Show Me the Money: Putting a Dollar Value on Climate Change

Body-parts-on-saleHow do you monetize a human life? How about when that life is impaired with an illness? What's it worth to you not having to rush your child to the emergency room when they're turning blue during an asthma attack? What about to prevent a heart attack?

These days we live in a cost-benefit world that demands this kind of accounting for things that should be accepted at face value. Want to talk about the advantages of cleaner air? You have to be able to put a price tag on it. And, with a small slight of hand, that's what the Obama administration did when it touted all the economic reasons why its new carbon capture rule for existing power plants was a plus for the country.

Carbon pollution itself doesn't directly cause the kind of death and suffering among humans that the Clean Air Act was written to address. Oh sure, it might doom countless species, raise sea levels, and cause global catastrophe, but there's not a way to tie it directly to more mundane respiratory diseases or early mortality that we (well, everyone but the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality) associate with "air pollution."

Instead of pricing catastrophic planetary effects, no matter how self-evident their true costs might be, the EPA instead sought out to tag the out of pocket expenses saved by Americans in cutting pollution associated with carbon, like Particulate Matter and smog. Most of the $55 to $93 billion in economic gains cited by the EPA last week came from these co-benefits, rather than from added spending and jobs in renewable energy or preventing massive crop failures. Otherwise, the new rules might not have been "worth it" from a regulatory point of view. The administration projects the new rules will cause the loss of between 79,900 and 80,400 full-time equivalent jobs in power generation versus 111,800 full-time equivalent jobs in renewable or energy efficiency work, basically a wash.

Want to know the price of an asthma attack? $58. Multiply that by 140,000 to 150,000 across the country and you have the approximately $9 million saved over the next 15 years by reducing soot and smog – a side effect of reducing carbon pollution under the rules.

Non-fatal heart attacks cost an average of $98,000 in health care costs and lost earning power among under-25-year-olds versus an average of  $200,000 among 55- to 64-year-olds, because this later demographic is supposedly reaching its peak earning power. Preventing a six-day bronchitis episode is valued at $430.

By far the largest single health impact from the carbon rules seems to come from the forecasted reduction in deaths associated with PM pollution, quickly becoming the most insidious and widespread air pollution threat in the world, and smog. EPA economists estimated savings of between $27.3 billion and $66.7 billion from lower levels of PM 2.5 (fine particles smaller than 2.5 microns in size) and Nitrogen Oxide by preventing  2,700 and 6,600 early deaths.

Most of these numbers come from anticipated cleaner or closed coal plants. It's not unusual for EPA to do accounting this way for the rules it's proposing, although it's the first time it's used it to justify carbon pollution regs.

Will these kinds of arguments win over the skeptics? Doubtful, but that's not who they're aimed at. Instead the administration is using these numbers as talking points to the media and the public in hopes of creating momentum the skeptics can't reverse or rationalize. After all, it's hard for even Rick Perry to call out your child's asthma attacks as unimportant or inconsequential.

Big Green Discovers It Needs More Than A DC Office to Win

K-streetIn 2010, there was a very large and coordinated push by the nation's largest environmental groups and President Obama to get climate change  legislation through Congress. Even with a "Democratically-controlled Congress" it failed.

Four years later, the president has ditched Congress and is resorting to his executive authority under the Clean Air Act to initiate a cap and trade system for CO2 that reportedly will demand a 30% drop in emissions from 2005 levels from the country's existing power plants. There are lots of potential land mines in this approach – if it can survive the gauntlet of legal challenges form industry. And if it does?

"It's going to be like eating spaghetti with a spoon. It can be done, but it's going to be messy and slow," said Michael Gerrard, director of the Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University.

As for Big Green, it's discovered that DC lobbyists and think tank policy analysts do not a movement make. Prompted by their own failure, a soul-searching New Yorker article in 2013 questioning the wisdom of a corporate-like top down approach, as well as new groups that were filling the vacuum of leadership – like the more radical and highly decentralized Keystone campaigns, a change in perspective begin to occur.

