Shareholder Resolutions: Another Tool for Fighting Climate Change

Those of us concerned about climate change in the United States have a right to be frustrated. The Trump Administration seems determined to undermine every hard-won diplomatic, legislative and policy success in the climate arena. Take, for example, withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accords, weakening targets for power plant emissions, and installing an implacable opponent of the agency to chair the EPA. The list goes on. While the federal government is in the grip of these science-deniers and climate change reactionaries, other governmental units and private citizens must find a way to make a difference. One tool available to many private citizens is to exercise their rights as shareholders of large corporations.

Over half the American population owns shares in public corporations, either directly or in their retirement savings plans. Public corporations are supposed to function as democracies of a sort in which each shareholder has influence in corporate governance according to the number of shares she owns.  Each shareholder can vote on who will sit on the board of directors and, in some cases, on non-binding resolutions affecting corporate policy and direction. These shareholder resolutions usually can be adopted by the vote of a majority of all voting shares.

There is a long history of shareholder resistance on environmental and social grounds. Shareholders pushed Dow Chemical to cease producing napalm during the Viet Nam war. Shareholders forced corporations to cease doing business with South Africa, or to divest, during the apartheid years. And shareholders have recently forced McDonalds to stop using polystyrene foam packaging.

The number of shareholder resolutions of all sorts introduced each year has been growing until just recently. But the number of climate-related resolutions at energy companies has dropped over the last three years. Some see this as a good sign that corporations are willing to take the issues more seriously without the need for shareholder resolutions. All of the resolutions for the last decade are collected at the website of the organization As You Sow.

Shareholder resolutions often call for reports to shareholders on the corporation’s plans to cut emissions or its adherence to the guidelines in the Paris Climate Accord. Here is a recent shareholder resolution at Amazon.

BE IT RESOLVED: Shareholders request that Amazon.com Inc. adopt a policy with quantitative companywide goals for managing greenhouse gas GHG emissions considering the objectives and timelines of the Paris Climate Agreement and report at reasonable cost and omitting proprietary information on its plans to achieve these targets.

Frequently, a shareholder resolution fails to achieve a majority of the shares voting, at least in the first year it is introduced. But resolutions can be resubmitted and many in the climate arena pick up support from year to year. An environmental proposal must obtain 3% of the total vote its first year to be resubmitted, 6% the second year and 10% the third year. If it fails to meet these minimum vote totals, it may not be resubmitted for three years.

Even a failed resolution, or one unlikely to succeed, can have positive effect. Shareholders should think of resolutions as a portal to open dialogue with corporate management. In many cases, management will confer with the shareholder group advancing a proposal and come to some agreement that satisfies the group. This is then followed by a withdrawal of the resolution before it is voted on by all the shareholders. So far in 2019, climate-related shareholder resolutions at General Electric, Amazon, Emerson, Kroger and J.P. Morgan, among others, have followed this “agreement then withdrawal” pattern.

The Securities and Exchange Commission has developed rules for submitting shareholder resolutions and adjudicates any objection by the corporation to a particular resolution. Any shareholder who owns $2,000 worth of company stock and has held it for one year prior to the annual filing deadline may file a proposal. Unless the corporation agrees to the resolution, it is inserted in the proxy statement issued to shareholders in advance of the corporate annual meeting. Proponents of the resolution are allowed only 500 words in the proxy statement to present their case.

Several shareholder activist organizations have produced FAQ sheets and downloadable guides to filing shareholder resolutions. The process is relatively easy, but recent climate-related shareholder resolutions at large U.S. energy companies have hit a speed bump. Resolutions calling for the disclosure of specific targets for emission reduction and adherence to the Paris Climate Accords have been blocked by the SEC at Chevron, Devon Energy, ExxonMobil, and Hess Oil.

In the Obama era, similar shareholder resolutions were allowed to proceed despite opposition from the corporations.  Now the Trump SEC has decided these resolutions are an attempt to micromanage the corporation, even though they are non-binding.  Since Trump took office the SEC has consistently ruled in favor of corporations that oppose these resolutions. One U.S. Senator has written to the SEC Chairman complaining that the use of the “micromanagement” concept is an unwarranted effort to reduce shareholder efforts to protect their investment from the effects of climate change.

The approach of the Trump SEC should come as no surprise, given the overwhelming power and influence that energy companies have purchased with their huge Republican campaign contributions. One commentator has suggested that when it comes to big energy companies investors may now be left only with the ax – divestment. Writing in High Country News, Carl Segerstrom reports that the divestment movement claims to have pulled more than $8.5 trillion out of fossil fuel companies. Massive divestment will certainly get the attention of corporate executives.

I continue to believe, however, that the swiftest and most certain method of returning corporations to the path of moral capitalism is to rid ourselves of the political leaders whose policies have allowed these corporations to subordinate our environmental future to short term profit in the first place. A political change at the top will signal that it is time to get serious about climate change in corporate boardrooms.

Electric Power Generation and the Environment: An Insider’s View of Successful Air Pollution Reduction and the Coming Transition to Low Carbon Power

From my childhood in southern West Virginia through my career with a large electric utility, I have experienced first-hand the environmental effects of unfettered industrial development. Yet I have also seen how a combination of strong environmental regulations and good faith compliance by industry over many years can result in remarkable and sustainable improvement.

Air quality in the U.S. has improved dramatically over the past 40 years even as energy consumption has increased many-fold. We enjoy some of the cleanest air in the world, but it took decades of sustained policies and regulations, technical innovation and costly investment to reach this point. That story deserves to be told and recognized. Looking ahead, it can provide a model for success as we confront the challenges of climate change and the transition to a low carbon world.

I grew up in Charleston, West Virginia, in the Kanawha valley, during the nineteen fifties and sixties. The Kanawha Valley was then known as “the Chemical Valley.” From the 1950s through the 1970s it was one of the largest producers of chemicals in the world, home to plants and research centers operated by Union Carbide, Dow, DuPont, Westvaco, and Monsanto, among others. Charleston was pleasant and prosperous but it had some of the worst air and water pollution imaginable.   Many days a chemical stench overwhelmed the valley. The Kanawha River was a chemically polluted “dead” river. In those days there were almost no federal or state environmental regulations, no EPA, no OSHA.

Growing up, many of my friends’ dads were engineers and scientists who worked for the local chemical companies.  As a good student with an engineer father and older brother, it was almost inevitable that I too would become a mechanical engineer. But I also absorbed the political environment of the ‘60s, becoming aware of the injustices in society and hoping to make a positive contribution to the causes I believed in.

After graduation I was drawn to the electric utility business. I was proud to help provide a vital public service and fascinated by the science, massive equipment and the almost romantic hundred-year legacy of the power industry. A combination of practical and academic experience along with a desire to make a difference eventually led to the job I was “born to do” — managing engineering for a ten-year, $2 billion series of air pollution control projects at the company’s large coal fired units.

