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An Economic Game Plan to Prevent Water Pollution

by Brent Blackwelder

BlackwelderEven though the Clean Water Act is more than 40 years old, its goals have not been met, and America is still beset with chronic water ailments and acute pollution incidents. Already this year major toxic spills from coal operations in West Virginia and North Carolina have provided grounds for demanding comprehensive changes to a broken system of pollution control.

On January 9, 2014, people in Charleston, the capital of West Virginia, began vomiting while others complained of a strange pervasive licorice odor. The problem was traced to chemicals from a malfunctioning chemical/coal facility just upstream from the city’s water supply intake. A state of emergency was declared to provide after-the-fact protection to the 300,000 people who get their drinking water from this system. Both the water supply company and the chemical company allowed the emergency to unfold despite repeated warnings over the years about unsafe structures and operations.

On February 5, 2014, a spill from a coal ash impoundment unleashed 78 million pounds of arsenic-laden sludge into the Dan River, the source of drinking water for cities and towns in Virginia and North Carolina. Duke Energy, a giant utility, operates fourteen coal-fired power plants in North Carolina, and it dumps the toxic combustion byproduct, coal ash, into unlined ponds. The result: groundwater contamination and toxic spills into drinking water supplies. The Duke Energy spill comes with a sad, but familiar footnote. Pat McCrory, the governor of North Carolina, used to work for Duke Energy and has been on a crusade to weaken pollution controls ever since he took office.

Ongoing experience with such grotesque toxic spills, and even growing awareness of global water shortages have failed to generate sufficient responses. Today’s economic framework blocks significant progress on such crucial problems because it props up extractive and highly polluting industries.

Governments are stuck in a business-as-usual, growth-at-all-costs mindset, and they face constant pressure to deregulate industries. Since industry is fixated on profits and growth, it attempts to pay as few costs as possible; cost externalization is a built-in feature of the economic system. But someone always pays — just look at the people downstream or the species and ecosystems where spills occur.

The key to preventing and cleaning up water pollution is to shift the economy from the pursuit of unending growth to the pursuit of stability. Why would water pollution decline in a steady-state economy? Here are three reasons.

Coal ash in the Dan River

Coal ash in the Dan River from the Duke Energy spill in North Carolina (photo credit: Dan River Basin Association).

(1) Changing the macroeconomic goal away from growth and toward maintenance of life-support systems would change the way businesses and other institutions behave. The goal of a true-cost economy is sustainable and equitable well-being, rather than continuous growth. Actors in such an economy would care more about the medium and long-term future than quarterly returns.  For example, in a true-cost economy, chemical companies would engage in green chemistry, and utilities would produce renewable energy. The costs of using fossil fuels and other toxic substances would simply be too high to pay. Regarding the outrageous scenario of having decaying storage tanks full of dangerous chemicals directly upstream from the water supply intake for a state capital: it would never happen in a true-cost economy.

(2) Companies would be required to have eco-auditors just as they are now required to have financial auditors. Such eco-auditors would assess whether a company was externalizing costs and whether the company’s production was harming life-support systems. Eco-auditors could also show businesses how to avoid pollution. Companies would disclose their ecological impacts in an annual report just as they do with financial audits.

(3) There would be consequences for repeat polluters. For example, in the decade prior to its gigantic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, BP had been responsible for a refinery fire in Texas with significant loss of life and two oil spills in the Arctic Ocean from the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline. Why not three strikes and you’re out? Why not deny BP the right to do business in the U.S.? Instead, the Obama administration has done the opposite by giving BP the go-ahead to drill again in the Gulf of Mexico!

Another example: given the repeated incidents of pollution oozing from Duke Energy’s numerous coal ash ponds, despite years of complaints and penalties, shouldn’t it be denied the right to do business in North Carolina? Shouldn’t its facilities be turned over to more responsible utilities? After all, the vulnerability of coal ash impoundments has been making headlines since December of 2008 when a TVA storage pond in East Tennessee burst and contaminated the Clinch River. Clean-up efforts continue to this day, and costs have exceeded $1.5 billion. TVA said it could never happen again, but in January of 2009, not even a full month later, another coal ash pond failed, this time in Alabama.

