economies march glumly into something we don’t like to call recession, signals from the climate front indicate global warming is accelerating at a pace unexpected even by the International Panel on Climate Change. Major oil companies are increasingly coming to terms with peak oil, echoing the assertion that the planet may indeed be reaching the end of cheap oil, while forays into food-based fuels have exacerbated global hunger.

All this to say, in wracked and exhumed frustration, that the choices we make in the coming few months — not least those at the ballot box — will have profound implications for every creature clinging to the skin of this Earth.

The unexpected

“Although Texas has never recognized carbon as a pollutant and legislation introduced to do so at the state level has never received serious consideration by the Texas Legislature, momentum toward significant and costly regulation appears to be building at the federal level.”

2008 Texas State Energy Plan

During the 2000 campaign, presidential candidate George W. Bush made a few promises. Perhaps most significant (apart from his pledge to forgo “nation-building”) was his assurance that he would regulate carbon dioxide, the most significant greenhouse gas accumulating in the atmosphere, as a pollutant. He also would make “clean” coal a top priority.

While Bush quickly reversed course on CO2, his promise to coal country, where a full half of U.S. energy needs are wrenched from the earth, came with a decimating counter-measure. While millions flowed to clean-coal research each budget cycle, and projects like the billion-dollar FutureGen coal-gasification effort (since scrapped over that “billion-dollar” price tag), mining regulations were also loosened to allow for “mountain-top removal” — the most economically efficient but ecologically destructive mode of coal extraction. By doing so, Bush ensured that cheap coal would continue to flow to the power plants responsible for a full third of the country’s CO2 emissions. To date, 500 named mountains have been blasted flat.

Bush’s eight-year stiff-arm of carbon regs and his refusal to join the rest of the industrialized world in the Kyoto Protocol climate treaty finds a clear reflection in Texas Governor Rick Perry.

Perry has forcefully railed against carbon regulation, refused to join multi-state and bi-national groups dedicated to ratcheting down greenhouse gases and protecting the environment. He’s failed to even meet with Bush-appointed Texas State Climatologist John Nielson-Gammon. (Not that Nielson-Gammon has pushed too hard. Months ago he said he would make a second attempt brief the Guv, but admits this week he “has not followed up on that.”)

While Senators Obama and McCain, third-party candidates, and one prominent Texas billionaire stump for an energy revolution, Texas remains the undisputed Energy Capital of the nation. More crude, natural gas, and wind-generated electricity pour from our refineries, power plants, and turbines than from any other state in the Union.

With a deregulated power market making any structured state energy policy unlikely, power decisions teeter on the whims of private industry, which, in turn, teeters on “market forces.” The arrangement makes the establishment of emerging clean-power technologies like biomass, geothermal, and solar — despite ideal conditions awaiting their full implementation in East, South, and West Texas — less likely in the near term. Interests such as the Texas Oil & Gas Association, the Texas Association of Business, the Texas Association of Manufacturers, and the Texas Chemical Council, along with their faithful elected representatives, have ensured the status quo continues to reign even as individual cities begin their slow awakening to the promises of green power. While Texas’s institution of a Renewable Portfolio Standard propelled the state to the top of the heap in wind-derived electricity generation, and an earlier Energy Efficiency Portfolio Standard brought the state to 13th in energy savings, we remain the nation’s number-one emitter of carbon dioxide. Were Texas a country, we would be the eighth worst offender on the planet.

While several Austin legislative insiders say they expect attempts in the coming 2009 session to rewrite the state’s RPS to spur solar development in the same way wind was incentivized, few expect such an effort to pass. Interest in cleaning up coal, on the other hand, has the attention of most of Perry’s cabal.

At a Clean Carbon Policy Summit in Austin earlier this month, Perry was flanked by Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams, Public Utility Commission Chairman Barry Smitherman, and U.S. Senator John Cornyn. Perry told the audience that “the threat” of carbon regulation “looms larger every day,” according to prepared remarks provided by his press office. “As our representatives in D.C. debate such regulations, they need to remember that the size of our energy industry will cause new regulations to have a disproportionate impact on our state.”

While Texas and the major petrochemical companies doing business here will undoubtedly be hit by coming carbon regs, at least one legislative aide closely tied to energy-policy discussions was not cowed.

“I think we’ve got a tremendous potential in Texas to get very rich in a post-carbon world,” he said before cautioning: “We need to be careful that as the world moves away from oil and gas and coal and the rest, that we don’t lose that standing.”

