Posted by: ericgrimsrud | April 24, 2013

Uncle Sam becomes a Dirty Carbon Pusher

Concerning the climate change problem, the USA has some reason to be minimally proud of itself. As President Obama recently boasted, American emissions of carbon dioxide are now falling. This is for a variety of reasons including our increased use of alternate sources of energy, our rising auto efficiency standards, and the development of natural gas supplies which are displacing the dirtier, lower-energy forms of fossil fuels within our energy mix.  Just one of the reasons why we call coal and the tar sands the “dirty” forms of carbon is because their combustion results in much more carbon dioxide per energy unit gained than do gas and oil.

Note, however, how the USA is responding to an obvious follow-up question: what are we now going to do with our enormous reserves of low-grade dirty forms of fossil fuels? If our energy policies were motivated by the climate change problem, the answer would be clear – that is, they would be left in the ground. That is not what we appear to be doing, however. Instead we appear to be making great changes our infrastructure so that those low-grade fossil fuels can be sold and send to other countries, such as China, where they will then be burned and converted to carbon dioxide. With respect to the climate change problem, does it matter in the least bit if those fossil fuels are burned in other countries rather than our own? While I hope that most within the public domain knows the answer to that one – the correct answer, of course, is absolutely not.  The detrimental effects of using those dirty forms of carbon will be the same no matter where they are burned.

In my home state of Montana, for example, the natural gas  boom in neighboring North Dakota is enabling us to stop using our coal in our own power plants and instead ship it off to China via rail and sea port facilities that are now in the planning stages. Not content with increasing US and Canadian carbon exports by these old fashioned methods, President Obama appears ready to also approve the Keystone XL Pipeline that will enable Canada to supply the global markets with their very low grade of crude produced from the dirtiest fossil fuel of all, the tar sands.

Other developed countries of the world are also making “progress” along both of these lines. Australia, for example, recently introduced a carbon tax in order to reduce its own emissions of carbon dioxide and at the same time has plans for a series of “mega-mines” that would massively increase its coal exports to its Asian neighbors to the north. Even the UK, with its world-leading carbon targets, gives tax-breaks to encourage oil and gas recovery and, like the USA, increasingly relies on Chinese factories for its commercial goods – thereby indirectly supporting China’s reliance on American and Australian coal for needed power. So in a nutshell, what is happening in the developed countries mentioned above is that they are trying to reduce their own dependence on fossil fuels at home and while increasing that dependence and availability abroad. Why, one should ask, are we moving so forcefully along on this self-defeating path? As always, the answer is apparent – although it is illogical, there is a great deal of short term and immediate money to be made in doing it.

Consider again the example of my own fossil-fuel-rich State of Montana and its representation to the US Senate. Max Baucus was going to be up for reelection in the Fall of 2014 until he announced his impending resignation this week. To my knowledge, he was never even able to even discuss the obvious downsides of Montana’s coal exports to China and supported those exports without reservations. With Baucus stepping aside, it is generally thought that our former Governor Schweitzer will now run for that senatorial office in the Fall of 2014. While more progressive on many issues, Governor Schweitzer was even a greater cheerleader for the export of Montana’s coal and Alberta’s tar sands than Baucus. Just watch and see if Schweitzer will even acknowledgement and agree to discuss the obvious downsides of these dirty carbon exports – he is likely to continue to ignore them. In the past, it has been all too clear that both Baucus’ and Schweitzer’s mantra of “jobs, jobs, jobs” concerned primarily their own.

Thus, the USA has become a “dirty carbon pusher” somewhat akin to a drug dealer who does not use the harmful substances himself but does his best to promote a dependence in others. In the case of dirty carbon pushing, however, what the USA is trying to do is even more reprehensible than the role of the drug dealer. In dirty carbon pushing, the harm done by the users of this addictive element is equally shared by all others on the planet including the seller. Unfortunately, it appears that the 30 pieces of silver the US, Canada, and Australia are about to collect as short term payoffs for these irresponsible acts against humanity will be sufficient to close the deals.  I am once again reminded of something Mark Twain once said: “no one ever went broke by underestimating the intelligence of the public” – and, I will add, that of the officials they elect.  With the upcoming retirement and replacement of some long time Senators who no longer appear to have any wiggle room with respect to their commitments to the business-as-usual forces of America, maybe we can hope that far better perceptions of the basic physical realities of our now overcrowded planet will finally emerge within the new blood that hopefully begins to flow into those vacated positions of power.


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