These projects were in response to stringent new federal regulations that targeted the “acid rain” pollutants, primarily Sulfur Oxides (SOx), Nitrogen Oxides (NOx), and particulates. Electric utilities tend to be ethical companies that willingly comply with environmental laws and regulations, especially when the regulations are reasonable, based on sound science, and affect all companies equally.

The technology to capture power plant air pollution is massive, complex, and costly. For each generating unit, three types of equipment were installed in series, each targeting a specific pollutant. The result was the elimination of over 98% of SOx and particulate emissions, 90% of NOx emissions, and virtually 100% of particulate emissions for each generating unit. The improvement in ambient air quality was enormous while the cost of electricity was only minimally affected.

Each project required about four years from conception to start-up and costs for each were in the hundreds of millions of dollars. The project teams were led by the utility’s project manager and engineering manager, and also included research scientists, design engineers, equipment manufacturers, and constructors from many supplier companies. We were all well aware of the value of our work and proud of what we were accomplishing. At the completion of each project it was great to see the tangible results – a smoothly running plant with clean stacks, with the former pollutants being captured as beneficial byproducts. Meanwhile similar programs were taking place all across the country.

During the past ten years the world of power generation has changed enormously. The environmental emphasis has shifted from acid rain pollutants to carbon dioxide emissions. Coal is quickly being replaced by natural gas and by renewable sources such as solar and wind. Hundreds of coal fired units have been permanently shut down and demolished and many of the remaining ones will be gone within the next ten years. The pace of the transition away from coal would have been inconceivable only a few years ago, and it is accelerating. The old coal plants are massive monuments to a hundred years of brilliant innovation and development, but their days are numbered and the world will better for it.

Just as the drastic reduction of acid rain air pollutants seemed nearly impossible twenty years ago, so too the transition to a low carbon future is occurring at an unexpectedly rapid pace. The costs of renewable energy projects have been reduced to a point where they now successfully compete economically with fossil fuel generation. Natural gas and renewable energy sources are predicted to account for 85% of the world’s energy growth by 2040.  

Despite the continuing transition to lower carbon energy, serious challenges remain. Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are the highest in human history. Developing countries are continuing to build new coal fired power plants. Meanwhile, global energy consumption is expected to grow by 28% by 2040, with most of this demand coming from the developing world.

Climate change is a serious issue, maybe even a crisis, and the future of power generation may be the single most important issue in the world. The challenges are enormous but there is much cause for optimism.  We stand on the brink of changes in the world of power as drastic as those that began with Edison and Tesla and Westinghouse at the turn of the 20th century. New and improved renewable energy technologies are emerging every day. The future of transportation will soon be electric zero-emission vehicles.

Someday in the near future the concept of burning fuels to produce heat and power may seem as outmoded as cooking over open fires, and carbon emissions will be much lower. With a concerted effort, a future of sustainable clean power can become the key to combating climate change, improving standards of living and reducing poverty throughout the world.

I am optimistic that we have the tools, and the know-how to achieve this positive vision.  Just look at the progress that has been made from Edison’s first practical light bulb to the electrification of the world during the 20th century, the dramatic reduction in air and water pollution in recent decades, and now the emergence of renewable energy.  The path to a better future will take political will, integrity, and huge investments in new equipment and technology.  I’m convinced that it can and will happen.

Bullying Nature

It is a bright spring day in Shepherdstown and I am gazing out my window at my self-inflicted folly – the swimming pool in my back yard. Nature wasn’t on board with the original happy plans behind this water-filled hole. Instead, nature wants to use it to grow all sorts of bacteria and algae, and allow mosquitos, toads and any other interested party to lay eggs and spawn their young. Ah, but we have the answers for nature, right? Engineering, pumps and chemicals. Every summer with much effort and money thrown at the problem, we win – temporarily. But let up a moment and nature inexorably overcomes our efforts. A swimming pool is a fool’s errand to push a large rock up a hill.

A swimming pool is an apt metaphor for what I am trying to say in this piece. Humans are the most intelligent animals ever to walk the earth. But at some point we got a little too impressed with our abilities and began to bully nature into doing what it didn’t want to do. That’s when the trouble started.

Most of our attempts to bully nature have involved water.  Although essential for life in the right amounts, water has developed a bad reputation.  It has the nasty habit of accumulating in huge amounts and sweeping away everything in its path. English and American common law alike have declared water a “common enemy.”

When our engineering know-how and the power of our machines reached a certain level in the 19th century, we engaged water in what amounted to an arm-wrestling match. This contest has not been without its fits and starts, its wins and losses on both sides. But we have begun to realize that when we overcome nature with brute force, there is always an unexpected price to pay.

I just returned from a short trip to the Everglades in southern Florida. The Everglades are really nothing more than the overflow from Lake Okeechobee, which flows in a sheet down a very slight grade to the Gulf of Mexico. Early Florida pioneers saw immediately that if the Everglades could be drained, thousands of acres of rich land would become available for cultivation.

The 19th century saw one failed scheme after another to drain “the swamp.”  But it looked like success was at hand until 1928 when a hurricane filled the Lake and caused it to burst through a dike, drowning 2500 people. Corpses were stacked and burned by the roadsides. The Army Corps of Engineers then changed the rationale for draining the Everglades from reclamation to flood control. The Hoover Dike was constructed, which cut off Lake Okeechobee from the northern Everglades. This solved the flooding problem but created many others.

What once was a swamp dried out and became like a desert. The absence of fresh water allowed salt water to invade the water table, ruining farms. The stress of low water wreaked havoc on the food chain. Sawgrass invaded water-lily sloughs, while other species invaded parched sawgrass marshes.  Populations of wading birds rapidly declined. Then in 1939 one million acres caught fire and burned. Now conservationists and environmentalists have a seat at the table and a serious effort is underway to restore the Everglades.

The April 1, 2019 issue of The New Yorker chronicled a similar example. For millennia, the Mississippi River has over-flooded its banks and deposited silt and soil debris all over southern Louisiana, building up and extending the land in all directions. Because these floods had obvious harmful effects for humans, we built levees along the river for hundreds of miles. Now there are few catastrophic floods that breach the levees. This is a good thing, right?

Well, yes and no. The problem is that there are no further soil deposits to build up the land. The land that was formerly deposited through flooding has begun to compact and subside, allowing the Gulf to retake large areas. At present southern Louisiana seen from a satellite is nothing more than the snake of the Mississippi bounded by levees and a few hundred acres of land on either side.

