Like her formal name Cassandra, Hurricane Sandy brought to American consciousness what science has been yelling at us for years: climate change is real, it's happening now, and it's likely worse than models predict. The global economy fiddles away $500 billion each year - the cost of inaction on climate. The dirty hippies at Pricewaterhouse Cooper warn that the previous goal of two degrees Celsius is virtually unattainable (pdf). Yet consensus for climate action in the United States in President Obama's second term seems limited to Environmental Protection Agency actions nibbling around the edges of what power plants can burn.
There's a better solution: keep the coal in the ground.
It's time for a moratorium on Powder River Basin coal.
The Powder River Basin in eastern Wyoming supplies coal to the Midwest and, if the coal barons have their way, the Far East. The American coal market is declining, which Bob Murray blames on President Obama but those in the reality-based community attribute, mostly, to cheap natural gas. Thus, the coal barons are eyeing Asian markets through Washington and Oregon, but encountering stiff resistance from Pacific Northwest folk concerned about everything from longer waits at traffic signals to gigatons of carbon changing our climate.
Meanwhile, Powder River Basin coal, much of which is located on federal land, is auctioned by the Bureau of Land Management for obscenely low prices - Peabody Coal recently won the right to mine for $1.11/ton what is sold in China for $97 - $123/ton. The gap between what taxpayers receive and what Peabody sells means that United States taxpayers subsidize Chinese demand.
The current vogue in Washington speculation is for a carbon tax despite the minor detail of a lack of support from both the House and the White House. But will a $20/ton tax on carbon solve global warming? The Breakthrough Institute warns that carbon pricing will encourage natural gas more than renewables. We need to keep it in the ground.
Last night, I attended Bill McKibben's Do The Math lecture at UCLA, in which he showed how the fossil fuel companies enable our addiction: the drunk knows that one beer is the safe limit, but the barkeeper keeps putting a dizzying array of products on the countertop. His math is pretty simple: to keep the world on pace to warm no more than two degrees Celsius, we need to keep 80% of the world's fossil fuels in the ground.
Today, the wild eyed fanatics at the International Energy Agency backed up McKibben in the World Energy Outlook:
No more than one-third of proven reserves of fossil fuels can be consumed prior to 2050 if the world is to achieve the 2 °C goal, unless carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology is widely deployed. This finding is based on our assessment of global “carbon reserves”, measured as the potential CO2 emissions from proven fossil-fuel reserves. Almost two-thirds of these carbon reserves are related to coal, 22% to oil and 15% to gas. Geographically, two-thirds are held by North America, the Middle East, China and Russia.As with the Keystone XL pipeline battle, a Powder River Basin moratorium can be accomplished by executive order, without any need for Congressional action. There's precedent - in 2009, the Obama administration suspended 77 Bush-era oil/gas leases in Utah, and last week drastically scaled back public lands available for oil shale leasing. The land can be studied for a Strategic Coal Reserve. A moratorium needn't be forever - just long enough to calculate the true costs to the American taxpayer of mining and burning all that carbon, and pricing it accordingly.
A $20/ton tax won't deter the enemy of the human race. We need a plan to keep the coal in the ground. Start with the Powder River Basin, President Obama.