“The national environmental groups said, ‘We need to do more in-your-face activism,’ ” said Gene Karpinski, the president of the League of Conservation Voters. “You can’t just lobby members of Congress with a poll that says people support you.”

As a result the big groups have re-tooled to catch-up. They're now sponsoring more direct actions, including divestment campaigns at universities, and public protests, as well as spending big bucks in targeted state elections. They're decamping from the Capitol and spreading out their resources. In doing so, they're building new organizing models for themselves, models that take cue from smaller, more dynamic, more effective grassroots groups. It's a change for the better.

Another Chapter of “Why Don’t We See This in Midlothian?”

CO2-Cement conversionCement plants are among the world's largest sources of CO2. In order to reduce their carbon footprints, either voluntarily or to comply with new environmental regulations, as well as make a buck, owners are trying out different strategies to turn their Greenhouse Gases into just plain green cash. 

As far as we can tell, the "SkyMine" pilot-project announced for San Antonio's Capital Aggregates Cement Plant is still on schedule  for operation later this year. Employing 50 people, the first-of-its-kind facility will convert the cement plant's carbon dioxide into baking soda and hydrochloric acid that's aimed at oil and gas field use.

Now comes word that a LaFarge Cement Plant in Canada is hooking up with a fuel cell company to make a slightly more progressive product from its GHGs:

"Mantra Energy Alternatives has struck a deal with Lafarge Canada to deploy an electrochemical reduction technology at Lafarge’s No. 9 Road cement plant.

“This will be the first pilot plant of its kind in the world,” said Mantra’s vice-president Patrick Dodd in a press release.

On paper, the technology would convert carbon dioxide, considered the most prolific greenhouse gas, into useful chemicals like formic acid and formate salts. The pilot plant would convert 100 kilograms per day of carbon dioxide emitted from the local cement plant into concentrated formate salts, which sell for about $1,500 per tonne.

Mantra is eying the formic acid for use in its patented fuel cells, which it bills as a significantly less expensive fuel cell with greater power density."

Granted, the manufacturing of oil and gas chemicals sounds more likely for one of the three huge Midlothian cement plants to attempt than diving into the alternative energy business, but at least it's something. The end products can change and adapt but these projects begin to put the infrastructure of a supply and demand system in place while seeing potentially large decreases in CO2 output. In 2014 America, the fastest way to get reductions in GHGs is to make it profitable to do so. These experiments pave the way for that to happen.

There's no question that the TX/ Martin-Marietta, Holcim and Ash Grove cement plants are the largest stationary sources of CO2 in North Texas, or that together, they form a huge GHG hotspot. All the old coal-fired power plants that would have challenged them have been shuddered or converted to gas.

While (forced) modernization at all three plants like the conversion from wet to dry kiln technology has brought all emission totals down, particularly CO2, the fact remains that the huge scale of operations in Midlothian means there's no other facilities that churn it out as much. And yet not one creative idea for how to reduce those huge local emissions has been announced from any of those companies. You can't just use the Texas excuse because the San Antonio experiment is happening despite no immediate government mandate, especially on existing facilities. And you might think that the first company to do so would receive some needed good PR. But nope.

This has been another chapter of "Why Don't We See This in Midlothian?"

Cuts in Methane and PM Pollution Can Slow Climate Change

In an opinion piece in The Daily Climate, Michael MacCraken, the chief scientist for the DC-based Climate Institute advocates an end-run strategy to avoid the political logjam over large CO2 cuts as a way to fight global warming. He suggests concentrating on reducing Methane and Particulate Matter pollution as a way to "appreciably slow the rate of warming over the next several decades." He cites an earlier UN study that concluded:

"…a moderately aggressive international emissions control program focused on the short-lived compounds could roughly halve the projected warming between the present and 2050. While slowing the warming through this approach might seem to also offer additional time for cutting CO2 emissions, this is not the case. Instead, these actions are more appropriately viewed as partially making up for earlier policy delays.