We need to adopt a broader, transformative economic approach and stop thinking that pleading with companies and government agencies will suffice. We need to (1) change the goal from growth to sustainability, (2) change company reporting to include ecological audits, and (3) change incentives by denying companies the right to operate when they dodge their responsibilities. Under the current economic paradigm, pollution will persist and natural resources, including soils, waters, forests, and oceans, will continue to decline. Only a new economic game plan can protect our shared water resources and prevent pollution.

The Role of Regulation in a Steady State Economy

by Brent Blackwelder

Regulations have played an essential role in modern attempts to curtail pollution, prevent abuses in the banking system, ensure safe food, and protect public health. They have been indispensable in checking powerful corporate interests that abuse the public trust.

Now, just on the heels of the global financial collapse and forty years after the first Earth Day, we are witnessing two frustrating failures in the United States:

(1) the failure of regulatory bodies to perform their duties, and

(2) the failure of regulations to achieve objectives contained in major laws (e.g., the coal strip mining law (SMCRA), the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act).

A prime example is the inability and the unwillingness of the government to implement the law and halt the obliteration of portions of the Appalachian Mountains by mountaintop-removal mining. Despite creative strategies by many citizen groups involving all branches of government — legislative, executive, and judicial — the erasure of the landscape continues. The destruction of these biologically diverse mountains in West Virginia and the wreckage of public drinking water, however, are not just environmental nightmares. They are also economic calamities that are completely incongruent with the principles of a steady state economy.  A corporation with a health, safety, and environmental record like Massey Energy would not even be able to maintain a license to do business in a steady state economy.

Better regulation could prevent problems like this nightmare on Kayford Mountain.

Regulations, including tax code changes and outright bans on particularly destructive practices, will be part of the landscape in a steady state economy, but we have to structure them differently. We need to change the dynamics that cripple much regulation today. Here are some key elements of the regulatory transition aimed at curtailing the abuses of corporations and preventing pollution:

(1) Make it vastly more expensive to pollute than to prevent pollution: no more token fines, legal delays, and slaps on the wrist.

(2) Increase taxes on pollution — it’s a no-brainer to tax what we want to reduce or eliminate.

(3) Apply special regulatory attention to the natural resource extracting industries (i.e., fossil fuel, timber, and mining). These industries are causing immense pollution and wiping out entire ecosystems. Extra disincentives should accompany any regulations on pipelines, drilling, reactors and other risky ventures where the consequence of an accident — natural or man-made — produces very damaging health or environmental impacts.

(4) Economize the use of raw natural resources in production processes and establish comprehensive recycling programs. In his seminal book, Cradle to Cradle, architect William McDonough has described such a strategy for reducing the enormous throughput of raw materials to a sustainable level.

Here are two examples to illustrate the above points:

(1) The U.S. strategy for phasing out the use of ozone-depleting chemicals under the Ozone Treaty of 1987 (Montreal Protocol) was a smashing success. It is a strategy worth implementing for other pollutants. The Congress set phase-out dates for a group of ozone-depleting chemicals and imposed a steeply increasing tax on their usage until the date of the ban arrived. In response, corporations stopped using the chemicals ahead of schedule, quite a different scenario from the usual foot-dragging.

(2) Yet another oil spill just occurred, this time on Montana’s magnificent Yellowstone River when an Exxon pipeline ruptured and spilled an estimated 42,000 gallons. In the past year the world has witnessed a major nuclear catastrophe in Japan at the reactors in Fukushima, run by Tokyo Electric (TEPCO), as well as a gigantic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico when BP’s deep drilling went awry. In these and other similar cases the current global system privatizes the gains and socializes the losses (i.e., the corporations keep the profits, and citizens get stuck with the bill for the environmental disasters). Nobel-prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz observes that societies following this policy “inevitably mismanage risk.” With each passing day, it becomes clearer that we need to manage risk, not continue to mismanage it. Thus, regulatory controls on extractive industries must reflect the riskiness and magnitude of adverse outcomes.

In contrast to this discussion on improving regulatory approaches, the present Republican leadership has given a green light to eviscerating regulations across the board, much as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich attempted in the mid 1990s. This is part of a long-term, deliberate effort to frame regulation as being the problem, not the solution.

I suggest that we directly confront this ideology and switch the frame to view new regulatory approaches as problem-solvers that will achieve beneficial results for human civilization and the ecosystems we inhabit.

