RMI's Founder Amory Lovins Takes on Nuke Industry Astroturfer Patrick Moore

The photo of Amory Lovins appeared in an article in Grist, with the credit Rocky Mountain Institute, of which he is the co-founder and CEO.


I wrote in "More about Nuclear Astroturf" May 15, 2006 about Patrick Moore, a former Greenpeace member who now shills for the nuclear energy industry. Moore co-leads its trade group's astroturf group, the Nuclear Energy Istitute's Clean and Safe Energy Coalition, along with Christie Todd Whitman.

Now, I'm happy to report that physicist Amory Lovins (bio), Jimmy Carter's energy secretary and McArthur award winner, has taken on Moore's questionable statisitics in yesterday's Toronto Star in Lovins Q&A by energy reporter Tyler Hamilton. Hamilton asked specifically about Moore's position that large-scale adoption of new nuclear technology is the only way to avert global warming.

I think he's not well informed about energy alternatives and I hope he will become so. I've spoken with Patrick at some length, for example, about variability of wind. He thinks it's a serious problem, and he didn't realize there's a lot of empirical and analytic evidence that shows it's not a problem.

There's a more fundamental issue here, though, and that's about economics. Nuclear plants directly emit no carbon dioxide, although they have some inherent in their construction and operations from other parts of the fuel cycle. I'm prepared to ignore that indirect CO2 emission. However, because I agree with Patrick that climate is a very serious problem, I think we need the most solution per dollar and the most solution per year. If you go to the December 2005 issue of Nuclear Engineering International, you'll find a paper called `Mighty Mice' that summarizes an economic analysis. What that analysis shows from the best empirical data available last year, is if you spent 10 cents (U.S.) to make and deliver a new nuclear kilowatt-hour — notice I said deliver, so that's at your meter — you can displace 1 kilowatt-hour of coal power. That's what Patrick is talking about. And it might seem like a good idea until you look at the competitors.

If you spend the same 10 cents (U.S.) instead on micropower or efficient use, you get two to 10 times as much coal displacement for the same money, because those options are cheaper — you get more per dollar. They're also faster, so you get more carbon displacement, coal displacement, per year.

Lovins explained the cost of nuclear energy:
The balance is tilted somewhat against nuclear lately because the promised low costs already have failed to materialize for next-generation light water reactors. The Finnish plant is a good example. About a year into construction they're already a year behind schedule and getting more so. They're in serious trouble with the safety regulator, and it's already destroyed AREVA's and Siemen's nuclear profits for the year. They've made already a 1.5 to 2 billion (Euro) allowance on their books for cost overruns, and I don't think that's anywhere near the end of the story. It's driven them right into the ditch. Just look at the recent press release on their quarterly earnings. I suspect that if Canada tries to build another reactor it will have a similar experience.

Lovins added,

If you believe as I do that climate change is a serious problem, then make sure you buy the resources that will save the most carbon per dollar per year, because otherwise you're making things worse. If you buy a nuclear plant instead of cheaper efficiency and micropower, you're getting less solution per dollar, less solution per year, and therefore reducing and retarding climate protection.


There's lots of other good information in the article. Lovins compared nuclear energy with conservation:

Nuclear costs too much and it has excessive financial risk. In no new nuclear project around the world is there a penny of private capital at risk. Contrast that with how the competitors are doing. The first and the cheapest one is efficient use of electricity. ...Contrary to the common supposition of diminishing returns and an exhaustible efficiency resource, the actual potential savings keep getting bigger and cheaper, because the technology is continuing to improve faster than we use it. The low-hanging fruit is still mushing up around our ankles but the tree keep growing more fruit and dropping it on our heads. What part of this don't we understand?

About three-quarters of all electricity we use in North America can be saved cheaper than just running a coal or nuclear plant and delivering its power, even if the capital costs of the plant were zero. It's interesting that California, the single biggest market in North America, has held it's per capita use of electricity flat for 30 years. And some places... like Vermont, are actually sending that number downwards, because they're saving electricity faster than their economy and population are growing. But we don't have comprehensive, accurate measurements of how much electricity is being saved. We just know it's a big number, and we know it's still a tiny fraction of how much efficiency is available and worth buying.

Then he talked about other, less risky competitors to nuclear.