Believe it or not, the current solution to this problem is more engineering on a massive scale to be paid for with mountains of tax money. One part of this solution is to dredge up silt from the bottom of the river and use massive diesel pumps to redeposit it into areas that would otherwise subside into non-existence. Another part is to cut holes in the levees and during flood periods allow water and silt to inundate areas that have heavily subsided.  The New Yorker piece rightly concludes that humans have so altered nature in an attempt to take control that now we are attempting to take control of our efforts to take control.

All this says to me that when we consider the so-called problems that nature creates, we need less hubris and more wisdom.  We need fewer brute force solutions and a more harmonious approach that doesn’t struggle so much with the way nature works. Maybe through taxation and other policies we could encourage the depopulation of places like New Orleans and Phoenix, where people simply cannot be protected from nature. Brute force may succeed in the short run, but at a huge cost with harmful consequences to environmental balance. And because of entropy and our human fallibility, the brute force solutions always fail in the long-run.

But what could I possibly know? I’m the one who built a swimming pool. Could you excuse me while I go empty the skimmers?

Our Most Effective Tool for Fighting Climate Change: A Tree

You can’t avoid noticing the rapid development of housing in the Eastern Panhandle. Just blink and an old farm or wooded area has been replaced by a Dan Ryan development extravaganza. In my established farming neighborhood alone there are four homes under construction. But often these homes end up being naked structures with no landscaping and no trees. Evidently, new home buyers are more interested in square footage and amenities than saving or establishing wooded areas. More’s the pity. Trees add grace and beauty, provide protection against cold winter winds and blazing summer heat, prevent rainwater erosion, and create habitat for birds and other wildlife. Perhaps most importantly, trees remove prodigious amounts of carbon dioxide from the air.

In the not too distant past, West Virginia was covered with virgin forest. One estimate from 1870 was that of the 16,640,000 acres in the state “at least 10,000,000 acres are still in the vigor and freshness of original growth.” But between 1870 and 1920, the timber industry literally changed the face of the state. Timber was the first of our natural resources to be extracted, followed by coal and now gas.

Obviously the extraction industries in West Virginia have all contributed heavily to the production of carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas chiefly responsible for climate change. Surprisingly, huge amounts of carbon dioxide are produced by the timber industry itself. A recent study in Oregon found that wood products generated about one and one-half times more emissions than the transportation and energy sectors in that state. Timber industry emissions come from the fuel burned in logging operations, hauling and milling and the ongoing decomposition of trees after they are cut. And, as wood is a carbon-based fuel, burning wood produces carbon dioxide, although not as much as burning more carbon rich fuels like coal, oil or gas.

But the main impact of the timber industry on the climate is the destruction of forest carbon sinks. Through the process of photosynthesis trees remove carbon dioxide from the air and release oxygen. A single tree can absorb as much as 48 pounds of carbon dioxide per year and can sequester one ton of carbon dioxide by the time it reaches 40 years of age. Large forests consume and store huge amounts of carbon dioxide.

In his recent book, Carbon Capture, MIT Research Engineer Howard Herzog identifies “negative emissions technologies” as one path toward stabilizing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. These technologies actually remove carbon dioxide from the air, as opposed to preventing its emission in the first place. Among  emission prevention practices would be things like engineering controls on smokestacks, tax provisions that favor renewables, and tightening environmental regulations. The most important negative emissions technology is planting trees to fix atmospheric carbon in biomass and soils, termed afforestation and reforestation (AR).

Worldwide carbon emissions are approaching 40 gigatons per year. So to make any real difference AR must be able to operate on the gigaton per year level. Today AR is the only negative emissions technology deployed on a large scale, although it now functions only at the smaller megaton level of carbon dioxide removal. Still AR is the least expensive of such technologies — estimated at $10 per ton of removed carbon dioxide compared with $1000 per ton removed by direct air capture through engineering systems.

Under the Kyoto Protocols, industrialized countries can meet targets by developing carbon-reduction projects in third-world countries. Often these have been afforestation of unused agricultural land through plantations of fast-growing trees of a uniform type, such as Scotch pine. Critics of this procedure point out that the resulting biomass is more like a single-purpose tool than a true forest. Forests create a whole range of wildlife diversity, environmental and economic benefits that single species plantations do not. Replanting a depleted forest with diverse native species has worked better.

This brings me back around to how important trees are on small-scale private property. Deciduous trees, planted on the south and west sides, will keep a house cool in the summer and let the sun warm it in the winter, reducing energy use. Just three trees, properly placed around a house, can save up to 30% of energy use. Trees or shrubs planted to shade air conditioners lead to more efficient cooling. A unit operating in the shade uses as much as 10% less electricity than the same one operating in the sun.

Planting a row of conifer trees on the north and northwest sides of your property creates a wall against cold winter winds, saving on heating costs. The best protection from wind occurs when the windbreak is no more than the distance of one or two tree heights from the house. Most of the Eastern Panhandle is in hardiness zone 6, which makes Norway Spruce, Leyland Cyprus and Eastern White Pine perfect for wind breaks in our area.

Planting trees anywhere is a boon to the environment. Even planting them in rural areas is beneficial because, in addition to capturing carbon dioxide, they act as soil anchors, preventing erosion and rainwater runoff into streams. Particularly when planted strategically in groups, trees in rural areas create wildlife corridors linking streams, feeding areas and shelter. Native trees provide perfect food for native wildlife. In this area Red Mulberry, Serviceberry, Hawthorn, Hackberry, Cherry, River Birch, and Black Walnut thrive.

The magnitude of the climate problem is so huge and making a real difference so beyond the reach of any individual, that sometimes it seems hopeless. But, of course, this is no way to think about the situation. There are individual behaviors that when changed on a large scale can contribute to solving huge problems. Planting a tree – or better yet a bunch of them – is a low cost act that employs living things to do what they do best and what we desperately need them to do. And it is an act within the reach of everyone.

Microplastics: An Emerging Concern for Animal and Human Health

I cannot claim to be the most environmentally aware person in my neighborhood. I drive a car that is way too fond of gas, and often leave the lights on when I shouldn’t. So maybe I can be excused for not having heard of microplastics until now.

Plastic, which is a petro-chemical product, is produced in prodigious quantities around the world and has been an important advancement in modern life. But all this plastic has created its own set of problems. One visible problem is the huge amount of plastic trash – containers, fishing nets, straws – that floats around on the surface of the oceans. Plastic products also shed or deconstruct to tiny, sometimes invisible, particles and fibers. The effects of these microplastics are poorly understood now, but they are sure to become a concern for animal and human health.

Since plastics were first widely used in the mid-20th century, roughly 9 billion tons of it have been produced, most of which has become trash. This trash doesn’t biodegrade. A November 26, 2018 article in the excellent magazine High Country News speculates that scientists in the distant future will come upon a brightly colored layer of plastic material deposited in our time. Some geologists today refer to the current period as the Plastocene, and even recognize a type of rock made from naturally fused plastic and sediment called plastiglomerate.

