Category Archives: Energy

Cheery Energy Ads? Look Out!

I force myself to listen. Believe me, it’s not easy. The mute button is right there, and I could spare myself the indignity. And yet I grit my teeth, and listen to the peppy music, watch the smiling faces, and follow the actors portraying happy American energy workers telling us how good it all is.

Of course, we’re talking about those oil, gas and coal ads that permeate the news-hour airwaves. First, it was the “Clean Coal” people touting a carbon-capture technology (that actually didn’t exist at operational scale). Then it was ExxonMobil telling us how clean their Canadian tar sands operations were (I’ve been there, and the scale of pollution is terrifying). Next came the natural gas people telling us how smart and safe it is for America to inject toxic chemicals below our aquifers in the current fracking boom. And permeating them all, that lovely promise of jobs, jobs and more jobs.

And finally, there is BP.

BP, those wonderful people who brought us the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. They’re still not finished blanketing the airwaves with those “Look! All better!” ads. “Today the beaches and Gulf are open for business,” says the narrator, “and many areas are reporting the best tourism season in years!”

Maybe we’ll forget that in May 2010, BP fouled much of the immense Gulf of Mexico, in the worst oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry. BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling rig blew up, killing eleven workers and opening a deep-water oil gusher that flowed unabated for 87 days. An estimated 219 million gallons of oil escaped into the Gulf waters, followed by 1.84 million gallons of chemical dispersants which may have been even more damaging. Crude oil from the blowout has been found as far away as Tampa Bay.

In the wake of the disaster, BP pled guilty to criminal charges, and to two felony counts of lying to Congress. The company was fined a record-setting $4.52 billion in fines. And the company was forced to set aside a total of $42.2 billion for cleanup and damages to people and businesses.

But you’d never know it from the ad campaign, would you? “Two years ago, the people of BP made a commitment to the Gulf, and every day since we’ve worked hard to keep that,” says one ad. “I want you to know that there’s another commitment that BP takes just as seriously – our commitment to America.”

It all sounded so nice.

But the U.S. District judge presiding over a suit under the Clean Water Act apparently wasn’t swayed by the ads. Yesterday, Judge Carl J. Barbier found BP guilty of gross negligence and willful misconduct in the blowout, exposing BP to as much as $18 billion more in civil penalties on behalf of victims. In a 153-page decision, Judge Barbier recounted “a chain of failures” – including skimping on safety tests and dishonest analysis of results – resulting in the explosion and spill.

There is still much that remains unknown about the effects of BP’s actions in the Gulf. Some cite evidence that the well is still leaking. Others point to mortality of baby dolphins, which increased by a factor of ten after the spill. Oil-related carcinogens in the Gulf have increased by a factor of 40, with unknown impacts on humans and marine life. Deep coral reefs have suffered significant damage, with largely unknown impacts on ocean ecosystems. Many of us have been to the Mississippi Delta to witness first-hand the damage to local fishing communities. It may be many years before we really know the true cost of the BP Gulf spill.

But one thing that we can know beyond doubt it this: All those cheery fossil-fuel ads have had only one purpose—to mask the extent of the damage and the ongoing risks of tar sands mining, fracking and mountaintop removal coal. And now, ever more clearly – of deep-water oil drilling.

It’s up to you whether you hit the mute button on those commercials or not. But I suspect that, whatever they’re saying this time around, we should take it with a huge grain of salt.

Canada’s High Court Hands First Nations Keys to the Tar Sands

One hundred and fifty years ago, five leaders of the indigenous Tsilhqot’in Nation in British Columbia were lured into peace talks with the British Crown, and then promptly arrested and hanged.

That brought to an end the Chilcotin War of 1864, which had broken out in response to a flood of gold-rush settlers in the Canadian west.  Like most other native nations in British Columbia, the Tsilhqot’in (or Chilcotin) did not surrender their land under a treaty, but were slowly marginalized under the pressure of settlement and development. Their lands were exploited for gold, minerals and timber, and they were recognized as having title to only a small fraction of their historical range.

But two weeks ago, much of that changed overnight. In a 25-year-old legal case, Canada’s Supreme Court ruled unanimously on June 26th in favor of the Chilcotin Nation’s claim to some 675 square miles of land that had previously been contested. The court found that aboriginal title does not just apply to land where First Nations live, but to the lands they have historically used for hunting, trapping and fishing.