The two competing sources that are easy to measure are collectively called micropower — not central plants, but more distributed capacity that's at or near the customers, or at least comes in more decentralized, diversified form. Micropower is providing now between one-sixth and over half of all electricity in 13 industrial countries. Denmark is the leader with about 53 per cent last year. You'll notice this does not count big hydro. If we don't count any hydro above 10 megawatts, then the added micropower capacity last year in the world was 41 gigawatts, compared to 3.7 gigawatts for all kinds of nuclear — none of which was a CANDU (technology)."

There are two kinds of micropower. One is co-gen and combined heat and power. That was about two-thirds of the new capacity and three-quarters of the new electricity last year. The rest was distributed or decentralized renewables, which was a $38 billion U.S. global market last year for selling equipment. That's wind, solar, geothermal, small hydro and biomass. So the overall numbers are quite impressive. Micropower surpassed nuclear power in worldwide installed capacity in 2002, and surpassed nuclear in electricity generated per year just in the last few months. But more interesting is market share — micropower provided a sixth of the world's total electricity last year. Micropower last year provided 32 per cent of the world's new electricity and 16 per cent of the world's total electricity; nuclear last year provided respectively 8 per cent of the new and 16 per cent of the total. In terms of electricity generated, micropower last year had four times nuclear's market share, and it added 11-times as much capacity as nuclear, or 8 times as much if you don't count standby and peaking units, but you should.

Lovins also talked about the capacity of renewables, such as wind and solar, and their capacity to replace the baseload power that comes from nuclear plants.

The variability of sun, wind and so on, turns out to be a non-problem if you do several sensible things. One is to diversify your renewables by technology, so that weather conditions bad for one kind are good for another. Second, you diversify by site so they're not all subject to the same weather pattern at the same time because they're in the same place. Third, you use standard weather forecasting techniques to forecast wind, sun and rain, and of course hydro operators do this right now. Fourth, you integrate all your resources — supply side and demand side — so for example, in the Pacific Northwest, where we're rich in hydropower, for 0.6 cents (U.S.) per kilowatt-hour the Bonneville Power Administration will firm your wind power. That is, they combine your wind with their hydro and open and close the valves on the dams so that whenever the wind is not blowing and you need the power you can dispatch hydro instead on a firm contractual basis.

In places that don't have surplus or adequate hydropower, it's becoming equally straightforward and much cheaper to back up your wind from a virtual peaker drawn from load management. Like, for example, turning off your water heater for 15 minutes — you won't even know it's happening. That's done automatically, and the power that was going to go into your water heat instead backs up the wind. You can do other kinds of storage as well. For less than 1 cent (U.S.) per kilowatt-hour, you can store bulk electricity as compressed air in a salt cavern. Typically it's much cheaper to manage loads on the demand side than to store electricity on the supply side. But in a grid that is hydro rich, and with an end-use structure that is as inefficient and has as much space in water heating with electricity as you have in Ontario, it's really very straightforward to have large amounts of variable renewables without in any way comprising reliability. It's also worth bearing in mind that although wind and photovoltaics are quite variable, geothermal, biomass and small hydro are not. So you can't even apply this issue to a lot of renewables that are big in the marketplace.

Hamilton asked if Ontario could realistically phase out both coal and nuclear plants in the next twenty years. Lovins replied,

I think it would require a much more aggressive commitment to doing the cheapest things first, especially for modern, end-use efficiency. For example, I'm talking to you from a building at 2,200 metres in the Rockies where it can go to minus 44 C -- you can get frost on any day of the year and you can get 39 days of continuous mid-winter cloud. In the middle of my house I've harvested so far 28 banana crops with no heating system, and it's cheaper to build that way because super insulation and super windows and air-to-air heat exchangers add less to the construction cost than what you take off the construction cost by not needing a heating system. So the house was about $1,100 (U.S.) cheaper to build with good comfort but no heating system.