McCain supports so-called “clean” coal, but has not released a specific plan for its development. By all counts, nuclear power and increased domestic drilling for traditional oil and gas are his bailiwick.

Obama’s camp has committed to “four or five” coal-gasification plants by the close of his first term. Not likely to happen, says Jay Dauenhauer, manager of policy and research at the Clean Coal Technology Foundation of Texas.

“You’ll get pretty far along with that. I don’t know if you’ll actually have them up and running,” he said. “There’s a lot of planning, and it takes a lot of permitting and whatnot.”

Critics simply don’t believe coal can be cleaned. Even if affordable methods of capturing carbon dioxide are achieved, the technical and liability concerns surrounding sequestration — storing the gas underground in salt deposits — may prove insurmountable.

Currently, there are at least three potential carbon capture and sequestration, or CCS, coal plants in the development or planning stages in Texas. These include Hunton Energy’s coal-gasification plant in Freeport, Tenaska’s Trailblazer project proposed outside Sweetwater, and a project led by Washington State-based Summit Energy, which just hired former Dallas mayor and anti-coal activist Laura Miller to run PR.

Tenaska officials say they will wait for word of federal climate legislation before moving forward with Trailblazer. With a green light, the company says the plant could go online in 2014 — midway into a potential second Obama term.

So far, industry hasn’t been properly inspired to commit too much to CCS research since the federal government has failed to either price or penalize CO2 pollution, Dauenhauer said. “They haven’t had to do it because there is no price on carbon. You’re free to vent as much as you want at this point.”

The World Business Council for Sustainable Development believes the earliest rollout date for a fleet of CCS coal plants is 2030. Both Shell and the International Panel on Climate Change have reported CCS will not deliver until closer to 2050 — not nearly soon enough to avert rapid disruption of the climate, according to the IPCC. The international panel of climatologists reported recently that if the world’s governments don’t reverse carbon emissions by 2015 that a temperature rise of 3.6- to 4.3-degrees Fahrenheit over pre-industrial levels will bring abrupt and potentially irreversible changes that could threaten up to 30 percent of the species on the planet.

End of a cycle

For hundreds of thousands of years, our atmosphere has held roughly 280 parts per million of CO2. With the dawn of internal combustion and the rapid industrialization that followed, human machinations have revved up that equation to our current 383 ppm.

Despite decades of talk, the heat-trapping carbon cover is thickening faster than ever, about four times as fast this decade as last, according to the Global Carbon Budget. The impacts are being felt across the planet in intense flooding, drought, and crippling heat waves, but nowhere as intensely as in the Arctic and the Antarctic Peninsula, where average temperatures are climbing several times faster than the rest of the globe. According to the World Meteorological Association, the 14 hottest years of the last century have occurred since 1990. Meanwhile, thanks to polar and glacier melt, global sea levels have risen 20 centimeters since 1880, with the last eight years doubling the pace of rising seas over all of the 20th century, Thomas Lovejoy, former science committee member under Reagan, Bush One, and Clinton, told a packed house at UTSA’s downtown campus Monday night.

He added that the ocean’s food chain is threatened by a 30-percent rise in acidity over pre-industrial levels, threatening the many organisms that build their shells from calcium carbonate. Earlier onset of spring weather and milder winters have unleashed beetle plagues in U.S. forests and changed the habits of species across the globe. “Nature is on the move everywhere in the world,” Lovejoy said.

Leading climatologists have been retracting and refiguring just what the upper limit on CO2 should be. Initially, 550 ppm — roughly twice the historic average — was the start of taboo territory. That quickly slid to 450 ppm as the Earth’s violent reactions to rapidly elevating greenhouse gases became more obvious. Lately, more researchers and activists are acquiescing to NASA climatologist James Hansen’s view that atmospheric carbon should be kept beneath 350 ppm, a limit we’ve already eclipsed. “The evidence indicates we’ve aimed too high,” Hansen said in December.

The findings by Hansen and others quickly filtered into a new collection of environmental-action groups like 350.org and 1Sky. Texas Climate Emergency, a new arrival to the state, is targeting voters and lawmakers in 14 Texas congressional districts, including Bexar County, to inspire Texans to push hard for a strong global-warming bill.

“We’re really focused on the first 40 days of Obama’s presidency, getting a good global-warming bill, leading to an agreement at Denmark,” said Jere Locke, the group’s outreach director.