Steady State Transportation: Closing the Door on the Dirty Oil Era

by Brent Blackwelder

If human civilization is to make the move to a steady state economy that provides prosperity without growth, it must meet people’s basic mobility needs without reliance on fossil fuels. The U.S. requires a revolutionary transformation of its transportation systems, and recent experience with the downsides of oil provides a potent political push to overcome inertia.


Image Credit: Neoporcupine


In the United States, the transportation sector consumes about 60% of the oil and is responsible for about one-third of greenhouse gas emissions. We use more gasoline than the next 20 nations combined. America has 2.6 million miles of paved roads with 3 cars for every 4 people in the country, and 88% of people get to work via automobile.

Concerns about global climate destabilization and dramatic water pollution have put the issue of oil usage front and center. The world has focused on the tragedy of the gigantic BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that began on April 20. But numerous other spills, leakages, and pipeline breaks have occurred since April. For example, the Enbridge pipeline ruptured the last week in July and spilled over one million gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan. As with BP, this recent spill was not a unique mishap but rather one in a long series of accidents and violations in Enbridge’s history.

Over the past decade, there have been over 1,600 accidents with oil pipelines in the U.S. The year 2010 is not extraordinary for its mishaps, but merely business as usual in the oil industry. It is naïve to think that Congress or state legislative bodies can tighten regulatory and enforcement regimes to solve the problem. Friends of the Earth and other environmental groups have tried this route, but oil is inherently dirty. In addition, the oil industry is politically powerful, and well-intentioned protections often fail to curtail the massive amounts of leakage and spillage in the U.S. and around the word.

To achieve optimal economic scale and a true balance with nature in a steady state economy (i.e., healthy ecosystems and a healthy economy), boldness is required, and the transportation sector is a good place to start. Ending the use of oil to power vehicles, from planes to trains to automobiles, is a must. But the power of the highway lobby and the momentum of the global jet-setting economy’s demands make this objective appear improbable.

Some encouraging signs of change, however, provide the basis for making big demands on Congress, state legislatures, and the executive branch. For example, public support for spending the preponderance of federal transportation dollars on road construction (instead of public transportation) may be cracking significantly. On July 25th the Chicago Tribune reported that for the first time, both suburban and urban citizens in the Chicago metro area think that more money ought to be spent on transit than on highways.

Another promising sign is the growth in U.S. transit ridership. Since 1996 transit ridership has increased by an average of 2.6% annually, including a 3.3% increase in 2009.

Recent economic analyses highlight the costliness of oil and automobile usage, and evidence from these analyses can drive big shifts in policy. For instance, the U.K. Department of Transport has found that for each British pound spent to reduce car usage, there are £10 of benefits in the economy from fuel savings, reduced congestion costs, and lower pollution levels.

But America lags far behind other nations in rethinking transportation systems – a quick comparison of Atlanta to Amsterdam demonstrates the gap. In Atlanta 95% of residents commute to work by car. In Amsterdam 40% commute by car, 35% bike or walk, and 25% go by transit. The series of oil spills in the U.S. this year should energize efforts in city after city to revamp transportation and breathe new life into automobile alternatives.

My brother Brion Blackwelder, who is a law professor at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, suggests several standards that a modern 21st century transportation system should meet:

1. Zero tolerance for death and injury;

2. Congestion as a rarity rather than a daily occurrence;

3. Small footprint in terms of land use, energy use, air and water pollution, and wildlife impacts;

4. Provision of services for the young, the old, the disabled, and the poor.

Not surprisingly, the United States flunks the test of meeting these standards. Take, for example, the first. Highway accidents each year in the U.S. claim the lives of about 40,000 people, and several hundred thousand more are seriously injured. Contrast this tragic record with Japan’s bullet trains. The speedy 322-mile route from Tokyo to Osaka, completed in 1964, has not had a single passenger fatality. Today 1,360 miles of high-speed rail link all of Japan’s cities.

One way to confront the challenge posed by these standards would be to shift to mostly electric vehicles. Cars and trains could be run on electricity generated by wind, solar, and other renewable sources. For part of the 20th century, the Milwaukee Railroad operated 650 miles of electric rail over five Pacific Northwest mountain ranges on its Chicago to Seattle route.