Hamilton asked about the reliance of micropower, such as co-generation, on natural gas and its effect on CO2 emissions. Lovins explained,

Two-thirds of the co-gen in the world is gas-fired, but both because gas is less carbon-intensive than coal and because you're displacing a separate power plant and boiler or furnace with one unit that's much more efficient overall, you save carbon. Altogether counting the gas-fired and all the other co-gen around the world, you're saving at least half the carbon compared to what it replaces. So yes, I'm making proper allowance for the carbon that does come out of the co-gen and counting the measured cost of the renewables. In fact, I'm counting a wind cost that is over twice as big as the cheapest wind farms built lately. And I'm counting all the cost of making the renewables, like wind, fully dispatchable. So it's an entirely apples-to-apples comparison, and I've done it on a consistent accounting basis but made sure I used assumptions that were favourable to nuclear and other central stations.

Hamilton asked about whether micropower could power plug-in hybrids or all-electric cars.

[I]n the right circumstances it can be an attractive option. The amount of electricity required is quite modest, and it would be at night so wouldn't add to peak capacity requirements. And the electricity needed is a very small fraction of what can be saved running existing thermal stations. So for relatively short trips, shaving into medium trips as batteries get cheaper, this could be an attractive option. It will, of course, have to compete with efficient fuelled hybrid, including biofueled hybrids, and ultra-lights that further double efficiency.

Lovins general philophy is an end to corporate welfare.

Let electricity and energy compete fairly at honest prices regardless of which kind they are — savings or production — or what technology they use, or how big they are, or where they are, or who owns them. If we did that, we certainly wouldn't order more nuclear plants and we'd be phasing out the existing coal and nuclear plants because it's cheaper not to run them than to run them.

He would also align the interest of providers and consumers as an incentive for conservation.

I would make sure that the distributors of electricity and gas...are rewarded for cutting your bill, not for selling you more energy. This could be done by well-understood techniques that decouple profits from sales volumes so the distributors are not rewarded for selling more, nor penalized for selling less. Then I would let them keep as extra profit part of what they save the customer, so that the providers' and customers' interests are fully aligned. The lack of this well-understood reform is the biggest obstacle to using electricity in a way that saves money.

Lovins concluded by talking about the current investments trends in the private sector:

I find it very instructive that essentially all of the efficiency in micropower being bought in the world is financed by private risk capital, but I can't find a single new nuclear project on earth that has a penny of private capital at risk. So what does this tell us? I think it tells us that investors perceive higher cost and higher financial risk in nuclear. They find that unacceptable, and they're buying the other stuff instead. The clean energy space, worldwide, is getting $63 billion (U.S.) of investment this year. Why is that? Why is nuclear struggling to find single orders, scouring the earth for them, and they're all ordered by central planners and largely supported by the public purse; whereas vendors of the competing technologies, which already have four times the energy market share and 11 times the capacity, they are finding it hard to keep up with the explosive growth in their businesses.

In August 2005 the U.S. passed a new law offering on top of the existing nuclear subsidies, further subsidies of around 4 or 5 cents a kilowatt-hour, which equals the entire capital cost of the next six units to be ordered, if any. What was the market's response to this? Well, Standard & Poor's promptly put out two reports saying that even this massive intervention would not materially improve the credit ratings of the builders. In other words, even paying for the whole construction of the plant has the same effect of defibrillating a corpse — it will jump but it won't revive. This technology has died with an incurable attack of market forces. I'm sorry — it was done with good intentions, a lot of talented people devoted their careers to it, but like Betamax it lost out in a competitive market. Other better, cheaper stuff got to the customers first. By now, probably less than half of the world market in new electrical services is being met by any kind of central thermal power station. So let's wake up, look at the data, and make sure we count both halves of the market; not just competition between traditional central thermal plants, but also how they are being rapidly displaced by faster, cheaper and more benign alternatives.

If the public authority is doing the opposite of what the private market is doing, should that ring your alarm bells? It sure does for me.... [Is] electricity...such an immature sector that central planners' choices should be preferred to those of private capitalists.... The word `risky' is a tip-off that the people who would benefit from the choice proposed want to put their hand in your pocket again, and don't want you to notice that the private market is choosing better buys than what your local central planners are proposing.