The December Denmark gathering will begin discussions on a new international agreement to replace Kyoto, which expires in 2012. The U.S. is the lone industrialized nation that has refused to ratify Kyoto.

“The UN is set to sign this agreement at the end of 2009. It’s a given that the UN will just do what we do. If we’re mediocre, then they’ll be mediocre,” Locke said. And that, he added, would be that. A failure in Denmark could mean an express ticket to a “runaway-train scenario,” rapid climate change of nightmare proportions.

“The bank bailout is going to save us over 10 years,” Locke said, “but if we get on ‘runaway train’ we’re not going to recover from this for thousands and thousands of years.”

While the 2008 State Energy Plan looks impressive — and may make a great gift in some circles — it contains not a single reference to either global warming or climate change. Since the plan is not adopted by the Texas Legislature, it is little more than the Governor’s attempt to inform and inspire industry.

“The state energy plan is: There is no plan. It’s a misnomer,” says Russell Smith, executive director of the Texas Renewable Energy Industries Association.

Thanks to deregulation, the utilities rule the Lone Star roost. The energy market is guided by a variety of agencies. Natural gas falls to the General Land Office; oil, coal, and liquefied natural gas, the Railroad Commission; electric generation is overseen by the Public Utility Commission; rural energy development, the Texas Department of Agriculture; and efficiency efforts find their niche at the State Energy Conservation Office.

“What it really gets down to is, you have state agencies that have different energy interests that they protect. And nobody wants to give up their fiefdom,” Smith says.

If the State Energy Plan is good for anything, it offers a glimpse inside the mind of Perry. Inside, we find affinity for all of the traditional energy sources — coal, oil, and natural gas — everything our scientists now warn us about. We read high praise for the work of wind, but find scant mention of solar.

In fact, the quarter-page allotted to solar in the 73-page document is a dismissal — “does not appear to currently be economically viable” — followed by the suggestion that the cost of a solar plant would equal or exceed new nuclear plants “while producing much less energy.”

Nukes get a better audience with Perry, putting him in line with McCain’s hyper-nuke vision for retooling the energy system and forging “energy independence.” Currently, coal- and wind-generated power cost about 5 cents for each kilowatt-hour of energy created. Nuclear sits about 5 cents higher, in the 8-cent to 11-cent range, according to a report prepared with funding from the nuclear industry.

Solar is higher yet, in the 20-cent/kwh range. However, solar’s price is expected to fall dramatically as industry navigates the current silicon shortage. Every day brings news of dramatic new discoveries that promise to increase the efficiency of solar, making it more affordable. The industry expects solar to break coal’s current 5-cent threshold sometime this century, even as the price tag on coming carbon legislation promises to bump the cost of coal by an anticipated 1 to 5 cents per kilowatt hour.

Solar San Antonio’s Executive Director Bill Barker argues that there is more than price to be considered with renewables.

“I like to think there are enough additional benefits to solar that maybe a good strategy is maybe to spend more for solar now, knowing that as you spend on solar, that the price of solar keeps coming down,” said Barker. “It’s a broader policy issue.”

As with wind and other renewable sources, once the infrastructure is in place, you essentially have free power flowing into the grid. Traditional non-renewable resources like coal, oil, natural gas, and uranium must be mined and processed — sometimes at extraordinary cost to public health and the environment.

An even more basic catch playing a part behind solar’s slow going has to do with profit motives, Barker said.

“If somebody could sell you sunshine, we would see solar going — and this is true of all the renewables — we’d see renewables advance a lot quicker if there was more money to be made from them. But that’s one of the advantages: They actually end up being cheaper because you don’t have any of these fuel costs.”


Private investment has followed the renewable-energy path, climbing 60 percent last year to reach $148 billion worldwide, according to UK-based New Energy Finance. That level is expected to reach $450 billion by 2012. Climate-change concern is a key motivator behind the push, according to the United Nation’s Environment Program.

Similar enthusiasm for nuclear power has yet to take root. While a massive federal effort to split the atom fueled the launch of the domestic nuclear-energy sector, the controversial power source has mostly lain dormant in this country after a flood of cost overruns spoiled the business community on nukes in the ’80s. That attitude started to change in recent years as carbon-free energy arguments and promises of federal support sweetened the pot.

