Monthly Archives: April 2016

Reader’s Poll: What January’s Record NYC Snowstorm Tells Us

During the three days from January 22nd to the 24th, a mammoth blizzard paralyzed New York City with 27.5 inches of snowfall – the city’s biggest snowstorm since record-keeping began in 1869.1171676_630x354

Beloved Planet wants to know what you think about this. Please choose the answer that most closely reflects your response to this news:

  • Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe and his Congressional allies are right in dismissing climate change as “a massive hoax” perpetrated by greedy scientists getting richer and richer.
  • NASA, NOAA and the EPA are right in stating that “as temperatures rise and the air becomes warmer, more moisture evaporates  into the atmosphere. More moisture in the air means we can expect more rain and snow.”
  • Yet another example of President Obama’s feckless leadership. Thanks Obama!
  • The square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides.
  • It’s mainly Elsa’s fault, with all that stuff about “I don’t care what they’re going to say. Let the storm rage on ….”

Coal is Bankrupt: Who’s Left Holding the Bag?

The American coal industry has collapsed. This is not hyperbole.

In the last few years, at least 28 coal companies have gone bankrupt and 264 mines have closed. The suffering extends from the smallest companies to the behemoths. Those that haven’t gone bankrupt are trading at small fractions of their values of just five years ago, when the U.S. Coal Sector Index stood at $481. On Friday, the index closed below $32, a loss of more than 93 percent in value.

Peabody lost almost all its value over five years before bankruptcy

Peabody lost almost all its value over five years before filing bankruptcy

And last week, the largest US coal producer joined the march into bankruptcy court. Peabody Energy, the St. Louis-based coal giant cited “a dramatic drop in the price of metallurgical coal, weakness in the Chinese economy, overproduction of domestic shale gas and ongoing regulatory challenges,” as the reasons for its bankruptcy filing. Peabody joins Arch CoalAlpha Natural Resources, Walter Energy and Patriot Coal among American coal giants that have filed for bankruptcy in recent months.

In 2009, Peabody’s stock traded at $718 per share. Today, you can pick up a share for 73 cents – a loss of 99.9 percent. Too bad for shareholders. Looks like they’ve lost a bundle. But who else is losing? And how did this all happen?

It isn’t the “war on coal”

Did you notice Peabody’s bankruptcy statement? They blamed the drop in coal prices, weakness in the Chinese economy and too much cheap natural gas. Oh, and yes, they threw in “ongoing regulatory challenges” as a fourth culprit – but only after citing the massive structural changes affecting the coal industry. Here’s the most obvious fact: Natural gas, a cleaner substitute for coal, is very, very cheap. Back in 2008, natural gas ticked above $12 per thousand Btu’s (MMBtu). But in Chicago last week, traders bought and sold gas at $1.92 per MMBtu, a small fraction of the price seven years ago. At these prices, almost nobody is building new coal plants when they could generate electricity with gas, solar or wind.

Coal Moratorium

Bankrupt coal companies have left behind enormous reclamation and cleanup liabilities

Sure, you’ll hear candidates for Congress complaining about Obama’s climate initiatives, or EPA regulations. True enough, in the long run, everyone knows that coal will have to start paying its health and environmental costs.

But the politicians seldom mention this fact: The industry is going belly-up BEFORE any of the Administration’s regulatory actions have taken place. The EPA enacted rules a few years ago to make sure coal plants didn’t emit too much mercury pollution that poisons children; but the Supreme Court blocked the rules last year. And the hotly-debated Clean Power Plan, the centerpiece of Obama’s climate program, is also on ice, thanks again to the Supreme Court. Even if the EPA gets the green light, no state will have to submit any plans before 2018.

And yet, the coal industry has already fled en masse to the safety of bankruptcy, long before government action will force them to clean up their act.

Then what happened to these guys?

