Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Coal vs. Nuclear - Environmental Ironies

Seed Magazine recently posted a discussion on the viability and drawbacks of nuclear and coal power. Some contributors argued that nuclear is the best option, some that we should pursue "clean coal" (is that an oxymoron?), and still others that we should only seriously consider other renewable energy sources while looking for ways to increase energy efficiency.

While I found the discussion interesting, it reminded me of the two biggest environmental policy ironies of the past forty years.

1) Around the time of the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl incidents, environmentalists began arguing that nuclear power was unsafe and should therefore be regulated. Partially because of environmentalists' opposition to nuclear power, a new U.S. nuclear power plant hasn't gone online since 1996. The effect of stringent nuclear power regulations, of course, has been that the U.S. has increasingly relied on coal power plants. Thus, environmentalists urged policies that led to higher greenhouse gas emissions. Ironically, now that they recognize the problem of global warming, many are clamoring for a return to nuclear power.

2) The second irony is a result of the Clean Air Act. The Clean Air Act was seen as a landmark environmental regulation when it first passed. Many coal companies accepted the Clean Air Act because they felt that the E.P.A.'s regulation of coal power would be less stringent than the regulations proposed by many state legislatures. To further encourage coal lobbies to accept the Clean Air Act, Congress grandfathered in the contemporaneous coal power plants, offering lower standards than those faced by newer plants. The thought was that the older power plants would be soon abandoned. The end result, however, was unintended.

The grandfather clause gave the old coal power plants a comparative advantage relative to newer power plants. Thus fewer new plants were built, and power companies continued to rely on older plants. Older power plants, of course, are much more pollution intensive. In the end, the Clean Air Act may have actually slowed natural declines in coal-related pollution that would have occurred if new plants were comparatively disadvantaged. (Although, as I pointed out in another post, part of the increase in average life expectancy is attributable to less air pollution.)Environmentalists' support for the Clean Air Act may have led to higher current levels of greenhouse gases.

Environmentalists, then, helped to worsen the problem of global warming by advocating policies that eventually led to higher carbon emissions. This is one of the reasons I am wary of attempts to combat global warming through carbon sequestration (burying carbon emissions deep below the earth's surface) and increasing sulphur dioxide emissions. There could be serious, unintended side-effects.

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