It may come as a surprise that 100 years ago Henry Ford and Thomas Edison were so dissatisfied with the internal combustion engine that they were developing and selling all-electric cars from 1910 to 1914, when a mysterious fire burned almost all of Edison’s laboratories in December of 1914.

Now is the time to rekindle that vision, capitalize on the public’s awareness of the dirty consequences that consistently accompany our oil usage, reinforce the growing sentiment to invest in public transportation, and begin serious debate on a sustainable transportation system.

New Thinking on BP Spill: Declare a Holiday!

The BP spill demands a far more significant response than ongoing cleanups, unsuccessful attempts to plug the gushing oil, and desperate efforts to mitigate the multitude of impacts from the biggest oil catastrophe in U.S. history. The BP spill demands a paradigm shift in how we run our economy and carry out our governance. Historians will one day look back on this spill as the nadir of governmental regulatory performance, in which oil companies commandeered and corrupted the Interior Department oil leasing program.  So what’s the response we need to get the paradigm shift going?  How about declaring a new holiday?

Before describing this new holiday, let’s look a little more closely at the current response.  Congress is not thinking in terms of a paradigm change either in the economy or the regulatory framework. Nor is the Obama administration. They are thinking about where oil drilling is okay and where it is not. Some Republican leaders, like Representative Barton of Texas, even accused President Obama of trying to “shake down” BP.

So instead of fundamental change, the most likely Congressional response to the BP spill will be to go back and write a new liability law for oil.

Following the tragic Exxon Valdez tanker accident in Alaska in 1989, Friends of the Earth was a leader in pushing for the 1990 Oil Liability Law to help safeguard against another Exxon Valdez accident. This law put in place requirements for double-hull oil tankers and new liability ceilings. Our hope was that the 1990 law would prevent bad spills and reduce spill frequency, but given the nature of enforcement (coupled with oil company attempts to flout regulations), the law was insufficient to protect the Gulf of Mexico.

This type of legislative response is too tepid to meet the challenge. The gravity of the current BP spill is the latest manifestation of the massively polluting direction of worldwide energy growth – growth that is jeopardizing the livability of our planet.

On July 5, the New York Times reported that per capita energy consumption in China is soaring as its population seeks more and bigger cars and appliances. Given that the global population stands at 6.8 billion and is headed toward 9 to 11 billion by 2050, a paradigm shift in the basis for the world economy is necessary just to head off the many tragedies that are already occurring in connection with excessive consumption, soaring population, grotesque pollution, and the obliteration of diverse ecosystems.

The economic structure must be totally reshaped to require real cost pricing for natural resources to reflect all the external costs imposed on current and future generations and on the life-support systems of the earth. We must ask ourselves serious questions that most economists don’t want to deal with. For example, what is the real cost of coal or of oil? Why is the concept of economic growth sacrosanct?

It is not just in the energy sector that we see prices failing to reflect their ecological costs, but across the food, health, and safety spectrum. What is the real cost of our food and of the animal factory slum operations that brutalize animals and shove their health and pollution impacts off on neighboring communities? What is the real condition of our topsoil and our groundwater? What is the real index of social and economic well-being, given that GDP (gross domestic product) only measures throughput in the economy with little accounting for the future?

In particular, under a new economics there would be a shift away from oil usage because the price of gasoline at the pump would be about $9 per gallon when social and environmental costs are included, not the artificially low prices we see today.

The Center for Technology Assessment published an updated estimate showing that the real cost of gasoline at the pump is between $5.60 and $15.14 per gallon if all the hidden subsidies and serious damages caused by gasoline usage were factored in. Health damages from all the air pollution caused by motor vehicles ranges between $231.7 and $942.9 billion annually, and military protection for oil supplies ranges between $55 and $96.3 billion per year.

To move us toward bigger thinking, the United States should declare an Interdependence Day. This July Americans celebrated the 234th Independence Day with fireworks galore. But the U.S. needs more ecological awareness and recognition of our interdependence with the rest of humanity and other life on this planet. On Interdependence Day we could reflect on how much we depend on others and on our environment to support us. We are on spaceship earth together and we need a spaceship economics for us to survive over the long run, not the cowboy economics that produces boom and bust cycles with some big winners and massive numbers of losers.

The gigantic economies of the United States, China, and Europe can spread air pollution and toxins all over the earth and even affect people living in remote areas. Interdependence Day would dramatize how pollution in one area harms people’s health in other areas. It would help foster consideration of the profound changes that must follow in the aftermath of the BP spill.

