Why Are Some Environmental Groups Caving to Industry?
As someone who once sunk a shrimp boat as an act of civil disobedience, Diane Wilson was disappointed when two big environmental groups opted for a less-than risky alternative to blocking a new coal-burning power plant that's poised to blaze in her community of Calhoun County, Texas.
If she had the time and resources, Wilson, a fourth generation fisherman and leader of the lonely environmental group Calhoun County Resource Watch, says she would have tried to "stop [the plant] dead in its tracks."
Instead, the Sustainable Energy and Economic Development (SEED) Coalition in Texas and the national watchdog organization Public Citizen ended their opposition to the plant this month. The groups agreed to drop their permit challenge of the 303-megawatt coal plant in exchange for NuCoastal Power Corporation's commitment to offset 100 percent of its mercury and carbon dioxide emissions. The proposed plant, which will burn petroleum coke, will be located in Point Comfort, Texas.
Although Wilson is frustrated, she told me she had "no hard feelings" toward the environmental groups, saying only theirs was a "different strategy."
But Wilson is being generous. It seems like our increasingly dull-toothed environmental organizations are suffering from another case of capitulation.
The massive plan for coal plant expansion in the United States just as climate change barrels forth with ferocity is as ridiculous and dangerous as a triple-bypass patient eating another Whopper. Equally treacherous is the doctor who orders the burger, or in this case, the environmental groups who give a nod to the coal plant.
Texas is not a painless place to rein in polluting industries, and battles fought in court can be insanely expensive, with victories far from guaranteed. I'm not suggesting that stopping mighty coal is another easy day in the office. But giving coal the green light should never be done, even on the hardest terrain. No new coal means no new coal, regardless of the corporations' concessions.
In this case, the concessions seem grand. NuCoastal has agreed to offset 100 percent of its mercury reductions by reducing emissions by 80 percent and purchasing mercury emissions credits. The corporation has also promised to offset 100 percent of its carbon dioxide emissions through a variety of credible-sounding avenues: funding energy efficiency programs, shutting down a comparable source of emissions, building wind turbines, or investing in carbon sequestration equipment.
"I've been told that this is a good thing," Wilson says.
But good things don't always come in suavely wrapped packages. "Offsets" and "emissions credits" are just pretty terms for a dirty reality: NuCoastal's coal plant will still be polluting, and the people of Calhoun County will still be suffering. It looks like Calhoun County's Lavaca Bay has been greenwashed.
Kevin Smith, a researcher for UK's Carbon Trade Watch, says, "The fact is, with the magnitude of the threat of climate change, you can't be doing one kind of climate-friendly project in order to justify fossil fuel emissions elsewhere."
Seems like that's straight out of chapter one of an environmentalist's primer. So why are so many groups using a strategy written by corporate polluters? I realize that environmentalists, often backed into a corner, have few cards to play. But when will compromises like offsets get tossed out of the deck?
Brianna Cayo Cotter, communications manager of the Rainforest Action Network, is as strict as a schoolmarm when it comes to coal. She told me in an email, "There should absolutely be an immediate and binding moratorium on coal expansion. Even one coal plant is too many and if the proposed 150 coal-plant-expansion plan (which is just for the U.S.) were to become actualized, we would be in a point of no return climate wise. The greenhouse gas emissions would be staggering at a moment where everyone is saying our only chance at this point is huge emissions reductions. There cannot be anymore coal development."
Besides allowing polluters to wriggle off the hook with ease, offsets are harmful because they send a message that the community housing the coal plant isn't worth much. It's all well and good that NuCoastal may curtail emissions elsewhere, or trade mercury emissions credits, but that does nothing to safeguard the community where the actual power plant belches out toxins.
Of course, Calhoun County's currency depreciates even further given that over 16 percent of the population lives below the poverty line and 40 percent of residents are of Latino origin, according to the 2000 Census, and that the County is already the site of a Superfund.
The SEED Coalition has admitted the dangers of this power plant. On their website, the Coalition predicts ominous results, saying that "emissions from this plant would risk human health and adversely impact fish and wildlife" and that "there would be risks of spills in the bay." The group also says, "Burning Pet Coke is still experimental."
Not much changes just because NuCoastal is offsetting emissions. Perhaps a few of these risks are minimized, but the effects of mercury and carbon dioxide are still present, even if there's less of it.
In a press release earlier this month, Karen Hadden, executive director of the SEED Coalition, said, "Exposure to mercury, a toxic heavy metal, can lead to neurological damage, and children are especially at risk. NuCoastal deserves credit for reducing its mercury emissions significantly."
Credit for "reducing" emissions of a toxin that harms children's brain function, while still releasing it into the air? We might as well applaud the Bush administration for deploying smart bombs that supposedly "reduce" the number of civilians killed in air strikes.
And it's the applause that's disconcerting. Rather than admitting defeat--because a new coal plant, no matter the scrubber, is a loss--Public Citizen and the SEED Coalition's language about the agreement sounds as if it was some sort of gain for the environmental movement.
The chipper press release from the groups announcing the NuCoastal agreement says, "Environmentalists applaud offsets of carbon dioxide and mercury emissions," and that the agreement is "precedent-setting."
This press release might as well have been written by Tony Snow for the way it obfuscates the truth about the situation. We need honesty from our leading environmental groups if we really plan to go toe-to-toe with Big Coal, not some letter from camp telling Mom everything's fine despite a daily beating from a bully.
If we are to make any real effort at minimizing climate change, the default, mainstream approach from environmentalists has to be keeping fossil fuels in the ground, not burning them with an asterisk. But as long as our leading environmental groups continue touting offsets and emissions reductions like they're viable solutions to our predicament, we'll never move to a truly sustainable way of living.
In the same press release, Hadden said, "I don't know of any other utility that has made this mercury commitment, and hopefully others will follow NuCoastal's lead."
Actually, let's hope not.