Yesterday, "Harpers Targets Obama," I wrote about the candidate's take on ethanol. Lovin's Rocky Mountain Institute makes its Winning the Oil End Game available free for download. http://tr.im/RMI_Oil_End_Game. Here is the summary of its strategy from the abstract:

Our strategy integrates four technological ways to displace oil: using oil twice as efficiently, then substituting biofuels, saved natural gas, and, optionally, hydrogen. Fully applying today’s best efficiency technologies in a doubled-GDP 2025 economy would save half the projected U.S. oil use at half its forecast cost per barrel. Non-oil substitutes for the remaining consumption would also cost less than oil.


There is an extensive section in the book on substituting biofuels and biomaterials for oil.

RMI also maintains a blog, on which I found a link to "My Big Biofuels Bet," by venture capitalist Vinod Khosla in the October 2006 Wired. Khosla has invested in a Nebraska blant that uses cow manure to produce the electricity needed to produce ethanol and to fertilize the cornfields. This will improve the energy-balance of corn-based ethanol, reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the farm, and pave the way for further development of cellulosic ethanol, such as produced in Brazil, which has proved to be even more energy efficient. To keep up on alternative energy, another interesting site is the Alternative Energy Action Network cofounded by Arthur Smith. (email) ( Smith, by the way, disputes Lovins, but readers of the network side wiht Lovins.)


Harpers Targets Obama

The montage combines the cover from the November 2006 Harpers with a photograph of Barack Obama from the news release announcing his keynote address at Harvard Law School's celebration of black alumni on September 17, 2005.

John Dufresne's blog for yesterday featured his caption, "consider the possibility" with a picture of an Obama in 2008 button. I have already mentioned Obama on Charlie Rose in connection with his book tour.

Saturday, October 21, I happened to pick up the November Harper's with the cover story on pages 31-40, "Barack Obama Inc.: The birth of a Washington Machine" by Washington editor Ken Silverstein (email). No no copy has been posted to the site (yet?).

Eric Alterman (blog at Media Matters, Altercation) and Silverstein are currentlyengaging in a pissing match about the article and an earlier article on Alterman by Silverstein in the Villiage Voice which I couldn't find but according to Susan Lehman in her December 4, 1998 Salon Media Circus column entry "Ahoy Mates" was a

vicious hatchet job [in which]... Ken Silverstein, in the Village Voice some years back -- referred to Alterman as "3/4 brown noser, 1/4 cheeky chappy."

Alterman, in his Huffington Post entry "Pre-election Potpourr" on October 19 said that Silverstein had done "a foolish hit job" on Obama. Silverstein, in his blog, Washington Babylon's October 23 entry, "Booted by MSNBC, is Alterman Making a Pitch to be Obama's Press Secretary?" sums up his description of Obama in Harpers:

In the article, I described Obama as possibly the most charismatic Democrat since Robert F. Kennedy, and noted that he is sincere, well-intentioned, and genuinely interested in changing our political culture. The article did take stock of Obama's record in Washington, since much of it looks disappointingly conventional. Because Washington is so intensely hostile to reform and reformers, a progressive like Obama may not be able to accomplish much.

I agree with Alterman that the article, taken in conjuction with its title and cover illustration is indeed a hit job and Silverstein's response seems disingenuous. Rather than being merely "disappointingly conventional," Silverstein depicts Obama as being in the pocket of lobbyists, at least with regard to his support of corn-based ethanol. Consider this criticism of Obama's July appearance at the Center for American Progress's Campus Progress conference :

Despite its audience and ostensible subject matter, however, Obama's speech contained just a singfle call for political action..."Give it up for Mark."...Obama had essentially marshalled his undeniably moving oratory to plump for the classic pork- barrel cause of every Midwestern politician.

Mark Pike, of the Center-sponsored "Kick the Oil Habit" campaign (co-sponsor list) was heading cross country in a flex-fuel vehicle and would only stop at stations selling 85% ethanol fuel, which has been criticized by being bad for conservation because it requires large amounts of fossil fuel for its production, while gasoline gets 30% more miles per gallon.

Silverstein adds that

Obama, Durbin and three other farm state senators opposed a proposal by the Bush administration earlier this year to lower still tariff's on cheap sugarcaneibased ethanol from Brazil and other countries.

Silverstein criticizes Obama for lending his name to a letter with the

dubious implication that Brazilian ethanol is a national security liability comparible to Saudi crude [indicating]...that he is at least as interested in protecting domestic producers of ethanol as he is in weaning America from imported petroleum.

