Saturday, July 15, 2006

Unnatural Wonders

Probably wondering if I actually believe most religious folk believe my sarcastic statements about them trashing the earth without remorse, it is sarcasm mentioned only to cause an effect similar to thought even if from anger. Here is an example of like efforts from the religious community which I applaud as wonderful work indeed!

News: Off the beaten path in coal country

July/August 2006 Issue

The Reverend John Rausch looked past a large sign that warned “No Unauthorized Entry Past This Point” and at the approaching pickup truck whose burly, hard-hat-wearing occupants seemed to be staring in his direction. “I wonder if they’re coal company security,” he said, a bit uneasily. The truck passed, and Rausch went back to surveying the barren, gouged-out plateau that had once been a tree-lined mountaintop. “It’s really something, isn’t it?” he asked the four photo-snapping sightseers tagging along on his “Mountaintop Removal Tour,” a whirlwind two-day excursion to take in the ravages of coal mining in the hollows of southeastern Kentucky. “It’s even more disturbing to realize that when you flip a switch and waste electricity, you may be contributing to taking down a mountain.”

The lanky, bearded, 61-year-old director of the Catholic Committee of Appalachia eschews clerical black in favor of Levi’s and sweaters. His lack of a mountain twang betrays his Philadelphia roots, but except for brief stints in Bangladesh, Sierra Leone, and South Africa, he’s spent most of his career in Appalachia as an environmental activist. In these parts, Rausch’s crusade against the coal industry isn’t always met with enthusiasm: He was once asked not to return to a local parish after he gave a guest sermon that irked a coal company executive in the congregation.

So in his current calling as a tour guide, Rausch hopes to lure well-meaning outsiders to see what happens when you blow up the tops of mountains to get at the coal inside. The concept of turning environmental devastation into tourism isn’t unique—Gray Line now offers a $35 “Hurricane Katrina: America’s Greatest Catastrophe” tour of New Orleans. But Rausch’s aim isn’t to indulge lurid curiosity. “The whole idea is to make people angry about what they see,” he explained. “That way, maybe they’ll go out and do something.” Everyone on his tour gets a pamphlet that he’s written on “care of creation,” a theological argument that includes quotes from Pope John Paul II on the sacred obligation to protect the environment. “It’s a part of the church’s teachings that’s often overlooked,” Rausch said. (A growing number of Protestant evangelicals have also embraced this concept, including several hundred ministers and professors who signed the Evangelical Declaration on the Care of Creation, which condemned environmental destruction as a form of sinfulness.)

As clouds of dust from mining sites swirled in the distance, Rausch assembled his latest tour group in the Wal-Mart parking lot in the small mining town of Hazard. “It’s the most convenient location for us to meet, but I tell everybody they’re absolutely forbidden to buy anything,” Rausch quipped. (Proponents of mountaintop removal have argued that it provides more flat land for building box stores.) The group included a social worker from North Carolina and a pair of Congregational ministers from Louisville, each of whom had donated $100 to spend the next 27 hours being shocked and awed.

After a lunch of vegetable soup and homemade banana cream pudding in the rectory of Our Mother of Good Counsel Church, everyone headed off for a high-speed drive down battered country roads. As a succession of 60-ton coal trucks passed by, Jeff Combs, a 25-year-old Eastern Kentucky University student, gave a quick lecture on the history of coal mining in Appalachia. The group stopped to snap photos of the rusting remains of an abandoned coal-washing plant while Combs, whose family has lived in the area since the 19th century, explained that his ancestors once owned this land. “My great-grandfather is buried out there, past the slurry pond,” he said.

The tour group spent the night at a monastery, then headed back into the hollows to meet locals whose homes had been damaged by mining company blasting. “My husband thought it was an earthquake, it was so bad,” explained a woman in her 60s, who added that her driveway and even the seals on her windows had been cracked by the explosions: “They shake your whole body! Turned my well water the color of tomato soup, too.” A Baptist minister recounted how his community had been flooded five times in an 18-month period, and how continuous exposure to dust from coal trucks had permanently damaged his health. “I only have 40 percent lung capacity now,” he said. “Every time I go to a doctor, he wants to know how close I am to the mining road. It’s three feet from my house.”

The last stop was Hazard’s small airport—built on a mountaintop removal site—where everyone took turns squeezing into a prop plane for an aerial tour of nearby mining sites. The sprawling expanse of rust-colored scars is precisely the sort of jaw-dropping sight that Rausch hopes will motivate visitors to think beyond coal. “Why not turn southeastern Kentucky into a center for developing alternative energy?” he asked. “That’d provide some of the economic opportunities that people here need.”