Microplastics are particles smaller than 5 millimeters in diameter. Some have broken down from larger objects like tires or plastic bags. Some have been intentionally manufactured. Concern about microbeads, tiny plastic scrubbers in toothpaste and exfoliant washes, led to a federal ban on them in personal care products beginning in 2017. But perhaps the greatest concern now is the tiny synthetic fibers shed by clothing.

Synthetic fibers are long, thin strands of plastic woven into threads, much like wool. It is estimated that 58% of today’s clothing is woven with them. The fleece that keeps us warm in the winter is full of synthetic fiber. Synthetic blankets, sweaters and shirts also. A researcher in Australia set up three washing machines with special filters that trapped the microfibers after washing fleece garments. He found that they shed up to 1900 tiny fibers each time they were washed. These are too small to be captured by typical washing machine filters or municipal sewage systems. They go directly into our open water.

We are beginning to realize how widely microplastics are being taken up by animals in the lower orders of the food chain, such as invertebrate sea creatures, worms and insects. Mosquito larvae are also capable of eating microplastics and then retaining the plastic as adults. Dragonfly and midges, which also begin life as underwater larvae, are similar. Larger fish and sea animals that predate on the lower level creatures are likely to take up microplastics into their gut. And birds that make meals of insects are equally likely to take up microplastics.

Studies between 1962 and 2012 have revealed that 59% of examined seabird species have ingested plastics. Albatrosses, petrels and shearwaters contain more plastic that other species, probably because they feed in the open ocean and mistake floating plastic for prey. Most of this comes from pecking or otherwise ingesting small pieces of bottle caps, plastic bags, balloons, buttons and plastic lighters.

In the case of birds and other animals, it is unclear whether the plastic transfers from the gut to other organs and muscles. It may simply be ground up and pass through undigested. It is clear, however, that mortality rates increase among the birds that ingest large amounts of plastic. This could be caused by obstruction in the digestive tract, or an inverse correlation between the amount of plastic ingested and the amount of body fat the bird produces.

There have been no proper studies of the effects on humans of plastic uptake by fish and birds. Even scientists who work in the area concede that we have more serious environmental problems like carbon dioxide emissions and coastal erosion that require attention immediately.

But you can expect more attention to be paid to microplastics in the future. One reason is that they often act as sponges for other organic pollutants such as dioxins and PCBs. The molecules of these notably harmful chemicals shelter in the water-free environment found between the long carbon chains that make up plastics. A Japanese study found that 3-millimeter-wide plastic resin pellets found in Tokyo Bay contained organic pollutants one million times their concentration in ordinary sea water.

So how can an environmentally retarded person such as my own personal self act appropriately when it comes to plastic? One thing I do is ask for paper bags at the Food Lion. The check-out people see me coming and immediately go on break. Too bad – they will just have to get used to it. I also try to buy products packaged without plastic, but this is near impossible. Recently I found a big jug of olive oil in a glass bottle and snagged it. The more people do this the sooner manufacturers will get the message. And I will start buying cotton and wool garments, avoiding space-age synthetics. No more Speedo swimsuits.

But aside from modifying individual behavior, what can be done? West Virginia counties and cities still have the freedom to pass ordinances prohibiting one-use plastic packaging like shopping bags and water bottles. Last year, our ultra-libertarian Senator Patricia Rucker led a group of like-minded legislators in an effort to prohibit municipalities from passing ordinances relating to packaging and similar sinister left-wing topics. This effort failed, but she is likely to try again this year. If our newly-found environmental consciousness in Jefferson County has continuing strength, perhaps we can prevail on our local governments to tackle the plastic issue promptly.

Finding A Practical and Effective Solution for Carbon Emissions

Can we talk? We need to stop wasting time and come up with a way to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions – now. The recent U.N. report on climate change should scare us into action if nothing else has. Earth’s surface temperatures are virtually certain to rise at accelerating rates between now and 2050, with many serious heat-related consequences, including the disruption of agriculture, wildfires and sea level rise. These will threaten world economic and political stability. This is no hoax. Existential threat would be a better term.

Many of the best minds today believe that the solution lies in putting the right price on the production of carbon-based fuels. Carbon producers like the coal industry create “externalities” – costs that are not part of the price of the coal paid by consumers.  Chief among these are the environmental effects of the greenhouse gasses emitted when coal is burned.  These costs are foisted onto the public in general.

Finding the right higher price for carbon would make carbon-based fuels less attractive than cleaner sources of energy, such as wind and solar. The right price for carbon would also encourage the development of energy efficient machinery and processes. Individual consumers would make better energy choices.

For those who believe the conservative ideology that free markets can solve all of our problems, here is a wake up call.  Free markets have totally failed us in pricing carbon. This is because neither the seller nor the buyer of carbon has an incentive to take externalities into account in the price.  Nearly everyone outside the Trump Administration – liberals and conservatives alike – believe that government must intervene. The question is how. There are two candidates for the job.

Cap and Trade

One system, called cap and trade, is currently in use in a group of New England states and California. Government’s role in a cap and trade system is to determine how much total carbon it will permit to be dumped into the atmosphere each year.  Government also sells permits to emitters up to the carbon limit and then supervises a secondary market.

Imagine that government decides it will tolerate 5 billion tons of carbon dioxide in year one.  It divides this amount into 1,000,000 permits worth 5,000 tons each.  The permits could be auctioned, generating revenue.  Some carbon emitters might be priced out of an auction, so they could go onto the secondary market to purchase pollution rights from emitters who, through technological improvements, do not need the right to emit all 5,000 tons authorized by their permit.

In year two the overall amount government will tolerate might be reduced to 4.5 million tons.  Each of the 1,000,000 permits in year two would authorize 4,500 tons, less pollution than the year before.  The price of these would be much higher than the year before at auction and also on the secondary market. The financial pressure on emitters to find ways to reduce their own carbon emissions would be intense. The carbon limit would be steadily reduced year to year until the goal is met.

The criticisms of cap and trade are several. First, emitters chafe at the government setting overall emission limits and call this “command and control,” a buzz-phrase for top down regulation. Actually these limits would be politically negotiated and might not be set low enough to avoid climate disaster. Second, if the overall limits are too low some emitters would be forced out of business, harming the economy. Third, and most important, cap and trade does not involve a mechanism to soften the impact of higher energy prices on consumers.  While environmentalists will favor the certainty that emissions would be reduced at predictable rate down to the level that will avoid climate disaster, this system would be subject to intense political pressure from emitters and consumers and would be politically unstable.

A Carbon Tax

The other method for solving the problem is a carbon tax. Under this method, government would decide the appropriate price for discouraging carbon emissions and then impose an escalating tax until that price is reached. This seems to be as much “command and control” as setting the carbon limit in a cap and trade system, but surprisingly conservatives seem to like the carbon tax better.