Robert John Keefe (email) in his October 15 entry "Obama and Ethanol" on Daily Blaugue, calls the article "disheartening but unsurprising." He quotes Ted Patzek (sic--it's actually Tad), of the University of California at Berkeley's Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering as saying that ethanol production is based on

the massive transfer of money from the collective pocket of the US taxpayers to the transnational agricultural cartel.

Keefe says that Silverstein quotes Patzek, but in leafing back through the article just now, I couldn't find the citation. I was able, however, to find the context for the comment which is from Patzek (email)'s article,"Thermodynamics of the Corn-Ethanol Biofuel Cycle" which appeared in Critical Reviews in Plant Sciences, 23(6):519-567 (2004). Tad W. Patzek.

I have tried to avoid political questions, but at some point one should ask how it was possible for a poor agri-industrial technology to grow so explosively in the last four years? The only plausible answer lies in politics. The recent growth of ethanol production could occur only because of the massive transfer of money from the collective pocket of the U.S. taxpayers to the transnational agricultural cartel, represented most notably by Archer Daniel Midlands Co., Cargill Inc., Monsanto Co., and A. E. Stanley Manufacturing Co. This flow of billions of dollars from the pockets of the many to the pockets of the few was accomplished by federal subsidies of corn producers, and the federal and state tax subsidies of ethanol producers. It was spearheaded by many powerful, and I would like to think, thoroughly misinformed politicians.

More ominously, as a country, we have diverted our collective attention from the most important issue of this century: energy conservation and increased reliance on the only renewable source of energy, the sun, and its weak derivative, the wind, see Appendix C. Instead, we have somewhat accelerated the rate of depletion of the precious natural gas and crude oil deposits, in exchange for the significantly more wide-spread pollution of water, soil and air over roughly 1/2 of the area of the United States, the incremental carbon dioxide emissions, the substandard ethanol fuel, and the continuous drain of taxpayers' money.

Keefe says of Obama,

In his attempt to become a viable progressive - that is, a legislator who can count on the contributions that will get him re-elected - Senator Obama has done a fair amount of trimming. I gave up on him a year ago, when he was nowhere in the public discussion of ethnic cleansing in New Orleans. I'm afraid that he's just another Kennedy.


I disagree with Alterman's derisive adjective, "foolish." The question for me, "Is Silverstein's hit job valid?" I decided to do some reading on Obama's position on ethanol. I found a March 21, 2006 interview with Grist Magazine , in which author Dasvid Roberts sums up his opinion of Obama,

when I sat across from Obama in a Seattle cafe booth, I sensed no duplicity. His much-storied charisma makes such judgments difficult, of course, but he seemed to have a grasp of the energy situation far broader than bringing home the pork to his constituents. He acknowledged the limitations of his proposals but was unapologetically pragmatic about strategy. He's playing the long game.

This is what Obama had to say about his energy strategy:

I support significant increases in CAFE standards. But we've brought that to the floor again and again and again, and we can't get it passed in its current iteration. I was one of the cosponsors of the amendment to the energy bill last year -- we just couldn't get enough votes. Including, unfortunately, two of our Democratic senators from Michigan, because they're concerned about the auto industry. No matter how much you want to talk about the big picture, people still think very locally.

I think cellulosic ethanol is probably our best short-term solution. The amount of energy required to produce cellulosic ethanol is a significant improvement over corn-based ethanol. The technology exists. We don't have to change distribution systems; essentially it pumps just like gasoline. It only costs $100 to retrofit any vehicle out there. And if Brazil can do it in the span of three or four years, while cutting their transportation-gasoline use essentially in half, there's no reason we can't do it.

So I guess my answer would be: This is an important series of first steps that moves us in the right direction. It is not sufficient to create a sustainable, long-term energy strategy, but it'll be a component of it.

Reader Alec Johnson responded:

I used to have a great deal of respect for Barack Obama, but no longer do. He voted for the egregious Bankruptcy Bill and Dick Cheney's hideous Energy Bill -- neither are even remotely progressive pieces of legislation.