The future of civilization depends on moving rapidly away from an economy that glorifies jobless growth and futureless growth to a prosperous steady state economy, an economy that tells the truth about the real cost of natural resource extraction and usage.

The stewardship aspects of the economy should appeal to all the great religions of the world, and their voices are needed to counter the disinformation campaigns of the major polluters. The BP oil disaster gives citizens the platform to speak out and demand a new economics for a clean energy future and for the well-being of humanity.

Steady Staters, Futbol Fever, and NASCAR Nonsense

I am entirely addicted to watching World Cup soccer. It’s the greatest sporting event on the planet – each match is a high-stakes struggle with international intrigue and unpredictable endings. It’s hard to top the build-up and excitement of a last minute goal that means the difference between going home and moving on to the next round (see the U.S. goal against Slovenia during the group stage). But perhaps the extreme effort from Ghana against the U.S., featuring magnificent runs and fearsome goals, did exactly that. It was amazing to see the Ghana players perform, especially while carrying the hopes of an entire continent on their shoulders (or should I say feet?). Ok, so I’m a fan of the World Cup, but what does that have to do with a steady state economy?

To make the transition to an economy that supports, rather than deteriorates, our one and only home, we need to change some of the things we do. For example, it makes very little sense to continue removing the tops of mountains to extract coal and convert it to electricity and carbon dioxide in a power plant. Surely we can find ways to meet our energy needs that don’t liquidate functioning ecosystems and eons-old geologic structures while simultaneously destabilizing climate.

To have a shot at “changing some of the things we do” requires that we change our individual behaviors. Obviously we can place plenty of blame on the BPs of the corporate world, but corporations are wreaking environmental havoc because individuals, communities, and societies are demanding the products they create. If we can reduce our propensity to consume and use resources more wisely, we will be well on our way to curbing the liquidation of natural capital that comes with economic growth and all its associated consumption.

That’s what living life as a steady stater is about – making choices that meet our needs without compromising the needs of future generations. Steady staters are known for their conservation, thrift and ethics. Some might think that being a steady stater means leading a life of sacrifice and unfulfilled wants, but nothing could be farther from the truth. One’s happiness or satisfaction with life is hardly related to the quantity of material possessions owned, once basic needs for sustenance and convenience have been met. Throughout the world, researchers and citizens are coming to understand and appreciate this fact. It is altogether clear that people don’t need to consume resources wantonly to lead lives of fulfillment – in fact, one of the keys to a life of fulfillment is focusing attention elsewhere (e.g., social connections and relationships).

That brings me back to soccer. It’s known around the world as “the beautiful game.” No, it’s not the overly colorful uniforms and creative haircuts on the players that are the origins of that moniker. It’s the tempo, teamwork, and tactics. But it also has to do with the simplicity of the game: eleven players on a side, 2 goals, one ball, and one very easy to understand rule about not using your hands (following the lead of the referees in this World Cup, let’s forget about the offside rule for the time being). Soccer is a low-throughput game. You don’t need much in the way of materials or energy to play a match. That’s also one of the reasons for its global popularity – anyone can play it anywhere. It’s a steady stater sport!

Now let’s contrast the beautiful game with the number two spectator sport in the U.S. – NASCAR auto racing. This “sport” requires massive expenditures of energy and materials as racers roll around (and around and around and around) the track for 4 or 500 miles, strapped into inefficient, CO2-spewing, tire-trashing cars. Setting aside judgment about the merits of watching cars drive in a circle, mostly in anticipation of a life-threatening and auto-obliterating pileup, there is no doubt that a NASCAR race is a consumptive and wasteful enterprise. Adding insult to injury, every inch of space on the cars and the people driving them is covered by advertisements aimed at increasing consumption!

93 barrels of oil on the shore...

Soccer, NASCAR – what’s the difference? Why make a distinction when they’re both just sports, and there are so many critical problems that we ought to be working to solve? Sports are a big part of many cultures around the world – hence the popularity of the World Cup and the inclusion of sports scores and stories in just about every newspaper. Part of being human is playing games, and doing so may be especially important when we face difficult times. We can all use a little escape from some of the grim realities swirling around us. There are some games, however, that fit within the cultural and economic paradigms of sustainability, and some that don’t. Count me a futbol fan!