Grand Chief Derek Nepinak leading Healing Walk in the tar sands

Grand Chief Derek Nepinak leading Healing Walk in the tar sands

The day after the decision was handed down, I arrived in northern Alberta for a gathering of First Nations leaders and their friends, in the heart of tar sands mining country. And despite the flood of terrible news facing native people from the tar sands pollution, the mood that day was happy – even jubilant.

That’s because the Chilcotin decision for the first time provides a clear basis to establish First Nations’ title to un-surrendered lands, and strengthens the hand of indigenous people in dealing with companies seeking to exploit mining, logging and fossil fuel development on those lands.

“This decision . . . will be a game-changer in terms of the landscape in B.C. and throughout the rest of the country where there is unextinguished aboriginal title,” said First Nations Regional Chief of British Columbia Jody Wilson-Raybould.

Others would go even further, claiming that it gives indigenous people “a veto” over resource development proposals on their now-expanded lands. And while that’s probably an overstatement, the court’s ruling certainly increases the amount of Canadian land over which the First Nations will now exercise significant control. Now, timber companies, miners, and pipeline operators will have to solicit consent from indigenous peoples before pushing ahead.

Ah, pipeline operators. Now there’s a timely topic. Continue reading

Clean Solar Electricity for Your Home

“A good man leaves an inheritance to his children’s children…” (Proverbs 13:22).

Our neighbor Mary lives in a small house bordering our produce field.  She’s retired, and lives modestly on a fixed income. Like many of us, she’s watched as utility costs have gone up year by year. A few years ago, we replaced her drafty single-pane windows. Last summer, we blew in insulation to make her attic and walls more weather-tight. And in the last few months we’ve insulated her basement ceiling to warm up her floors in winter.

All these efforts have had amazing results. Her daily electric usage has fallen a long way – by 20 percent in the last year alone. And her heating oil usage has come down by about one-third. But despite all these efforts at efficiency, electric costs just keep going up. Over the past decade, average electric charges in this country went up about 4% per year. With almost all its customers affected by back-to-back hurricanes Irene and Sandy, our local New Jersey utility – JCP&L – has repeatedly been granted rate hikes. Mary now pays 18.4 cents for every kilowatt-hour she uses.

Sungevity arrived at Mary's house a few days ago

Solar installers arrived at Mary’s house a few days ago

But all that’s about to change. Just a few days ago, a work crew from Sungevity, a solar power developer, arrived to install solar panels on Mary’s south-facing roof. The system will provide 94 percent of Mary’s electric needs. She’ll be left with a monthly electric bill of about $4.00. So she can relax about ongoing spikes in utility rates.

How much did all this cost? Well, up front, nothing at all. Mary is leasing her solar system over 20 years. The lease payments are just about the same as her current electric bills. In fact, Sungevity projects that she will save $24,866 in utility payments over the life of the lease, but it could be worse as rates keep rising. Her lease payments, which are fixed up front, will total $23,259 – $1,607 less than the utility cost she’s saving.

Panels going up: the roof array at about 50%

Panels going up: the roof array at about 50%

So Mary’s got totally renewable, clean electricity at a savings of $1,600 or more over the life of the lease.

Of course, money isn’t all Mary’s saving. She has two sons and a granddaughter, so the world she leaves them makes a big difference. And with her system, she will reduce greenhouse gas emissions over the next 20 years by 144,548 lbs. That’s more than 65 tons less CO2 for the next generation to deal with.

What does that actually mean? Well, here at Good Hand Farm, we plant a lot of trees. Just two days ago we added eight more peach trees to our backyard orchard. But Mary’s system will have the same effect on atmospheric CO2 as planting 1,685 trees, according to EPA equivalency tables. That’s 1,685 trees! You may not see that many all week.

But there are other useful comparisons as well. According to the EPA, the greenhouse gas savings from Mary’s new rooftop savings will have the same effect as:

  • Taking 13.8 cars off the road for a year.
  • Cutting 23.5 tons of garbage going to the landfill.
  • Driving a car 156,012 fewer miles.
  • Recycling three full garbage trucks, rather than dumping them in the landfill.

And all this comes at no up-front cost to Mary. In fact, she eliminates uncertainty about future utility prices, and saves real money over the term of the lease.