Rausch isn’t the only one who sees environmental tourism as a possible cure for Appalachia’s troubles; Kentucky governor Ernie Fletcher has proposed spending $3 million on wildlife viewing stations to lure nature lovers to coal country’s denuded mountaintops. Rausch is skeptical. But as he led his band of anti-ecotourists around another flattened peak virtually devoid of vegetation, he made a surprising discovery. “Elk turds!” he exclaimed. “Who says we don’t have economic development here?”

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Return Of Nazi Oil
Frank O'Donnell
July 19, 2006
Frank O'Donnell is president of Clean Air Watch, a 501(c)3 nonpartisan, nonprofit organization aimed at educating the public about clean air and the need for an effective Clean Air Act.

Once upon a time, Hitler’s Nazis found themselves in a jam: how to fight a world war with meager oil reserves— especially after the debacle of the Russian Front and the loss of those former Soviet oil fields? The answer was to convert German coal into liquid fuel for the Luftwaffe and those Panzer tanks. (No, this plot line is not courtesy of Mel Brooks. In fact, General George Patton siphoned off some of this fuel from captured German vehicles and used it to race towards Germany in 1944.)

This expensive coal-to-liquid process was later used by South Africa to meet its energy needs during its isolation under apartheid.

And now what some people refer to as “Nazi fuel” is back—thanks in part to high oil prices and lobbying by groups that stand to profit its use in the United States. Former Republican congressman Bob Livingston was paid was paid more than $200,000 last year to lobby for federal loan guarantees for the North American branch of the South Africa-based Sasol corporation, which is trying to peddle this process.

Using this coal-to-liquid fuel is also an integral recommendation of a new report by the Southern States Energy Board , a collection of governors, state lawmakers and big polluters. They are trying to argue that their parochial interests—including promoting more coal mining—are synonymous with the national interest on energy issues.

But the fact is their interests are not the same as the American public’s interests—which is anxious for sustainable solutions to our dependence on oil.

In its relatively uncritical coverage, The New York Times described the SSEB report as “a crash program to meet fuel needs without imports… a strategy [that] could create more than one million new jobs, reduce the trade deficit by more than $600 billion, and end oil price shocks that hurt the economy.”

Whoa. Sounds good, but policymakers ought to be wary of being seduced by such hyperbole about groups like SSEB.

It’s not that everything the energy board has recommended is bad. In fact, some of their ideas—such as using more biomass and pumping carbon dioxide deep into oil fields to squeeze out more oil—do have merit.

But frankly it would make better public policy if Congress paid less attention to such self-interested private Ggroups like SSEB. The energy board’s “associate members” include a rogue’s gallery of some of the nation’s most odious polluters including American Electric Power, the Southern Company, and the TXU Corporation. Instead, lawmakers should listen to independent groups like NRDC and 20/20 Vision that are looking not just to reduce our dependence on foreign oil, but the bigger problem of our addiction to oil altogether.

For example, the energy board report left out perhaps the most effective way to cut down on oil use—better fuel economy standards. Then again, that wouldn’t bring in any cash for American Electric Power and the other heavy hitters.

These choices do matter, because going down the wrong path opens the door for unintended consequences.

For example, as my friends at NRDC have pointed out, unless the resulting carbon dioxide is stored underground, coal-based synthetic fuels can produce about double the greenhouse gas emissions of normal gasoline because it takes so much energy to convert the coal. (Pennsylvania is struggling to get one coal-to-liquid project off the ground. This one might have some merit—if they can capture and store the carbon—because it would eliminate some coal wastes that pollute the state’s waters.)

Or consider another recommendation of the energy board: to try extracting more oil from shale in such states as Wyoming, Colorado and Utah.

Some of us are old enough to remember the hype over the very same idea when Jimmy Carter was president, and we were concerned about unrest in the Middle East. In fact, Congress in that era created a Synthetic Fuels Corporation, backed by $20 billion in subsidies, aimed at squeezing oil from the shale. It’s generally been remembered as a classic boondoggle.

Repeating this boondoggle would, of course, be lucrative to some of the corporate members of the Southern States Energy Board, which are neither Southern nor states. But the Rand Corporation recently assessed some of the environmental impacts, which included more air pollution, more greenhouse gas emissions, disturbed land and threats to water quality.

Just another reason to avoid the déjà vu, and look for real solutions to our excessive and wasteful use of energy.

Wed Jul 19, 03:50:00 PM EDT  

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