We don’t minimize the collapse of coal and gas prices worldwide, and the virtual disappearance of Chinese demand. But there’s so much more. First, virtually all the big coal miners layered on mountains of debt to finance enormous acquisitions in recent years. Alpha Natural Resources bought rival Massey Energy for $7 billion. Arch Coal bought International Coal for $3.4 billion. Peabody paid $5.1 billion for MacArthur Coal. And Walter Energy bought Western Coal for $3.3 billion. And what did they get from the feeding frenzy? Lots of coal reserves that few people really want these days. But the debts are coming due, and they simply can’t pay.

Second, the coal industry faces structural changes that have sent bankers and investors packing. The sustained glut of natural gas has encouraged utilities to build gas-fired power plants, a move that locks in the natural gas advantage over coal. In 2013, for example, natural gas represented more than 50 percent of new power generating capacity in the United States. Coal accounted for just 11 percent, putting it a distant third, behind solar (22 percent) and only slightly ahead of wind (8 percent).

Natural gas prices continue to fall, undermining coal markets

Natural gas prices continue to fall, undermining coal markets

And even though coal still has the lion’s share of overall electric generating capacity, U.S. coal-fired power plants are aging, and many are nearing the end of their useful lives. Without new plants, coal demand is destined to plummet. And there are very few new plants.

Third, these changes pale in comparison to the sea change in public thinking. Whether it’s mercury, or greenhouse gases, or sulfur oxides or acid runoff, the American public is waking up to the reality that coal pollution is too expensive for the public to bear in the name of private profits. Whether or not the Clean Power Plan or EPA mercury regulations survive in their current form, no serious observer can imagine a future in which coal plants pollute the world and jeopardize its climate systems, all for the sake of their own profits. In fact, the whole world has confirmed this reality by agreeing to the terms of the Paris Treaty, under which every country will make substantial cuts in climate-warming emissions. Coal, everywhere, will have to remain in the ground.

Uber-financier Goldman Sachs sums up these changes in a brilliant nutshell. They declared in January that it’s time to slowly ease coal out of the energy mix, with a friendly pat on the head for all the good it did for the U.S. economy. “Just as a worker celebrating their 65th birthday can settle into a more sedate lifestyle while they look back on past achievements,” the report noted, “we argue that thermal coal has reached its retirement age.”

So, who picks up the tab?

Bankruptcy is not death. Companies don’t file under Chapter 11 as some sort of final act before breathing their last. They use the courts to gain relief from their obligations to shareholders, creditors, employees, retirees and the public. They can’t afford to pay everything they owe, so the court determines who loses, and by how much. In theory, the rehabilitated companies emerge with a new lease on life. They can’t pay, so others absorb the cost.

In the case of bankrupt coal, who pays?

Well, for starters, you do. Not you alone, mind you. In West Virginia, 120,000 retired miners and their families could lose their pensions and health care – for many their only source of income. But you’re caught in the mix as well. That’s because it costs enormous amounts to clean up the toxic mess that coal mining leaves behind. You’d think that Federal and state governments would compel coal companies to reclaim their strip mines and shattered mountains as they go, but it doesn’t happen that way. In Montana, North Dakota and Wyoming, there are 450 square miles of land torn up by mining; but only 10 percent has been reclaimed.

This means that the coal companies have put off for another day the cost of reclamation. For bankrupt Peabody, the cost is estimated at $1.4 billion. For bankrupt Arch and Alpha, it’s $485 million and $640 million, respectively. And in bankruptcy, they will shed these liabilities for pennies on the dollar. These abandoned wastes cannot be left alone. They’re ugly, yes. But they’re also perpetual sources of water pollution, slowly leaking acidic and otherwise toxic wastes into streams and groundwater supplies.

Moonscapes left behind by mountaintop removal cost billions to reclaim

Moonscapes left behind by mountaintop removal coal mining cost billions to clean up

And so you will pay, as a federal and state taxpayer. For these three companies alone, your share is about $7. Another $7 for your spouse, your mom, each of your kids, your neighbors. Everyone in the country gets to chip in $7 to clean up the mess left behind by just three coal companies. Did I mention that 28 of them are in bankruptcy?