Almost finished! It will provide 94% of Mary's electricity

Almost finished! It will provide 94% of Mary’s electricity

Solarizing your home won’t work for everybody. State incentive programs play a major role in determining whether or not it makes economic sense. You’ll also need a sunny rooftop or an open patch of lawn. And if you rent, your landlord will have to make the final call.

But if it could make sense to you, why not look into a no-cost leased PV system for your home, business or church? If you contact us, we can provide a referral which will reduce your electric costs even further. Do it for yourself. And, of course, do it for your kids.

“Treat the earth well: it was not given to you by your parents, it was loaned to you by your children. We do not inherit the Earth from our Ancestors, we borrow it from our Children.”  Ancient Indian Proverb

Why I’m (Still) Fighting to Stop the Keystone XL Pipeline

Some things just aren’t worth killing the kids for.

Forgive me, I beg you. The language is crude, and perhaps you feel that I’m judging you. But the debate over energy policy is actually a matter of life and death. And the lives in question are those of our children. And that’s why I’m begging the White House not to approve the Keystone XL pipeline from the tar sand pits of northern Alberta to export terminals in Texas.

The facts are no longer seriously debated among scientists:

  • We must avoid warming the globe more than 2 degrees Celsius if we hope to preserve the Earth’s ecosystems to support the millions of living species God made and loves – including our own. Even if we succeed at that level, we will have consigned more species to extinction than at any time in millions of years.
  • To have any hope of staying below 2 degrees C extra global heat, we must limit total carbon burned by mankind to one trillion metric tons. The problem is, we’ve already burned more than half of that – 570 billion tons. We have a maximum of 430 billion tons left in our carbon allowance.
  • But the world’s reserves of recoverable fossil fuels – oil, gas and coal – contain more than 13,000 billion tons of CO2. Once again, that’s 13,000 billion tons for a world that can only afford to burn 430 billion. Do the math for yourself: More than 95% of recoverable oil, gas and coal simply must stay in the ground.
  • The carbon-heavy tar sands at the other end of the proposed KXL pipeline contain enough carbon to blow through the global budget, consigning future generations to horrors we have never known.
Flood of warnings: Greenland ice melt

Flood of warnings: Greenland ice melt

We face tough choices, but this one isn’t tough. Starting with the dirtiest fuels, we must begin to say “No” to our addiction. And the dirtiest fuels are coal and tar sands oil.

I’m already on record as having enlisted in the “War on Coal,” (I prefer to call it the “War for My Granddaughters”), so the next fight has to be over the second dirtiest fuel: the Alberta tar sands. How much carbon is stored beneath the ground up there? Well, if we burn all the tar sands oil, we will pump another 240 billion tons of CO2 into God’s good sky. More than half of the world’s remaining carbon allowance, from that one source alone. Forget about the Saudis, Venezuela, China’s coal or all the other sources of carbon fuels in the world. Alberta’s tar sands will take us halfway to the edge of the precipice.

No, no. That’s wrong. It will take our children halfway to the edge of the precipice.

Earth's fossil fuels: we've already burned the purple

Earth’s fossil fuels: we’ve already burned the purple. Most of what;s left must stay in the ground.

I’d love to have lots of cheap oil for my house and car. But not at that price. It’s just not worth killing the kids for.

Now, you’ll hear that stopping the pipeline won’t really stop the tar sands. Maybe the big oil companies will find other pipeline routes. Or maybe they’ll put all that toxic gunk onto rail cars. Why fight so hard, when you’re pretty sure to lose anyway?

But God made you for this time, and this place. This is the foxhole you’re holding. This is the flank you’re defending.  Let others defend the next assault, or let us stand against it when it comes. But don’t let anyone tell us that this battle is lost because of sure defeat in other battles yet to come.

If love for your Father’s beloved planet stirs in your heart too, you’ve only got a few days left to tell President Obama how you feel. Please take the simple step of asking him to protect what God owns and loves. Click here, and let him know.

Barbara Elwood spends two days every week looking after those granddaughters I keep talking about. But when she gets home at night, this grandmother has a little more work to do for them. Every night, she goes to the White House website, and pleads on behalf of her beloved little girls.

Won’t you take a moment and join her? Time is getting short.

“It is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.” Gandalf the White, The Return of the King

Psst! Wanna Join the War on Coal?

