Coal Tattoo

In this Jan. 27, 2012 photo, a deck hand secures a barge in one of the chambers at the Montgomery Lock and Dam along the Ohio River in Monaca, Pa. Each barge holds an estimated 1,500 tons of coal, according to lock master Rick Greenwood.  (AP Photo/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Keith Hodan)

When last we left our good friend, West Virginia University mining engineering professor Syd Peng, he was wrongly opining — contrary to the U.S. Supreme Court’s declaration — that the federal Clean Air Act wasn’t the proper tool for regulating global warming pollution.

Apparently, testifying on behalf of coal-mine operators in mine disaster cases isn’t taking up all of Dr. Peng’s time these days. So we had in yesterday’s Gazette another op-ed about national energy policies. The op-ed was headlined, “We need to back fossil fuels,” as if the nation and state aren’t doing a lot of that already:

Responsible people recognize that oil, natural gas and coal must provide a major share of the nation’s fuel mix to avoid potentially devastating economic consequences.

Like Dr. Peng’s earlier Gazette op-ed piece, “Congress should block EPA,” this latest commentary does little more than parrot the conventional line of the coal industry that funds WVU’s mining engineering school (see here, here and here).

But along the way, Dr. Peng doesn’t exactly get his facts right. Let’s review

First, Dr. Peng writes in his first two paragraphs:

We have an urgent national priority: moving forward with the development and demonstration of energy-efficient technologies that would enable America to burn fossil fuels more cleanly and cheaply.

With the outlook dimming for nuclear power and renewable energy sources, there are growing concerns that efforts to maintain air quality and combat global warming will fail as energy production increases in the years ahead.

With the outlook dimming for renewable energy sources? What is he talking about?

Even a freshman student at WVU could use Google to find this U.S. Energy Information Administration website that explains:

Renewable energy consumption increased by about 8% between 2008 and 2009, contributing about 8% of the Nation’s total energy demand, and 10% of total U.S. electricity generation in 2009.

And you don’t have to be a member of the West Virginia Coal Hall of Fame to find the most recent EIA projections that show:

Use of renewable fuels and natural gas for electric power generation rises: The natural gas share of electric power generation increases from 24 percent in 2010 to 27 percent in 2035, and the renewables share grows from 10 percent to 16 percent over the same period.

Dr. Peng may be correct, or at least reasonably close, when he writes that:

Fossil fuels meet 84 percent of U.S. energy demand, and the Energy Information Administration forecasts they will continue to be the primary energy sources well into the future.

But in his zeal to defend fossil fuels, and bash anything else, Dr. Peng writes:

Despite the Obama administration’s efforts to derail development of fossil fuels, energy companies are not backing off. Thanks to new technology and innovation, companies are tapping into vast domestic supplies of oil, natural gas and coal. And they are doing this without any new tax breaks or subsidies.

More than three-quarters of all energy tax breaks go to renewables such as solar and wind though they account for only 2 percent of electric power generation.

It’s true that the Obama administration has tried to take some reasonable steps to reduce some of the environmental impacts of fossil fuels, especially coal — things like tougher water quality guidance  standards on mountaintop removal and stronger air pollution limits on coal-fired power plants and on the booming natural gas drilling industry.  But President Obama also personally rejected EPA’s plans to combat smog, has ignored demands from environmental groups and scientists that he ban mountaintop removal altogether, and the administration has been very supportive of the natural gas boom overall, despite citizen concerns about the potential impacts.

And this subsidy stuff? Well, Dr. Peng sounds a lot like Sen. Joe Manchin, who tries to argue that coal doesn’t get government subsidiaries and renewable energy does, and assertion we’ve debunked before here on Coal Tattoo.

Dr. Peng doesn’t cite the source of his information. But right here on Coal Tattoo there’s been plenty of information that shows coal and other fossil fuels are certainly not big losers when the government is handing out financial incentives. For example, the annual Green Scissors report outlined what it called wasteful and environmentally harmful subsidies to coal. Another piece, from the National Academy of Sciences, explains that oil has been the largest recipient of federal energy incentives.  A report from the Environmental Law Institute adds:

The largest U.S subsidies to fossil fuels are attributed to tax breaks that aid foreign oil production, according to research released by ELI. The study, which reviewed fossil fuel and energy subsidies for Fiscal Years 2002-2008, reveals that the lion’s share of energy subsidies supported energy sources that emit high levels of greenhouse gases. Fossil fuels benefited from approximately $72 billion over the seven-year period, while subsidies for renewable fuels totaled only $29 billion.

And another recent financial industry report found:

… Current renewable energy subsidies do not constitute an over-subsidized outlier when com- pared to the historical norm for emerging sources of energy. For example:

– As a percentage of inflation-adjusted federal spending, nuclear subsidies accounted for more than 1% of the federal budget over their first 15 years, and oil and gas subsidies made up half a percent of the total budget, while renewa- bles have constituted only about a tenth of a percent. That is to say, the federal commitment to O&G was five times greater than the federal commitment to renewables during the first 15 years of each subsidies’ life, and it was more than 10 times greater for nuclear.

– In inflation-adjusted dollars, nuclear spending averaged $3.3 billion over the first 15 years of subsidy life, and O&G subsidies averaged $1.8 billion, while renewables averaged less than $0.4 billion.

Incredibly, Dr. Peng falls back on the typical argument about how the government shouldn’t be picking “winners and losers” in the energy markets:

To maximize the value to the economy of fossil fuels, energy policies should be designed to create a level playing field, where all sources can compete against each other in an open marketplace. The government should not pick winners and losers, as the administration has done in heavily subsidizing wind and solar energy.

In fact, what Dr. Peng seems to want is exactly that. He wants the government to pick winners and losers — he just wants it to pick coal and natural gas as the winners. He argues in his previous op-ed commentary, for example, that the government shouldn’t level the playing field by making coal internalize the public health costs caused by its pollution:

The high cost of environmental compliance is already burdensome, and the situation will only grow worse for American workers, business and industry unless Congress intervenes … EPA is preparing to propose more stringent air-quality standards for ground-level ozone, which is a precursor to smog. Many areas in West Virginia are likely to fall into the non-attainment category, even though there has been widespread improvement in air quality across the state. Non-attainment would severely limit West Virginia’s ability to foster business growth and expand job opportunities.

And despite his professed interest in efficiencies in the energy industry, Dr. Peng writes in his latest piece that “imposing taxes and regulations on oil, gas and coal will not reduce costs, increase supply or achieve new advances in technology,” ignoring many ways in which these government tools will achieve such ends. For example, most experts believe that regulations requiring reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are essential to encourage more research and deployment of carbon capture and storage technology. And EPA’s new limits on air emissions from oil and gas drilling and production are expected to make those operations far more efficient, by capturing valuable gas that is not simply vented into the atmosphere, instead of being sold on the market.

In the end, this just isn’t a particularly accurate — let alone impressive or informative — piece about the challenges facing West Virginia going forward on these sorts of issues. I’m sure industry funders loved it, though, and the public relations operation up in Morgantown would probably be fine with it if we called it a “WVU commentary.