Now, you and I may think that this is scandalous. But actually, this is standard operating procedure for the coal industry. In the best of times, the U.S. coal industry leaves enormous costs for everyone else to pick up – sometimes called “external costs.” These include things like respiratory diseases, toxic mercury levels, ocean acidification, climate-altering greenhouse gas concentrations, and the effects of drought and flooding.

Until 2010, we didn’t really know the scale of these costs. That’s when the U.S. National Academy of Sciences produced a study called The Hidden Cost of Energy: Unpriced Consequences of Energy Production and Use. Its findings were shocking. Coal burned in a single year by U.S. power plants costs everyone else on the planet another $200 to 300 billion in “external costs.” That’s billions, with a “B”. And it amounts to a tax of about $30-40 levied on every human on Earth. Only for U.S. coal. Only for one single year.

So if you’re following the news, watch carefully in the year ahead as the American coal industry winds its way through bankruptcy. When it’s over, you and I will be a bit poorer. But until we summon the resolve to leave coal unburned, all of us will continue to bear enormous external costs, arising not only from coal’s nominal “failure,” but from their normal levels of success.

Isn’t it time we get to work on ways to leave it in the ground?

February Smashed Global Heat Records: But What Does That Mean?

You’ve already seen the news. February was a record month for global heat. It followed the hottest January on record. Which followed the hottest year (2015) on record. Which follow the previous hottest year (2014) on record. Etc. Etc. Etc.

So, maybe we think: A bunch of scientists are sifting through data from all over the world, and we’re supposed to be alarmed at a few more degrees of heat? Seriously, what does this mean to us? Well, let’s see if we can distill this down to a few key points.

First, these records are not flukes or outliers. Global data has been kept for 137 years. Of all the Februaries over that time, this one ranked #1, unseating last February, the former hot-weather champion.

Picture2Worse, it wasn’t just the hottest February. It was the hottest month ever, compared to 20th century averages. And the prior record had just been set only two months earlier, in December.

Worse yet, it continued a ten-month string of record-hot months. Yes, February was the hottest of all 137 Februaries. But January was also #1 for all Januaries. And they were preceded by #1 records in December, November, October, September – and all the way back to May 2015. Something like that has never happened before. Doubters will tell us “The climate always changes!” Not like this. Not always in one direction. Not in lockstep. We’re seeing something frighteningly new.

Second, did you notice the amount of warming? For all land and ocean surfaces, the earth was 1.21oC (or 2.18oF) above the 20th century averages. You may recall that the nations of the world just agreed in Paris on efforts to limit global warming this century to no more than 2.0oC, and to make every effort to keep it below 1.5oC, to spare our fellow humans from the Philippines, Bangladesh and island nations from being inundated by rising seas. Well, already, we’ve experienced a month within a whisker of breaking that 1.5oC threshold.

Worse, if we look at land surfaces alone (where most of us live) the average global temperature was 2.31°C above the 20th century average. Two-point-three degrees. That’s territory we’re not supposed to see in our lifetimes, or even our children’s. But it just happened.

Third, the heat was just about everywhere. Record heat took hold across much of South America and southern Africa, southern and eastern Europe, around the Urals of Russia, and most of Southeast Asia stretching to northern Australia. Here are some examples:

  • New Zealand had its second warmest February and second warmest month of any month since national records began in 1909, at 2.2°C above long-term averages.
  • In Venezuela and Colombia, the heat was about 3.0°C higher than average.
  • Germany ran 3.0°C above average and Austria was a whopping 4.1°C hotter than average.
  • Speaking of whopping, Alaska reported its warmest February in its 92-year period of record, at 6.9°C higher than the 20th century average. That’s not a typo. Six-point-nine degrees Celsius, or 12.4° Fahrenheit. That’s more than the difference between the last Ice Age and today’s world.