Voters in Washington state had the opportunity on November 6 to impose a “pollution fee” on emitters in that state. This fee would have operated exactly like a carbon tax. It would have been the first such tax to be adopted by ballot referendum anywhere.  Unfortunately voters turned down this measure 56% to 44% in what is now the typical divergence between rural and urban voters.

The Washington proposal was to impose a fee on large emitters, beginning at $15 per metric ton of carbon content and escalating $2 each year until it reached $55 per ton. For comparison, Sweden has the highest carbon tax in the world at $140 per ton. The Washington fee would have applied to fossil fuels sold or used within the state and electricity generated within or imported for consumption within the state.

The measure was expected to generate $2.2 billion in the first five years, which would have been directed to a trust fund. As a fee instead of  a tax, the proceeds could not be spent for general governmental purposes. Every cent raised would have gone toward solving climate-related problems, protecting the state’s environment or aiding communities affected by climate change or by the fee itself. This measure was designed to appeal to left-leaning and environmentally concerned voters.

An earlier measure for a carbon fee in Washington also failed because it was opposed by Democrats and labor. It aimed to gain support from more moderate voters by providing for the return of the proceeds from the fee directly to Washington residents, without reserving the money for alternative energy and conservation purposes.

The 2018 ballot initiative was opposed by petroleum producers who argued that the fee would not make a dent in global warming but would damage the state’s economy. They also argued the fee’s impact would be borne by consumers and small business. Commenting on the defeat of this measure, David Roberts, a reporter at Vox, wrote that “it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that the public is not quite ready for state carbon taxes.”

A Carbon Tax With Public Dividend

So it is with healthy skepticism that I come to the recent proposal made by a group called the Climate Leadership Council (CLC), consisting of the heads of large energy companies and Republican heavy-hitters like James Baker, George Schultz and Janet Yellin. Their plan is called The Carbon Dividend.

This plan involves a tax on carbon-based fuel producers determined by the carbon content of the fuels.  For example, coal would be taxed at $96 per ton, natural gas at $2.28 per thousand cubic feet and oil at $18 per barrel. This would work out to an average of $43 per ton of carbon dioxide. It would increase 3 to 5% per year as determined in the legislation.The purpose, as with any carbon tax, is to raise the cost of carbon-based fuels to discourage their use relative to cleaner sources of energy. Exxon-Mobil has pledged $1,000,000 to promote the plan.

The tax would be imposed on energy producers at the point the fuels enter the economy. But the financial impact of the tax would be passed on to consumers, indeed the scheme won’t work unless the costs are passed on because part of the design is to get consumers to economize and make the right energy choices.

Unlike the Washington proposal just defeated, revenues from the tax would be distributed to the public in a carbon dividend paid monthly or quarterly through the Social Security Administration. It would not be devoted to developing alternative energy or softening the blow on communities affected by the tax like Southern West Virginia would be. The CLC estimates the dividend will be as much as $2,000 per year for a family of four and is intended to offset the higher cost of goods caused by the tax.

The CLC further estimates that two-thirds of American families would be financial winners because the increased cost of energy for them would be less than $2,000. This is because only higher income families consume enough to outweigh the dividend. The proposal banks on the carbon dividend becoming as popular as Alaska’s Permanent Fund dividend of $1,000 per year to citizens.

Why, you ask, would big oil companies be interested in a program that reduces the consumption of their products? One answer is that these companies are afraid of future lawsuits blaming them for the effects of climate change.  The Carbon Dividend plan would involve some sort of litigation immunity much like the settlement with tobacco companies. Perhaps a more important reason is that the plan involves a grand trade-off whereby current regulations on carbon dioxide emissions like Obama’s Clean Power Plan would be eliminated as “unnecessary.”

Obviously, there are things about the Carbon Dividend plan that will be unpalatable to the environmental community. But keep in mind how quickly we must act. It will be politically necessary to have leading Republicans and much of industry on board if we hope to do anything beyond arguing about what should be done.

I for one am willing to allow conservatives to have their “revenue neutral” solution wherein the government doesn’t get the proceeds from the carbon tax to spend in ways I would like — so long as the plan effectively reduces carbon emissions. On this point the CLC says that the Carbon Dividend plan will reduce emissions by 32% compared to 2005, meaning the U.S. would exceed the upper end of the Paris Accords which called for a reduction of 26-28%.

The real beauty of the Carbon Dividend plan is that it addresses the psychological resistance people have to acting in their own best interest on the climate issue. The threat of global warming lacks immediacy to most people. It is difficult to convince them to endure costs now that will benefit others in fifty years. The dividend provides immediate benefits for behavior that is required to secure a much larger, though long-term benefit. It would make political support for adoption much more likely and help to insulate the plan from amendment through later legislation. Because of this the Carbon Dividend might be the practical and effective solution we are looking for.

Making Sense of the Rockwool Controversy

Plans by Rockwool (formerly Roxul USA, Inc.) to construct a 463,000 sq. ft. manufacturing facility in the City of Ranson have recently met with a firestorm of opposition. The facility, to be constructed on the old Jefferson Orchards property, will manufacture mineral wool insulation used in home and commercial construction.  Opponents argue that the plant will emit huge amounts of toxic air pollution in close proximity to schools, and claim that the approval process was intentionally under-publicized to avoid opposition. Proponents argue that this is the single largest development project in Jefferson County since the Penn National Casino, and that it will create 150 well-paid manufacturing jobs, boost ancillary business and generate tax revenue for a substantial future period. To a large extent, this has become a contest of values.

I admit that I have come to this controversy late and that there is a lot I don’t yet understand. As an observer, I was initially impressed with the maturity with which both sides approached it. Recently, however, the rhetoric from the anti-Rockwool faction has gotten rough and somewhat personal. Yet it is apparent that we are not dealing with villains on either side. One can hardly blame Rockwool for trying to develop its business in the U.S. or the JCDA for recruiting Rockwool to the county. The Rockwool project is the kind of development the JCDA has been pursuing for decades. It is what Authority members have understood their jobs to be. Conversely, the opposition is not made up of eco-terrorists determined to wreck any development initiatives. There is sincere concern about the environmental impact of this facility, as well as what it means for further industrial development in Jefferson County.

The Product and Manufacturing Process

Mineral wool insulation has become increasingly attractive in the building process because of its efficiency as an insulator and its fire resistance. Rockwool products are produced from a combination of natural basalt rock and recycled slag from the steel industry. These are melted, spun into a fiber and cured into insulation. The company claims that buildings account for 40% of all energy use, and two-thirds of that is used for heating and cooling. It argues that insulation can play a key role in reducing heating and cooling costs, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and providing a more comfortable work/living environment.