We hear lots about war these days. Not just the real, shooting type, although there’s plenty of that here in America – with a whopping 31 separate foreign military ventures since the year 2000 and a Pentagon budget that dwarfs any other country in the world.

No, I’m talking about all those other wars that populate the nightly news. There are the wars that we hear Obama is bent on fighting: the War on Guns, or on Doughnuts, or on Christmas. Change the channel, and we hear of the wars that the GOP is waging: the War on Science, or on Women, or on the Poor, or on Food Stamps. And then there are the bipartisan wars: the War on Terror, or on Poverty, or on Drugs, or on Cancer.

My, my! We Americans sure like to fight our wars!

But there’s a new war that’s appeared in the American lexicon of late. It’s called the War on Coal. It pops up in response to efforts to control mercury pollution, limit mountaintop-removal mining, or to set standards for carbon emissions.

stop-war-on-coal-fire-obamaReports of the War on Coal come with plaintive appeals on behalf of America’s hard-working coal miners and beleaguered mining communities. We are reminded of the elusive goal of “home-grown” energy independence. Regulators and bureaucrats are the sinister forces directing the assault. You wouldn’t want to be associated with them, right?

Well, as of today, I’m unfurling my true colors. If you want, you can buy the war bonds to defeat Crack Cocaine, or Al-Qaeda, or Assault Rifles. I’m enlisting in the War on Coal.

I bet you haven’t heard anyone admit this yet. Am I right?  But then, I’m not running for office. And besides, no one’s talking about attacking coal; this war’s purely defensive. It’s a war aimed at putting an end to massive harm wreaked on all of us by one single industry dominated by a handful of huge companies.

By now, most everyone ought to know about this. Last month, the UN’s global climate science panel told us that the world is now on a strict carbon budget. For the next hundred years or more, we can only dig up and burn fossil fuels that emit a cumulative total of one trillion tons of Earth-warming gases, or else we’ll heat the entire Earth by another 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit or more. However bad that may sound to us laymen, it’s a risk to Earth’s inhabitants rivaling cataclysms not seen in millions of years. The problem is, we’ve already burned more than half of that budgeted amount since the beginning of the Industrial Age. So we’re left with less than 500 billion tons of fossil-fuel CO2 remaining in our budget.

And here’s an even thornier problem: Proven reserves of coal around the world represent 2.2 trillion more tons of CO2. So if all we do is burn the remaining coal we already know about, then we blow through our carbon limit about four times over – even if we totally forget about oil and gas reserves. This isn’t a case of slowing things down five, ten or even fifty percent. We’ve simply got to stop. Somehow, we’ve got to stop burning coal.

Last Monday, Christiana Figueres, head of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, addressed coal industry executives who were meeting in Warsaw. Her message was clear: Most of the world’s coal needs to stay in the ground, if the world is to avoid 3.6-degrees Fahrenheit in global warming. “I am here to say that coal must change rapidly and dramatically for everyone’s sake,” she told industry leaders.

And it’s not just the UN demanding the wind-down of coal. In the U.S., we’ve got the National Academy of Sciences. They’ve told us that the coal industry is fundamentally uneconomic, surviving only on a massive subsidy paid by the entire rest of the world. In 2010, the Academy produced a report called The Hidden Costs of Energy, which took a close look at the “external costs” of coal – the costs in public health and climate disruptions associated with coal pollution that are paid by everyone from Texas firefighters to Filipino fishermen.

Now, everyone knows that many human activities carry external costs borne by others, and some of us regard them as inevitable consequences of life on Earth. But for coal, the numbers are simply staggering. Coal producers receive about 4.5 cents when they sell the amount of coal necessary to generate one kilowatt-hour of electricity – the amount consumed by a 100-Watt light bulb left on overnight. But the National Academy has determined that the external costs of that same amount of coal totals somewhere in the range of 4.2 cents to as much as 13.2 cents – triple the entire value that any coal company receives for delivering the stuff in the first place. The coal companies get four cents; the rest of us bear as much as thirteen additional cents in health and climate pollution costs.

National Academy of Sciences report on coal's staggering cost to the rest of us

National Academy of Sciences report on coal’s cost to the rest of us

At first glance, maybe thirteen cents doesn’t sound like much. But American power companies burn a lot of coal. In a single year (2005) they burned enough so that the 13-cent subsidy totaled more than $200 billion. That’s $200 BILLION in one year – paid by everyone on Earth. And that comes to around $40 apiece for every man, woman and child in the world. All for a few American coal companies.