More Accidents Await with President Obama’s Errant Energy Policies

President Obama triumphantly entered office with the popular promise of moving the United States to a cleaner energy basis, but his actions to date, along with those of the Congress, have promoted two types of dangerous energy developments: off-shore oil drilling and nuclear reactors. Nuclear expert Harvey Wasserman highlighted the dual dangers by noting, “As BP’s ghastly gusher assaults the Gulf of Mexico, a tornado has forced a shutdown of the Fermi 2 atomic reactor at the site of a 1966 melt-down that nearly irradiated the entire Great Lakes Region.”

These two recent events bring the reality of energy subsidies, especially in the form of liability limits, sharply into focus. The public should be suspicious of gigantic energy projects like deepwater oil drilling and nuclear reactors that are labeled “safe,” but enjoy liability protections from the extraordinary damages they can cause.

In contrast, projects to reduce energy waste or to generate electricity from solar or wind farms do not require special financial protection from huge disasters that spiral out of control. We don’t have to worry about a leak of solar or wind energy into the water or on the land. If a few solar panels or wind turbines fail, there is no widespread ecological catastrophe.

Everyone ought to pose a question to U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu and White House Climate Czar Carol Browner: do you have a credible plan to respond to a disaster at a nuclear reactor that is superior to what we have seen at the BP spill in the Gulf? Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar should be asked why, after promising at his swearing-in ceremony to bring integrity back to the department, he did nothing but grant permit after permit and exemption after exemption for offshore oil drilling?

It is important to raise these issues with the Obama Administration because this month it is proceeding to promote and request money for more nuclear reactors, including several right on the Gulf Coast. Another would be only 50 miles from Washington, DC on the shores of Chesapeake Bay. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has warned that at least one new design proposed for federal funding cannot withstand tornadoes, earthquakes, or hurricanes.

A sustainable economy – a steady state economy with stabilized throughput – needs to be powered by reliable energy resources that do not wreak havoc with our security or our ecosystems. In a steady state economy, taxpayers would not be given the role of ultimate underwriters for energy debacles. Today the situation of government subsidization of dirty and risky energy is epitomized by the U.S. tax code, which has rewarded pollution and waste for over a century. Other ongoing government subsidies such as loan guarantees, tax write-offs, and miscellaneous appropriations are counterproductive, preventing the transition to a prosperous steady state economy.

The Obama Administration is perpetuating the worst in dirty energy and neglecting basic economic principles that ought to apply to all energy projects. The energy that runs most of the global economy today has externalized its health and environmental costs onto the public. Coal mining by mountain-top removal in West Virginia and oil extraction from tar sands in Canada provide two stark examples of poor economic practices – practices that President Obama could alter to develop the clean energy future he promised.

The legacy of mountain-top removal in West Virginia consists of wrecked watersheds, contaminated groundwater, valleys and streams filled with millions of tons of rock waste, and obliterated deciduous forests – damages that will never be paid for by the coal industry. An all-out military assault on these biologically diverse mountains could not produce a more comprehensive destruction than is now taking place. Reclamation is the equivalent of putting lipstick on a corpse.

Oil extracted from tar sands in Alberta, Canada is coming into the United States, and new pipelines are being proposed to transport it. Yet a net energy analysis of tar sands oil shows that you have to spend the equivalent of 5 gallons of oil to steam one gallon of oil out of the tar sands. An energy-efficient Toyota Prius using tar sands oil would thus be getting worse fuel mileage than a big SUV or Hummer. Left behind are poisoned water and soils and a huge reservoir of toxic waste that could burst forth and further pummel a compromised landscape.

These two sources of energy can only be brought to market because of hidden subsidies and incredible externalization of costs. The external costs should be internalized – virtually every economist agrees that such externalized costs are the result of a “market failure.” President Obama could also take direct action, for example, by refusing to grant a permit for a new U.S. pipeline to transmit the tar sands oil. (Visit Friends of the Earth for more information).

Energy accidents keep happening. In December of 2008 a Tennessee Valley Authority waste reservoir that was holding contaminated ash from its coal power plant burst, releasing over a billion gallons of toxic sludge into the Tennessee River Basin. This TVA disaster was 100 times larger than the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, which dumped 10.9 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound. Each year coal preparation creates waste containing an estimated 13 tons of mercury, 3,236 tons of arsenic, 189 tons of beryllium, 251 tons of cadmium, 2,754 tons of nickel, and 1,098 tons of selenium. And the toxic ash from coal burning is frequently held in reservoirs susceptible to dam failure.