Rockwool’s November 2017 application to the WVDEP stated that the furnaces will be fueled by both coal and natural gas. Milled coal will be delivered by truck and the gas by pipeline. At that time there were no overt plans for a gas pipeline to Ranson. But lo and behold, on June 16, 2018 Mountaineer Gas announced a new route for its proposed pipeline so it could serve the Rockwool project.

All other raw materials will arrive at the site by truck and be stored in enclosures or piles. One factor not sufficiently addressed by either side, or the state of West Virginia, is the cost of wear and tear on our highways from the heavy truck traffic, which will divert funds earmarked for road repair elsewhere.

The furnaces will operate at extremely high temperatures – greater than 2,700 F. Various filtering and capture technologies will be used to reduce the emissions from the process.  But excess heat from the furnaces, as well as particulate and greenhouse gasses that are not captured or filtered, will be emitted out of two 21-story smokestacks. Molten rock and slag will be extruded from the furnace, then spun and formed into the finished wool insulation, which will be shipped out of the facility by truck.

Rockwool recycles its own waste and when fully operational the facility will deliver no waste to the county landfill. The water and much of the heat generated in the manufacturing process will be captured and re-used.

Emissions and the Permitting Process

A critical step in the approval process for a new industrial site is an application to the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection for a Prevention of Significant Deterioration (PSD) permit. A permit is required where a new facility is proposed for an area like Jefferson County that either has none of the regulated pollutants or is below the regulated maximum.

The application explains the manufacturing process and the places and manner in that process where emissions will occur. It then seeks to demonstrate that those emissions are below the limits set by federal and state regulations. This is an important point. Our federal and state governments have already decided what level of pollution is acceptable from “new sources.” If an applicant can show that its proposed facility will operate within those limits, then the regulations say the Secretary “shall” issue the permit unless there is some extraordinary reason not to do so. Many of us do not like where that leads, but that is reality.

The initial application for a permit was submitted by Rockwool on November 20, 2017. This application described the emissions expected from the facility’s operation. Public notice of the application was given in the November 22, 2017 Spirit of Jefferson. The notice, which was in the same size print as all other legal notices, listed the chemicals and particulate matter that have since become the major focus of opponents.

For example, Rockwool announced that its operations might annually emit 239 tons of nitrogen oxides, 148 tons of sulfur dioxide, 74.1 tons of carbon monoxide, 153,000 tons of carbon dioxide equivalents, 104 tons of methanol, 67.6 tons of formaldehyde, and so on. The public notice announced that written comments would be received by the WVDEP for 30 days and provided the telephone number for inquiries. This notice complied with the applicable regulation. In my opinion, opponents need to do better than to allege that Rockwool was somehow sneaky in notifying the public.  If there is any bone to pick with the process, it is with the laxity of the public notice regulations, not Rockwool’s compliance with them.

The WVDEP is required to make available for public inspection all of the relevant documents and to put another notice in a newspaper of general circulation containing the same information from the first notice, but additionally that there has been a preliminary determination in favor of the permit, soliciting public comment and providing the procedures for requesting a public hearing. This was published in the Spirit of Jefferson in March 2018. No public hearing was requested by any interested party so WVDEP did not hold one. As a state we should do better than this. Public hearings should be required for major new source pollution, not optional.

Apparently the emission amounts proposed in the application were below the permitted level in each case because the final permit, issued on April 30, 2018, approved the emissions.  Then on September 18, 2018 in response to the furor about the agency’s actions, the WVDEP issued the following statement:

There is no scientific evidence to suggest that the proposed facility will adversely affect human health or the environment. In addition to its plant in Mississippi, Rockwool has operated a similar facility in Canada for approximately 30 years. Based on the performance of the operations in Canada and Mississippi, and the WVDEP’s stringent air quality permit application review process, there is no reason to suspect that the facility in Jefferson County poses a threat to people living nearby or to the environment.

We are now left with the prospect of significant increases in toxic chemicals and particulate matter being emitted into the atmosphere at the Rockwool site, although most likely these will affect our neighbors to the east more than us. Notwithstanding Rockwool’s compliance with state emission limits, the Jefferson County environment will be considerably dirtier than before. The question is whether we value a clean environment more than the economic benefits that will accrue from the Rockwool project.

The Economic Bargain

The principal economic benefits Rockwool will bring to our community are manufacturing jobs and a substantial improvement in the property tax base that will fund schools. One thing our economy has lacked is solid manufacturing jobs for medium-skilled high school graduates. Rockwool says that when it is fully staffed, there will be 150 new jobs. A good portion of the 150 jobs, let’s say 120, will be in this category.  Others will be management and clerical jobs. Opponents argue that while all jobs are important, Jefferson County has 57,000 residents. They say 150 jobs are not worth selling our environmental soul.

Although Rockwool hasn’t disclosed a wage scale, competitive manufacturing jobs pay in a range between $15 and $22 per hour, in addition to benefits somewhere in the range of 22% to 40% of the wage rate.  So I’m figuring the annual payroll for Rockwool manufacturing jobs will be in the neighborhood of $6,500,000 ($20/hr. + 30% benefits x 2080 hrs. x 120 jobs). This money will be subject to state income tax and will circulate in the economy, boosting ancillary businesses such as grocery stores, gas stations, and the like. But it is not accurate to say that all this will be new money Rockwool brings to the county. Probably all of the people employed at Rockwool will come directly from other jobs, since unemployment is at an historic low. The new money will be the difference between what they were paid before and what they will earn at Rockwool.

In ten to twelve years, Rockwool will be paying millions of dollars of property tax to Jefferson County and the City of Ranson. Since these taxes will be based on the value of the taxed property at the time, it is hard to guess what they will be. We do know, however, that between 2020 when manufacturing operations will begin and 2030, Rockwool will pay vastly reduced taxes through what is called a PILOT Agreement. The Pilot Agreement has been approved by the Jefferson County Commission, the Jefferson County Board of Education, the City of Ranson, and several other officials.

The PILOT Agreement calls for real property tax payments of $225,000 in 2020 but no additional payments until 2026, when Rockwool will begin making escalating payments until an $815,000 payment in 2029. Presumably Rockwool will make full real property tax payments thereafter, which are not likely to be less than the 2029 amount.  Rockwool expects to install perhaps $75,000,000 in new equipment at the facility, but this will be completely exempt from personal property tax until 2028. Then the PILOT Agreement will permit personal property tax on the machinery, but will artificially lower the value of the machinery on which the tax will apply to 5% of its depreciated book value. This sounds like a sweet deal for Rockwool.

Some Conclusions

Although our decisions can’t be driven by this, it is hard to imagine any county in West Virginia – except Jefferson – that would turn down the opportunity for a facility like Rockwool, even considering the environmental impact. Most would be doing back flips to get it. Perhaps it is our relative affluence that allows us to be choosier.