Everyone is getting on the biofuels band wagon, which is more than a bit self-serving for the junior Senator from Illinois. One wonders if he is innumerate, like most of the rest of our population. Do the math, Barack, we do not have enough land mass to grow biofuel and food, regardless of the alleged (and highly dubious) positive energy yield biofuel proponents profess, we'd need something on the order of three additional continents, each the size of the US, to seriously produce the amount of fuel we consume today, not to mention what we are likely to consume next year. At best, biofuels might have a limited utility as a boutique fuel, produced on farms to power farm machinery. I can only conclude that Senator Obama is either an innumerate fool or just another self-serving politician, perhaps both. Don't be deceived by his smile and posturing. And next time you interview him, ask him how he could vote for the Bankruptcy bill and still style himself a progressive.

Before going on to other charges (the bankrupcy bill, Katrina, Obama's support of Lieberman, etc) I wanted to look further into the ethanol bill. It's current incarnation is S. 2446 introduced on March 16, 2006 and stalled in the Senate Finance Committee. The bill's co-sponsor, Dick Lugar (R-IN) issued a news release June 7, "Greenspan cites need for rapid cellulosic ethanol product." Greenspan's testimony at the Foreign Relations committee that date can be found here.

Lugar characterizes the bill:

S. 2446, which would take a four-step approach to reducing America’s dependence on foreign oil. First, the legislation would spur investment in alternative fuels by increasing the production of cellulosic biomass ethanol and create an Alternative Diesel Standard. Second, it would help increase consumer demand for alternative fuels by providing a short-term, 35 cents per gallon tax credit for E85 fuel and by providing automakers with a $100 tax credit for every FFV produced. Third, it would require the U.S. government to increase access to alternative fuels by requiring the government to allow public access to alternative fueling stations located on federal government property. Finally, it would create a Director of Energy Security to oversee and keep America focused on its goal of energy independence.

While Lugar lists increasing the production of cellulosic biomass ethanol as the first priority of the bill, in actuality, the only specific mention is in section 6, which proposes to amend the Internal Revenue Code to extend the alcohol fuel mixture excise tax credit to cellulosic biomass ethanol. I will leave it up to environmental policy experts to evaluate if that makes the bill worthwhile or if the suspicions of environmentalists are valid, as David Roberts sums it up:

With the smell of pork in the air, greens worry that rather than a balanced package of energy initiatives (efficiency incentives, grid improvements, carbon taxes, etc.), America will simply be saddled with yet another massive, entrenched, politically connected, heavily subsidized industry.


Next, I decided to look Keefe's complaint about Obama and Katrina that " he was nowhere in the public discussion of ethnic cleansing in New Orleans." Obama has always comported himself as a bridge builder. I would not expect him to use the term "ethnic cleansing," which, while perhaps valid, is confrontational. Obama did address Katrina his speech to his fellow Black Harvard Law alums. I have yet to find the entire speech; it is not on his Senate website. However Tracy Jan of the Boston Globe quoted extensively in her September 18, 2005 article, "Obama urges alumni to help fight poverty: Gives speech at Harvard meeting of black grads." According to her, he

urged the nearly 1,000 people in attendance to take personal responsibility in combating the urban poverty brought to light after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans.

She quotes Obama,

The people that we saw in front of the Superdome and in front of the convention center, they had been abandoned before the hurricane.....The violence has always been there. It just wasn't on your television screen because it wasn't spilling out onto the lives of the rest of us..

Obama spoke about the

festering sores of poverty and racism

I do not ascribe to the White House . . . any active malice....'But rather what was revealed was a passive indifference that is common in our culture, common in our society -- the sense that of course once the evacuation order was issued that you will hop in your SUV with $100 worth of gasoline and load up your truck with sparkling water and take your credit card and check into the nearest hotel until the storm passed. And the notion that folks couldn't do that simply did not register in the minds of those in charge.

In the question and answer period, Obama added,

'We want to ensure that people who've been displaced have opportunities to participate in the rebuilding of their own communities.

Obama gave two statements on Katrina as a senator. In the first on September 5, he

a conversation I had with one woman captured the realities that are settling into these families as they face the future.

She told me "We had nothing before the hurricane. Now we got less than nothing."

We had nothing before the hurricane. Now we got less than nothing.

In the coming weeks, as the images of the immediate crisis fade and this chamber becomes consumed with other matters, we will be hearing a lot about lessons learned and steps to be taken. I will be among those voices calling for action.