For the United States to do its share, aggressive limits on CO2 emissions must be complemented by aggressive limits of emissions of short-lived species. In particular, the Environmental Protection Agency will need to be more aggressive in cutting short-lived emissions, particularly of methane from the oil and gas industry, and making its voluntary methane and black carbon programs mandatory.

With climate change so far along, the question now is no longer whether impacts can be avoided, but rather how bad they will become. What we do with respect to both mitigation and adaptation will control that outcome. The longer we wait, the worse the impacts and sharper the required energy transition."

While methane gradually breaks down in the atmosphere, forming carbon dioxide, it has 100 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide for the first 20 years it’s exposed to the environment. A study by Cornell University Environmental Biology Professor Robert Howarth found between four and eight percent of the methane produced by a fracking well is leaked into the atmosphere during the well’s lifetime. For all the immediate environmental benefits of natural gas, the methods used for its extraction could create a larger greenhouse footprint than oil or coal over time.

EPA is considering a new national PM pollution standard because of its public health impacts and should use the opportunity to win deeper cuts that offer so many "co-benefits." Every reduction in soot is now doubly important. Cars, cement kilns, coal plants, and just about any industrial boiler or furnace spews out PM. They all need to be targeted as part of a larger effort to bring this kind of pollution under better control.

This impact on global warming is also one more reason why Dallas residents should be demanding that the city incorporate some kind of "off-sets" policy regarding new oil and gas air pollution as part of a new City drilling ordinance. Not only can it hep reduce smog and some of the toxins released by the drilling and processing of natural gas; it can also provide some needed help for climate change at a time when the city is just squeaking by its own greenhouse gas reduction goals.

Australian Study: Fracking Releases 3X Normal Greenhouse Gases

Scientists from Southern Cross University in Australia found levels of greenhouse gases in that country's largest fracking play that were three times normal background levels, and higher than those recorded anywhere else on the planet.

“The concentrations here are higher than any measured in gas fields anywhere else that I can think of, including in Russia,” Damien Maher, a biochemist who helped conduct the tests, told the Sydney Morning Herald."

Air contaminants being monitored included methane ad carbon dioxide.

"Some scientists surmise that the excess levels are due to seepage of the gas through displaced soil and aquifers that carry “fugitive” emissions released by fracking a mile or more below ground. Carbon cycle expert Peter Rayner of the University of Melbourne told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. that the elevated gas levels were probably due to “emissions that escape from the intended process of production.”

Not surprisingly, there are health complaints form residents living in and near the wells in the play.

"Helen Redmond, a physician with the New South Wales chapter of Doctors for the Environment, cited rising complaints of rashes, nausea, headaches and nose bleeds among people living close to the Tara gas fields.”Hydrocarbon exposure cannot be ruled out as a cause without much more comprehensive investigation,” she told the Sydney newspaper…."

Back here in DFW, Dallas is still stalling on writing a new gas drilling ordinance that citizens want to prompt the nation's first local policy of off-setting greenhouse gas pollution. And many observers believe DFW just failed its second clean air plan in five years because of the impact of rising gas industry pollution.

Gas Industry Cites Decreasing CO2, Forgets About Increasing Methane

Maybe you've seen the headlines over the last couple of days. US Carbon Dioxide (CO2) emissions reached an historical 20 year low in the first quarter of 2012. The Federal Energy Administration attributed this decline to three factors: a mild winter, less travel, and gas-powered utility plants replacing coal-fired ones. Whereas coal was producing about 50% of America's electricity in 2005, it's only contributing 34% now, with most of that slack now being taken up by gas-generated electricity.

Gas industry representatives were quick to take credit for the reduction and use it has proof of how climate-friendly natural gas is. But they forgot something important when they did that. They didn't weigh the increase in methane releases caused by gas mining against the decrease in CO2 pollution. Methane doesn't have the lifespan of CO2 in the atmosphere, but pound per pound in the short-term, it's 25 times more potent in its climate change impact. According to climate scientist Michael Mann of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University, “We may be reducing our CO2 emissions, but it is possible that we’re actually increasing the greenhouse gas problem with methane emissions.”