So I am tempted – almost – to be understanding about the Jefferson County Commission’s role in this. When one looks around for a governmental body that could have slowed the process until everything was fully vetted and discussed, that body was the County Commission — not the JCDA which, as noted, is supposed to go out and secure opportunities for us to evaluate. Instead, all the Commission really did was climb on the bandwagon. The Commission has since issued a memo saying that it had no control over anything except whether the county signed on to the PILOT Agreement, but this ignores political reality and how much influence and control the Commission could have exerted if it had been solidly against the project.

Now some Commissioners are running for cover. Commissioner Tabb was one of the county officials who visited the Rockwool plant in Mississippi and was impressed with what she saw. But as of August 2, Commissioner Tabb changed her mind because of the citizen opposition to the air quality issue. She now opposes Rockwool. At the same August 2 Commission meeting, Commissioner Hudson said that the Rockwool situation is “starting to smell like a skunk.” Commissioner Compton also claimed he is opposed to the Rockwool project, saying “The reason I agreed to this was I essentially thought it was going to bring jobs. Did I think it was to this extent of pollution and whatnot? Absolutely not.”

It is not clear to me that anything can be done to stop the Rockwool project at this point. Permits have been issued and binding contracts have been entered. Rockwool has spent lots of money in reliance on these. If the County Commission or one of the other governmental agencies that approved the deal backs out, there will be expensive litigation and an uncertain result. Indeed, Rockwool through its attorneys sent a letter on September 12, 2018 asserting that the company would suffer damages up to $100 million if the Commission delayed the project.

What is clear is that the citizens of Jefferson County have not been well-served by our County Commissioners. They did inadequate due diligence and had no clue about about public sentiment on the environmental issues. As but one example, here is a statement in the PILOT Agreement that Peter Onoszko signed as Chairman of the JCC:

The Commission has found that the [Rockwool transactions] will promote the public interests and public purposes by, among other things, providing certainty and soundness in fiscal planning and promoting the present and prospective prosperity, health, happiness, safety and general welfare of the people of Jefferson County.

Really? That’s not going to go down well with the thousands of people who have signed up on the anti-Rockwool Facebook page and who pack public hearings night after night. Instead of owning their failure, our Commissioners profess to have been either duped or powerless. There needs to be some accountability in November.

The Environmental Disaster of Mountaintop Removal Mining

Coal has contributed substantially to the development of civilization over the last 250 years. The steam engine was designed and first used to pump out flooded coal mines.  The railroad was first commercially used to move coal from mines to towns and river transportation. Coal powered the industrial revolution in England and the United States.  But burning coal produces the greenhouse gasses chiefly responsible for global warming. It also produces noxious particles that cause heart and lung disease and many deaths. And in West Virginia the search for cheap coal has led to mountaintop removal mining, a practice with an entire catalog of harmful environmental effects.

Only by flying over Southern West Virginia can one completely grasp the scale on which mountaintop removal mining has been used. Aesthetically we will never be the same despite all the promises of restoration by mining companies. But lost beauty is a relatively minor issue with mountaintop removal mining.

mountaintop removalMountaintop removal involves clearcutting the extant forest, burning it and then pushing the debris into the adjacent stream valleys. Following this the top layer of rock is blasted away and this rubble too is pushed into the stream valley along with the topsoil. The coal being harvested is typically thin seam, which means that it is quickly exhausted and a new round of blasting is conducted until the next seam down is reached. Sometimes this process removes 800 feet of mountain.

The scientific evidence of the harm done to human health by mountaintop removal with valley fills is plentiful. The website of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition contains a bibliography of studies on the topic (ohvec.org/mountaintop-removal-articles/health/). Additional research documents extensive environmental damage.

For example, in January 2010 Science Magazine published an article detailing that environmental damage, written and researched by twelve scientists including one from WVU. They found that forests are destroyed and headwater streams are lost. Downstream biodiversity and water quality suffer. As mountain streams emerge from valley fills, they are saturated with sulfate, calcium, magnesium and other harmful ions. This effect persists even after mine-site reclamation.

During the last ice age the central and southern Appalachians became a refuge for northern plant and animal species. When the ice retreated many stayed, rendering these mountains richly biodiverse. The World Wildlife Fund says this area is a “biodiversity hotspot.” Mountaintop removal mining often wipes out wide swaths of temperate mesophytic forests in central Appalachia. These have an unusually diverse tree flora with as many as 30 tree species at a single site. Underneath the forest there is a rich growth of ferns, fungi, herbaceous plants and small trees as well as areas of glade and cranberry bog.

Wildlife also suffers. Whole habitats for bears to birds to crayfish are destroyed. The effect on birds is dramatic. There is a decrease in forest interior bird populations, such as the Wood Thrush, and stream dependent species, such as the Louisiana Waterthrush. In their place grassland and edge-tolerant species increase.

The Endangered Species Act normally requires the Fish and Wildlife Service to review any federally authorized, funded or administered action that could adversely affect endangered or threatened species. But in 1996 FWS issued an opinion waiving this review for coal mining because the effects of mining are already regulated under the Surface Mine Control and Reclamation Act. However, in practice under the SMCRA mine operators hire government-approved consultants to produce surveys of wildlife that are far less rigorous than desirable.

One environmentalist from the Center for Biological Diversity in Portland, Oregon remarked that this special review process for coal mining results in environmental destruction that would simply not occur elsewhere.

I’ve read longer biological opinions for road repairs on the Mount Hood National Forest than for the [1996 FWS biological opinion] that proclaims to address all species impacts from all coal mining activities. In Oregon, you would never get permission to blow up the top third of a mountain — it just wouldn’t happen.

Big Sandy CrayfishEnvironmental groups have resorted to lawsuits to force the FWS to do its job under the Endangered Species Act. In the last five years, these groups have sued to protect the northern long-eared bat, a species already under pressure from a disease called the white nose syndrome. They also sued FWS to protect the Big Sandy crayfish, which has been lost from up to 70 percent of its range because of water pollution from mountaintop removal mining. It is nearly gone from West Virginia and has lost close to half of its range in Kentucky and Virginia.

As with most things these days, this struggle is all about money. Regulation of the mining industry raises its costs and reduces its profits. The question is whether we will have the political will to shift the costs of mountaintop removal mining onto those who profit from it. Will mining companies be required to include in their profit and loss analysis the costs of environmental degradation and clean-up that they have previously externalized?  Or will poor communities around the mining sites, and ultimately the entire state of West Virginia, be forced bear these costs?

In a 2011 study published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Science, the authors investigated cost accounting for the full life cycle of coal, including coal mined by mountaintop removal:

We estimate that the life cycle effects of coal and the waste stream generated are costing the U.S. public a third to over one-half of a trillion dollars annually. Many of these so-called externalities are, moreover, cumulative. Accounting for the damages conservatively doubles to triples the price of electricity from coal per kWh generated, making wind, solar, and other forms of non-fossil fuel power generation, along with investments in efficiency and electricity conservation methods, economically competitive.