You might say we’d be better off paying the industry exactly what they’re making today not to produce a single ton of coal. We’d be cutting our losses by about two thirds.

Is there any other industry in the world with such perverse fundamentals? Crack cocaine makes money for drug dealers, but it surely costs addicts, hospitals and law enforcement much more. But is the tiny crack business as globally harmful as coal? Cigarette makers deliver steady profits to corporate owners, but cost smokers and the health system dearly in respiratory diseases. Are they as bad as coal?

Well, I haven’t seen the numbers on crack and cigarettes. But there’s a reason that they are regulated, taxed or banned entirely. The more they sell, the worse off the rest of us are. And if the National Academy is anywhere near to being right, it’s even worse for coal. Every single ton produced puts us all further and further behind.

And so, the next time you hear a politician accuse someone of waging a “War on Coal,” you can be pretty sure you’ll hear a strenuous denial, with vague endorsements of “clean coal technology.” But feel free to call in and tell them you know someone who has actually enlisted.

I’m John Elwood, and I approved this message.

How Clean Coal Became Kleen Koal


Dear America,

We can’t believe you took us so seriously.

All these years now, we’ve filled your family rooms with TV ads about “Clean Coal.” We paid many millions for all that PR – what some people are now scandalously calling “propaganda.” We sponsored presidential debates laced with cheery ads about patriotism, energy security, and – of course – Clean Coal. We got candidates from both parties – even Obama! – to sing the praises of Clean Coal. We gave millions to coal-friendly politicians. And they gave us billions of your tax dollars into projects to develop Clean Coal carbon-storage technology.

clean-coal-greenwash2Didn’t our promises make you feel good? Weren’t you proud? Wasn’t it great imagining that we had so much energy right here in America, and that it was – in some vague sense – clean?

But now, look what you’ve done. Somehow, you’ve imagined that we could really make our coal – you know – clean. Actually clean. Clean like maybe about twice as dirty as natural gas. Clean like infinitely dirtier than wind and solar. Not TV-ad clean, but clean – sort of – like what-you-breathe clean.

Sure, we told you we had the technology to make coal clean. We even ran ads featuring scantily-clad models as coal miners extracting coal that technology had made “beautiful.”  Continue reading

Got Doodoo? Make Biogas!

How many days last year did you spend caring for your Father’s creation? We all know that “tending and keeping” God’s world was the first job assigned to mankind in the Bible (Genesis 2:15), but many of us struggle to see what it has to do with our discipleship and calling. How about you?

Here in Kenya, we see a lot of day-to-day creation care by ordinary people. Maybe it’s because most people live by tending the plants and animals around them. Millions of Kenyans tend tiny postage-stamp farms: good weather and fertile soil mean the world to them.

Whatever the reason, everyone I’ve met here understands that caring for the earth is really important. I want to tell you about one I met recently. Her name is Josephine Muthone.

Josephine is a farmer. She’s an active member of the Presbyterian church. On her 1-2 acre parcel in Kikuyu north of Nairobi she milks three cows, and grows beans, potatoes, corn and other produce to feed her three children. She also grows coarse Napier grass to cut as fodder for the cows. Her husband died two years ago.

Josephine Muthone

Josephine Muthone, with tea made with biogas

Josephine works really hard. By 4:30 in the morning, she’s already walking several kilometers to the dairy co-op with her full milk jugs swinging from a shoulder harness. But while hard work is necessary, it’s not enough. Josephine used to spend lots of time, labor and money buying and carrying heavy loads of firewood for her kitchen stove. Her soil was becoming degraded, and fertilizer costs were eating into her earnings. Rains were becoming unreliable, and water was a real problem. And without a husband’s earnings or help, providing for her family was a real challenge.

But a few years ago, with the help of a local expert, Josephine installed a biogas digester in her small farm, and it’s made all the difference in the world. No more hauling charcoal and firewood; no more smoky cook stoves and harmful kitchen fumes; instant heat from free, renewable cooking gas; a steady supply of free, safe organic fertilizer to enrich her farm plot; no more runoff of harmful raw manure into the local waterways; and more resources to pay school fees for the children and improve her family’s life. What’s more, the biogas digester paid for itself in less than three years.

Continue reading