Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Coal: Kentucky's Renewable Energy

Whenever anybody says "tax incentives for renewable energy," check your wallet.

The energy bill passed this afternoon by the Kentucky House of Representatives reminds me of that trick soap that leaves your hands dirtier than when you picked it up.

It is, not to put too fine a point on it, a billion-dollar blow job on the coal industry.

The press release calls it "A comprehensive energy bill that would create tax incentives for the construction of alternative fuel and renewable energy plants in Kentucky and provide millions of dollars for energy research and development ..."

Well, not really. What it actually does is hand over to Big Coal 50 percent of the construction cost of any energy plant that uses coal ("alternative fuel" being left undefined). Such plants cost a minimum of $100 million to build, and usually closer to a quarter billion. Figure $100 million in cash rebates for each plant, times an infinite number of plants (the bill has no limits, and is such a free-whorehouse giveaway it'll spark a coal-rush to Kentucky), and you're lookin' at a budget buster that'll turn the entire state in a giant pig pen of slave labor for the coal companies.

According to the Lexington Herald, it’s even worse than the 50 percent construction rebate. “Qualifying companies could recover as much as 100 percent of the sales, use, income and corporate tax on a project and as much as 80 percent of the coal-severance tax paid on coal used by approved alternative fuel or gasification facilities.”

Now you’re looking at billions of dollars Kentucky simply does not have, and for what? A handful of jobs that will never earn back the bribe paid to the employer? More sliced-off mountains, more poisoned rivers, more forests and prime farmland turned into moonscapes? More enslaved, impoverished communities, more destroyed roads, more dead miners?

Kentucky Progress calls it the Coal Company Crazy Check Act of 2007.

In the first place, any process that uses coal in any way, shape or form is not, repeat NOT, renewable. Renewable applies to things that keep coming back even after you use them. Fast-growing plants, wind, sun, geothermal. Not oil. Not natural gas. Not coal.

In the second place, so-called "clean coal" - synfuels, gasification, liquefaction, mumbledy-mumble-abracadabra-cation - is a myth. Like cold fusion, only less plausible. Coal companies have been fucking around with supposed technologies for literally decades and nothing has ever come of it.

You think wind and solar power are pie-in-the-sky fantasies that will never work economically? Since the 1970s, solar and wind power technologies - with virtually no help from the federal government - have slowly but steadily improved efficiency and lowered cost to the point that in many parts of the country they are competitive with fossil-fuel generation.

Over a much longer period, Big Coal has wasted hundreds of billions of tax dollars in federal government subsidies turning "clean coal" from a powerful fantasy into ... a highly destructive boondoggle.

Jim Waters, director of policy and communications for the Bluegrass Institute, Kentucky’s free-market think tank, offers an eye-opening short history of the industry's "clean coal" scam. Highlights:

...Frankfort adults who still believe in fairy tales should consider this: Several attempts to create the kind of coal-liquification technology that would provide viable substitutes to oil have become fuel for past taxpayer nightmares instead.

In the 1940s, Congress appropriated millions of dollars to enact the “Synthetic Liquid Fuels Act.” In 1948, the New York Times declared it would result in energy – produced from coal, air, and water – in quantities sufficient enough to “free us from dependence on foreign sources of oil.”

By 1952, these federal coal-to-liquid demonstration plants shut down.

In 1960, Congress (code: taxpayers) paid for construction of six synthetic fuels demonstration plants, including one in Cresap, W. Va. Proponents promised gasoline at 11 cents per gallon.

Didn’t happen. In fact, the Cresap economic disaster called “Project Gasoline,” went in the tank in 1970.

The most well-known energy-liquification effort occurred in the 1970s when an oil embargo threatened America’s economy. Many of us maintain unforgettable images of long lines at gasoline pumps.

In one of many demonstrations of ineptness, President Jimmy Carter signed the 1980 Energy Security Act, authorizing money for the Synthetic Fuels Corporation (SFC) and charging it to produce a half-million barrels of oil per day by 1987. President Gerald Ford previously promised 1 million barrels of oil a day from coal by 1985.

Instead, the SFC shut down in 1985. Not a single coal-to-oil plant produced anything – except the loss of hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars.

He goes on to make the obvious point that if "clean coal" was so easy and fabulous, the free market would be investing in it, as the free market has done for real renewable energy - wind, solar, geothermal.

"Clean coal" needs government subsidies because no money manager with an ounce of sense would invest a dime in it.

But in Kentucky, Coal Is God. Not even University of Kentucky basketball, the State Religion, gets as much worship as coal.

No one in Kentucky is surprised at the way Democratic congress critters cringe and cower and show their asses in submission at the maladministration's mere whisper of terrorism.

We've watched Democratic legislators perform precisely the same way when any governor so much as mentions coal.

Not that Ernie’s any better

“I am glad that the House is working with us to make Kentucky a leader in energy,” said Governor Fletcher. “As we have said from the start, this legislation isn’t just important for a single company – it is important for the future of Kentucky. This legislation is a continuation of the energy strategy my administration initiated three years ago. I look forward to the passage of House Bill 1.”

Energy strategy? The closest thing Ernie has to an energy strategy is his practice of climbing into a state-owned gas-guzzler every morning for the 500-foot commute from the Governor's Mansion to the Capitol Building. No, wait, that's his Get Healthy Kentucky initiative.

What's that you say? What about "renewable energy?" Sorry, it's so easy to miss. The incentives in House Bill 1 for actual, reality-based, affordable, environment-protecting, child-friendly renewable energy are a grand total of ...

wait for it ...

One million dollars.

Peabody Coal probably spent more than that on booze and hookers for the General Assembly.

Postscript: Keep in mind, too, that this bill was passed by the Democratic House. The version that emerges from the Republican-controlled Senate is likely to be stripped of even the weak-ass renewable energy provisions House Democrats wrote.