Fourth, all this heat is destabilizing the Polar regions dangerously. For starters, this winter marks the lowest sea ice coverage ever measured in the Arctic. It’s way less icy than 2012, the previous record year for summer Arctic ice melt. That means that this summer and fall there will be less ice to start with, and the seasonal warmth will have an easier time melting what remains there. Not only that, but less winter ice mean less bright, reflective snow surface, and more deep blue, heat-absorbing water to soak up the sun’s heat, which will warm the region even further.

Sea IceBut an even greater concern is now emerging in the southern Pole, with new warnings about the instability of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. About the size of Mexico, the ice sheet could raise sea levels by 12 feet or more if it becomes destabilized. Many of us took some comfort in believing that while this will occur in a warmer world, humanity and the rest of creation would probably have hundreds of years to adapt. But new research from scientists at Penn State and UMass now projects that continued greenhouse gas emissions and the resulting heat could disintegrate the West Antarctic sheet in only decades. That would mean that coastal cities like New York, Boston, Miami and New Orleans would be largely inundated during the lifetimes of children born today, with further sea-level rises of one foot per decade thereafter.

But it’s not hotter EVERYWHERE. And that’s actually alarming. There’s one spot on earth where it’s not getting warmer. It’s Iceland, and the North Atlantic Ocean. See that spot of blue on the map? In a warming world, it was cooler there all last year, and in each of several years before that. That region has always been warmed by tropical ocean currents (called thermohaline, or the Gulf Stream) carrying equatorial waters northward along the US East Coast to Iceland, before they dive to the ocean depths and return southward. Scientists have long believed that fresh meltwater from Greenland could slow down the Gulf Stream, trapping hot water off the US coast, and chilling the northern seas.Picture1

So what’s the big deal? A little warmer here, and little cooler there? Actually, it’s a very big deal. Warm coastal waters off the American East Coast are what gave us Super-Storm Sandy, but that storm happened when the oceans were cooler than they are today. And warm Icelandic waters have given Northern Europe the benign climate it has enjoyed for millennia. Tinker with the Greenland Ice Sheet too much, and we’ve got something much worse than a few more feet of sea-water on our hands.

Final thoughts from a Christian thinker: So before we hand these climatic records off to the statisticians for filing, maybe we could take a minute to consider where we stand in history. Two centuries after the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, we’ve pumped eons’ worth of carbon – long hidden deep within the earth – back into the atmosphere. As a result, we’re seeing the early results of our planetary carbon experiment: a consistent record of global warming; heat growing at an ever-faster pace; not just here and there, but spread all over the map; and destabilizing the Polar ice sheets, which are raising sea levels and threatening coastal communities. And we’re even seeing signs of disruption in planet-regulating systems like the Gulf Stream.

“Where is God in all this?” asks Christian author Rev. Edward Brown, in his landmark book, Our Father’s World. “God would not allow us to destroy his creation, would he?”

Well, yes he might, concludes Brown, noting that within his sovereignty, God allows us humans a shocking amount of latitude in what we do with our lives – including what we do with his creation. “If we choose to destroy our home,” says Brown, “God will not stop us. Unless, that is, God were to step into history the way he usually does, through human beings who have aligned their lives with him and who are committed to accomplishing his purposes in their own small histories.”

Brown reminds us of God’s answer to Israelite prayers from the misery of slavery in Egypt: “I have heard them crying out…. So I have come down to rescue them” (Exodus 3:7-8).

Phew! So maybe God will rescue our injured planet, just like he did in Exodus! But Brown demands that we read on: “So now, go” he tells Moses, “I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”

Go? Who, me? How? What can I do? “I will be with you,” says God to Moses, words taken up again by the resurrected Christ more than a thousand years later: “Go…. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).

Do you think maybe it’s time for God’s people to hear that call once again?