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Breaking Down the Climate Change Action Plan

The Department of Environmental Protection has developed a blueprint for climate change over the next decade. Unfortunately, the plan offers little in the way of actual reform and caters to Pennsylvania's coal industry.

Today, Governor Ed Rendell received a comprehensive report commissioned by the Department of Environmental Protection detailing how Pennsylvania can reduce emissions of greenhouse gases by 30% in the next ten years. While the mere mention of that number will surely satisfy the green movement, the actual details of the plan could leave them scratching their head.

First, the good news. For a state that has been ravaged by the current economic recession, the recommendations laid out by the DEP are estimated to generate about $12 billion in savings over the next decade, a relatively small yet significant number. Additionally, the report reveals a positive net impact on the gross state product of over $5 billion dollars and will create 54,000 new jobs by 2020 if the government enacts legislation to support the DEP's analysis. In conjunction with the recent passage of the Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard and last year's Act 129, both of which mandate electric utility energy efficient programs, those numbers increase to $6 billion and 65,000, respectively. Creating green-collar jobs is a top domestic priority for the future, and the increase in GSP proves that going green is indeed profitable.

Unfortunately, the DEP report relies heavily on unpopular "alternative" methods such as clean coal, carbon sequestering and nuclear power, to name a few. The viability of these alternatives has all been questioned at one time or another, and at best represent stopgap solutions for effective climate change.

According to the study, electricity consumption is the primary source for Pennsylvania's greenhouse gas emissions, followed closely by industry and transportation. These emissions are almost entirely produced from the firing of coal, an extremely dirty source of energy. Herein lie many problems for energy reform in the state. For one, the coal industry provides over 35,000 jobs in the state, jobs that would disappear if alternative energy sources were fully utilized. Second, many coal plants in the state are outdated and are not retro-fitted to decrease emissions in the way that the report outlines, and doing so would be expensive. Finally, Pennsylvania is the second largest energy exporter in the country, supplying electricity (again, mostly coal-based) to a large number of states in the Mid-Atlantic region in the regional market area via PJM, a company that coordinates the movement of wholesale electricity.

The proposed solutions to the coal problem all begin with the perpetuated myth of clean coal. This includes co-firing coal with biomass and carbon sequestration. Biomass is a renewable energy source that is derived from organisms such as wood and waste. The report cites a study conducted by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory that estimates an 18% reduction in emissions for 15% biomass energy co-firing in coal plants. However, reading between the numbers, one has to take into consideration the fact that the level of demand for even a 10% co-firing would increase the demand of wood biomass to levels that would negatively impact the wood industries and other wood energy products that are more energy efficient. As a concession, the DEP proposes a 2-4% co-firing level which again, is only viewed as a temporary solution.

Carbon sequestration is a method long touted by the coal industry as the best way to reduce emissions, despite numerous studies that claim it is a risky and inefficient method. It is a complicated procedure that involves gasifying fossil fuels to produce a synthesis gas. The syngas is then reacted with steam to produce carbon dioxide that is then scrubbed from the gas stream via an absorption process. The DEP proposes the construction of a brand new coal plant designed with carbon sequestering capabilities as well as retro-fitting old coal plants with similar technology to capture carbon emissions. Unfortunately, there are numerous engineering challenges involved with this process, and the DEP's proposal assumes that technological capabilities are greatly improved over the next decade. The other complexity of carbon sequestration is the storing process. Advocates suggest storing it deep underground, although even the slightest leak would undermine its effectiveness.

Another energy alternative highlighted by the DEP report is nuclear energy, which gives off zero carbon emissions but is a risky solution for a number of reasons. At present, a third of Pennsylvania's electricity generation is derived from nuclear energy. In order to uprate the capacity of nuclear energy at the existing plants in the state, a more highly enriched uranium fuel is added, which could have catastrophic consequences given the dubious state of some of the state's nuclear facilities, including Three Mile Island, the site of an infamous accident 30 years ago, and where a pipe leak recently exposed 20 workers to low level of radiation. The addition of this uranium would require upgrades to all of these facilities and potentially the construction of a brand new one, all of which would cost a significant amount of money.

This is not to say that there isn't a great deal of solid plans and recommendations outlined in the report (which you can read chapter-by-chapter here), including green building standards and alternative fuel solutions for cars. But there cannot be substantive climate change reform without a viable alternative for coal energy. However, with a large bloc of the country highly dependent on the coal industry, this seems to be a hurdle that will be tough to clear, not only for Pennsylvania but also for the United States as we move towards climate change legislation in the coming years.