Friday, March 05, 2004

America's new coal rush.

Natural gas, only recently seen as the clean-cheap alternative for energy generation, is quietly being replaced by a return to coal fired power plants as natural gas production stagnates and prices rise.

At least 94 coal-fired electric power plants - which would add 62 gigawatts or another 20 percent to the US's current coal-generating capacity - are now planned across 36 states. Environmental concerns are being replace by economic concerns as the realization sinks in that gas and oil production may be nearing their peak.

Dan Becker, director of global warming and energy program at the Sierra Club, professes; "I certainly wasn't aware it was 62 gigawatts. That's an awful lot more coal to Burn. I think most Americans would be shocked that utilities are dragging the 19th century into the 21st century." The burning of coal already produces more airborne mercury and greenhouse gases than any other single source.

Because of these risks, the industry has taken a stealth approach to planning new plants.

Some critics say coal's comeback is stealthy because most new plants are still in private planning, and the public permitting process hasn't started for most.

Gerald Heinrich first heard about the new coal-fired power plant proposed for Elwood, Ill., when Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich unveiled plans for the plant last April. The 495-foot smokestacks would be just eight miles from his home and immediately next to the first federally designated tall-grass prairie preserve.

"It was a total shock to everyone," he says. "It was done in a way to keep it secret, to make sure it was a done deal when it became public." ...

Elwood is one of the few places in the nation where private planning has reached the public stage. Residents of this quiet, semirural community of about 1,000 people knew a plant was planned - but were told repeatedly it was for a gas-fired turbine generator, not a coal-burning power plant, Mr. Heinrich says.

The secretive return to coal generated power, along with the administration's new emphasis on nuclear power, point to the critical choices that must be realisticly faced as peak oil and gas production approach. We will have to choose between more pollution, less energy use, or a crash program to develop renewable energy sources.

Clearly a combination of conservation and renewable energy is the right approach to take, but it seems as though the Bush administration intends push for more dirty energy and a relaxation of pollution standards. As for the Democrats, only Dennis Kucinch has pushed a comprehensive alternative energy program. It's not clear whether the majority of Democrats have yet awoken to the seriousness of the energy problem.


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