Once the situation is stable, once families are settled - at least for the short term - once children are reunited with their parents and enrolled in schools and the wounds have healed, we're gonna have to do some hard thinking about how we could have failed our fellow citizens so badly, and how we will prevent such a failure from ever occurring again.

The second was a February 1, 2006 floor statement in the support of a tax credit amendement that he intended to introduce as part of the Tax Reconciliation Act.

We all know what happened to the families on the Gulf Coast due to Hurricane Katrina, and it will be a long time before these families can rebuild their lives. Many of the families in the affected states were evacuated to other areas, and many of them cannot even afford to go back. And the federal response so far has been inadequate to get these families effectively back on their feet.

We need to do better. At a time when we are debating $70 billion of tax breaks, many of which will benefit those who need the least help, it is critical that we remember the worst off and the most vulnerable members of our society.

The bus is coming. More later.


Appalachia's Last Stand: An Open Letter to West Virginia Citizens and the Congress of the United States

On Monday, October 16, 2006 a group of writers spoke with coalfield residents about their experiences with mountaintop removal (MTR) and thereafter flew over the area to view the devastation. Following is a letter we composed the next morning.

On October 16 and 17, sixteen writers gathered in the heart of West Virginia to hear testimony and witness first hand the grievous effects of mountaintop removal. We learned these five devastating facts:

  1. Toxic heavy metals, such as mercury, copper, arsenic, lead, and selenium have been released into the water system which feeds the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. This injures not only local residents but threatens water systems all the way to the Gulf.
  2. Dozens of dams (built from mining refuse to contain the toxic waste from mining and cleaning coal) are in danger of breaking. One holds over 3 billion (3,000,000,000) gallons of toxic sludge just 400 yards from Marsh Fork Elementary School. This sludge dam holds back twenty times as much toxic muck as the one at Buffalo Creek, whose rupture killed 125 people in 1972. 
  3. Coal companies have decapitated 474 mountains through the Appalachian region. Almost 1,000,000 acres of mountains have been leveled. West Virginia has lost 500,000 acres.
  4. Every day in WV, three million (3,000,000) pounds of ammonium-nitrate and diesel fuel are used to blow up mountains. This also releases untold quantities of coal and silica dust into the air.
  5. People's homes, property, and businesses have been damaged and destroyed as a direct result of mountaintop removal. In a single 2001 case, 1,500 homes were lost in a flood. The Federal court in Raleigh County, WV, has held the coal, landholding, and timber companies liable for this devastation.

In human terms what does this mean? This is what coal-field natives say:

  • This is not a story. These are our lives.
  • My children go to bed with their shoes on, so they can run in case of a flood.
  • I never imagined I'd sit on my front porch, watching the horizon disappear.
  • The first ones going to get it is our little children.
  • Where will our kids live, and our grandkids, and our children's grandkids?
  • Our golden years have turned to black years.
  • We're prisoners in our own homes.
  • Greed is overcoming common sense.
  • Why should I sell my home, when they are breaking the law? No one should have to live like we are.
  • Why destroy our homes for 30 years worth of energy? Why destroy our land, our air, our water?
  • This is not an act of G-d; this is an act of greed.
  • You're bound every where you turn.
  • This is not only a coal-field thing; this is a global thing.
  • This is a war zone. Not only do we have to fight the companies, but we have to fight our cousins and neighbors.
  • A man shouldn't have to poison his neighbors to feed himself.
We do not blame individual miners for struggling to support their families. They, too, are being forced to participate in the demise of their own culture. But this systematic destruction cannot be allowed to continue.

The fight against mountaintop removal will continue in Appalachia, and ultimately the struggle for justice must extend beyond our borders. We call for the end of mountaintop removal, and we call on the United States Congress to take immediate action to save our children, our people, and our mountains.

From Writers who live in West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky, and Ohio:

Bob Henry Baber
Adam Brown
Laura Treacy Bentley
Katie Fallon
Diane Gillam Fisher
Denise Giardina
Chris Green
Jeff Mann
Sam L. Martin
Irene McKinney
Rob Merritt
Delilah F. O'Haynes
Edwina Pendarvis
Kathy Pleska
John Van Kirk
Beth Wellington