According to a 2007 report by the Manhattan Institute for Policy Study, the investment climate for nuclear may improve as “generous new incentives to encourage new nuclear construction” take shape in Congress and increasingly deregulated markets allow utilities to “pass through new construction costs to their ratepayers.” The dam broke last year with a trickle of new applications finding their way to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. San Antonio led the wave, filing the first new construction and operation application in 29 years in tandem with South Texas Nuclear Project partner NRG Energy. `See “CPS must die,” October 24, 2007.`

Residents from the uranium-mining communities of South Texas, Austin activists, and San Antonio-area residents mobilized against the City-NRG proposal as the issue of cost took center stage. Since 2000, the expense of building nuclear power plants has skyrocketed by 170 percent, raising numerous questions about who would pay for likely cost overruns in the project. The effort to stall the proposal to double the number of nuke plants at the South Texas Nuclear Project outside Bay City led to the successful decoupling of nuclear-expansion research dollars from a requested 5-percent rate increase from City-owned CPS Energy. The Council denied the hike in a split vote before agreeing on a lesser 3.5-percent hike.

Meanwhile, the credit crunch has inspired a bit of wheeling and dealing in the power sector, including the potential purchase of NRG Energy by Excelon, an Illinois-based energy company with designs on two nukes outside Victoria.
Either project likely hinges on federal subsidies and the “pass-through” ability that Texas’s deregulated environment offers.

So-called “unintended costs” of both nuclear and coal must also be considered. Even without weighing the cost of climate change, coal has serious drawbacks. Chief among them are the release of heavy metals like lead and mercury now found in every major body of water in the U.S. These are tied to a variety of neurological-development disorders in children and are increasingly being linked to autism rates.

Nuclear also has its drawbacks in the pubic-health field, particularly when it comes to extracting the uranium ore and disposing of high-level radioactive waste, some of which remains deadly for hundreds of thousands of years.

A few reports pending release may help Texas move toward better energy use. One that will help shed some light on the state’s energy-savings potential, and required by Representative Joe Straus’s House Bill 3693, is expected to roll out of the Public Utility Commission soon. Also, a study of the environmental effects of our electric generation is pending in an interim committee.

However, the truly big stuff won’t materialize until a new administration takes charge in Washington this coming January. If enthusiasm could generate gigawatts, the McCain-Palin gatherings, where the cries for a no-holds-barred release of domestic drilling has ignited the political stage, the nation’s oil imports would be a thing of the past. Unfortunately, chants don’t, as yet, move traffic and the DOE has found that even throwing open the gates of offshore drilling will not impact pump prices until 2030.

In her historic debate with Obama wingman Senator Joe Biden, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin only interrupted the 35-year Washington veteran once. It was not to correct a point of policy, but to teach him the proper cheer.

“It’s drill, baby, drill,” a bubbly Palin, tapped by McCain to be his Energy Czar, chimed.

The chant carries the expectations of its adherents: That ramped-up domestic energy production of the traditional variety (oil, gas, shale, slag) will somehow liberate — or even insulate — the United States from dangerous “petro-states,” a list to which would-be Bush successor Senator John McCain recently added Russia.

Increasingly, Obama, who had been advocating “green-collar jobs” and renewables through the Democratic Primary, found himself pushed to the mythical “center,” saying repeatedly: “We need it all.”

But those squarely in the renewable camp insist clean coal and nukes can be avoided altogether — as Google’s energy plan suggests. Public Citizen’s veteran clean-energy champ Tom “Smitty” Smith was smitten the first time he saw the internet superstar Google enter the energy debate. He was traveling across South Texas and stopped in a convenience store briefly when he saw a Google T-shirt decorated with solar cells and wind turbines and thought to himself, “I can go home now. The battle’s over. Google’s on the case.”

Even as the U.S. slips behind countries like Germany and Japan in solar development, Texas is losing ground to New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and California. The coming carbon penalties and a hesitance to create serious incentives to draw in the next wave of clean-tech development could leave Texas eclipsed in the same way Detroit found itself broken by lack of innovation, forced by Big Auto to go begging in D.C. for

“If Texas doesn’t at least lay down some infrastructure and start to create the rebate programs that attract some of these companies in the first place, when the big money comes, we’re probably going to be left in the dark,” said Luke Metzger of Environment Texas. “The same is true for other energy technologies — geothermal and energy efficiency. If we could just do what we’ve done for wind power for some of these other technologies, we’ll be first in line to get the largesse of whatever federal energy policy is passed.” •

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