If mining companies had to pay even a fraction of these additional costs, it is most likely that mountaintop removal mining would become uneconomical and would cease. This is perhaps what fuels the fierce opposition to regulation of this practice by the mining industry.

That opposition played out recently in connection with a modest regulation of the industry by the Obama Administration called the Stream Protection Rule. This Rule did not prohibit mountaintop removal mining, but rather would have required a buffer zone between mountain streams and mine sites and would have protected drinking water in accordance with modern technology. But predictably the mining industry unleashed a barrage of false and exaggerated claims of harm to the industry.

The National Mining Association estimated that over 52,000 miners in central Appalachia could lose their jobs, and Congressman Alex Mooney (WV 2nd) repeated these wildly exaggerated claims. Congress required the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement to estimate the proposed Rule’s impact on all employment, not just on coal jobs. It concluded that there would be a net annual increase in overall employment when new jobs related to compliance with the Rule were taken into account.

Nevertheless, the Stream Protection Rule was killed early in the Trump Administration, one of the first casualties of its effort to undo anything the Obama Administration had done. But the Trump Administration and their coal industry supporters have grasped the fundamental truth about the regulation of mountaintop removal mining. Trees and birds and streams don’t vote. Only people do.

Coal Is Killing Us

On June 1, 2018 President Trump directed Energy Secretary Rick Perry to take all necessary steps to stop the closure of coal-fired power plants on national security grounds. This directive was issued simultaneously with the release of a draft memo arguing that the reliability of the nation’s power grid will be threatened if coal-fired plants are allowed to disappear through market forces that now make them the most expensive method to generate electricity. Trump’s directive was roundly criticized by many as an unprecedented intrusion into the market for electricity that “picks winners and losers,” something Republicans have long criticized Democrats for doing. But none of the debate about Trump’s directive has focused on the undeniable fact that small particulate matter emitted from coal-fired power plants is killing thousands of Americans each year.

The West Virginia Congressional delegation predictably cheered Trump’s directive, continuing their decades-long pandering to Big Coal and the fiction that coal mining creates significant employment in West Virginia. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito said “I am very supportive of the administration’s decision to take action to preserve our coal-fired and nuclear power plants.” Sen. Joe Manchin actually took credit for Trump’s directive, saying “I am glad President Trump and his administration are considering my idea to use the Defense Production Act to save coal-fired power plants with emissions controls and protect our national security.”

Surely our Congressional delegation and the many Republican opponents of Obama’s Clean Power Plan know in their heart of hearts that climate change is a real threat and that because it is, in part, man-made it can be slowed by changes in our behavior now. One scientist recently quipped that to argue that the Earth’s rapid warming in the last decades is not man-made is like arguing that the Earth is flat.

These politicians are not stupid. Instead, what they are is calculating. The problem is that policy action now to reduce carbon dioxide emissions has immediate negative effects on the coal and electric power industries, their investors and their employees. This immediate negative is balanced against uncertain future benefits like avoiding sea level rise. Because these benefits will mostly inure to future generations, they can today be more easily ignored, minimized or dismissed as fraudulent. When it comes to climate change action, the voters in a coal state like West Virginia can scream louder about present pain, with some justification.

All this makes it harder to understand why climate change activists do not focus their arguments on the harmful effects of coal-fired power generation that are occurring now. These harmful effects are not the result of carbon dioxide (CO2) or even the other harmful greenhouse gasses that are emitted from power plants.  They are the direct and measurable result of the tiny particulate matter produced by burning coal that rolls out of the tall stacks, spreading death downwind of these power plants.

Sulphur dioxide (SO2) is another harmful by-product of burning coal, partly responsible for fine particles in the air. These fine particles are linked with acid rain and smog. As evidence began to tightly link increased levels of SO2 with the burning of coal in the 1970s, the electric and coal industries denied the link and questioned the motives of those investigating the link. Sound familiar?

But in 1990 the Acid Rain Program adopted by Congress required power plants to cut their SO2 emissions in half by 2010. The technology used for this was the installation of scrubbers. Since then, this program and other regulatory action have dramatically reduced SO2 emissions and have done so at a lower cost than even environmentalists predicted.

Despite a reduction of emissions of around 50% since 1980, power-plant particulate matter, mostly from SO2, was still estimated to be responsible for 15,000 premature deaths in 2010.

The main health effect of SO2 is to impair the function of the upper respiratory system. High concentrations of sulfur dioxide can affect breathing, cause respiratory illnesses, and aggravate existing heart and lung diseases. Exposure at very low concentrations can irritate the lungs and throat and cause bronchitis. Exposure to low levels of SO2 over a long period depletes the respiratory system’s ability to defend against bacteria and foreign particles. Particularly sensitive groups include children, the elderly, people with asthma, and those with heart or lung disease.

Soot emitted by coal-fired power plants doubles down on the effects of SO2. Soot is associated with chronic bronchitis, aggravated asthma, cardiovascular effects like heart attacks, and premature death. US coal power plants emitted 197,286 tons of small soot particles in 2014.

The risk of death from air pollution caused by burning coal is not evenly distributed throughout the United States. In fact, West Virginia has the second highest number of deaths per capita in the country behind Ohio and just ahead of Pennsylvania. One large, inefficient West Virginia power plant in Pleasants County is itself estimated to be responsible for 40 deaths, 65 heart attacks and 630 asthma attacks.

In February 2018, First Energy Corp. announced a decision to deactivate the Pleasants Power Station in early 2019. Following this, Sen. Joe Manchin wrote to Energy Secretary Perry about the national security implications of allowing coal-fired plants to be closed, and specifically mentioned the Pleasants Power Station. There is considerable speculation in the West Virginia press that Trump’s directive to Secretary Perry will result in the salvation of the Pleasants operation.

In her 2003 book, Coal, A Human History, Barbara Freese describes how the requirements of the British coal mining industry led to the development of the steam engine followed by the railroad.  These developments in turn produced much more coal, which itself then fueled the Industrial Revolution.  The process was replicated in the United States.  She asks rhetorically where we would be without coal and the revolution it created.  Her answer is that we would have developed as an international society more slowly but perhaps in ways that we would find more satisfying today. All this, of course, is wistfulness.

Our political leaders need to realize that there are terrible consequences from burning coal to generate electric power. Most of the attention from environmental activists is focused on climate change created by CO2.  But if we all pay attention to the fact that coal is killing us – now – we may be able to overcome the arguments of those with a stake in coal who claim that climate change is a false crisis created by the environmental left. The deaths of our children and elderly is no false crisis.