The coal industry and TVA said this unfortunate accident would not happen again, but not even a month later in January 2009, another coal waste reservoir in Alabama failed and spilled its contaminants onto the land and water.

These allegedly “cheap” sources of energy could not survive if their prices reflected their true ecological costs. Market failures need to be corrected so that oil platform failures and dam failures can be eliminated. In a steady state economy no energy source would be permitted to externalize all of its health and ecosystem impacts.

BP: Beyond Probablilities

BrianCzechAs much as I intended to cover the pending designation of GNP National Monument in Montana, that will have to wait until next time.  This week, there’s just no way a Daly News contributor could fail to focus on British Petroleum and the Deepwater spill.

Punctuated environmental disasters like Bhopal, Chernobyl, and Deepwater have a lot in common with ongoing, insidious disasters like climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution in general.  The insidious disasters are so tightly linked to economic growth you couldn’t separate them with a BP “top-kill” pump.  But so are the punctuated disasters.  And, as with the insidious disasters, the linkage of punctuated disasters to economic growth is never pointed out in the mainstream media.

The connection has to be pointed out, with emphasis and often, or we can forget about economic policy reform toward a steady state economy.  Instead, naïve (or unscrupulous) politicians and economists will call for more economic growth in order to fund all the hapless responses like hair-booms, deepwater robots, and top-kills.

The linkage between economic growth and environmental disaster probably seems obvious or at least intuitive to people such as our CASSE signatories, but we’ve learned that it is far from obvious to many economists, businessmen, politicians, and others who haven’t thought about it in these terms.  So let’s think about it a bit…

Image by PDXCreative

Environmental accidents include a long, long list of leaks, spills, collapses, collisions, breaks, explosions, fires, derailments, and other wrecks and mishaps to match the variety of economic endeavors from which they stem.  Here we are focused on accidents in the energy sector for two reasons.  First, these accidents tend to be some of the most disastrous.  Second, they are the most inevitable.

The first point is fairly obvious; the second point bears elaboration.  Why are energy sector accidents most inevitable?

While economic growth may not absolutely require, say, diamond mining with all its environmental and social costs, economic growth absolutely requires the use of more energy.  Diamond mining may be an optional sector in a growing economy; the energy sector is not.  Such is the trophic structure of the economy.

So economic activity requires energy, and a growing economy requires more energy.  Next, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that the probabilities of energy sector accidents increase with – you got it – the level of activity in the energy sector!  And gambling with the energy sector is no Saturday jaunt to the tribal casino, where you might hit the jackpot and make an escape.  We’re talking about national and global economies – tens of thousands of oil wells, thousands of coal mines, hundreds of nuclear plants, etc. – operating 24/7 and into the long run.

That means the “probabilities” play out!

So it’s not a matter of whether disasters will occur.  And there’s no question they will devastate ecosystems, blow by blow (they’re disasters, remember?).  At this point, we’re BP: Beyond Probabilities.  For all practical and policy purposes, disasters and devastation are certain.  The only issue is how many disasters and how much devastation.  These amounts are certainly a function of economic growth.

So when they ask for ideas on what can be done about Deepwater or future such disasters, tell them to think of the big picture for a change and realize there’s just no techofix to the probabilities playing out.  The only real way to lessen the damage our grandkids will inherit is to start putting the brakes on this runaway economy.  That entails macroeconomic policy reform, not technofixes, and consumer care, not consumer “confidence.”

A steady state economy, even at the current dangerous size, would probably be the single greatest thing this generation could accomplish.  The next generation may have to work on putting the economy in reverse for awhile, until it fits within the planet’s capacity for disasters.  We need to lower the level of economic activity, starting with the energy sector, because in the long run, probabilities play out.

A Smarter Planet?

Herman Daly“We are capable of shutting off the sun and the stars because they do not pay a dividend.” — John Maynard Keynes, 1933

Let’s build a smarter planet.” This is IBM’s inspirational slogan, intoned as a benediction at the end of their 2010 advertisements. They do not say, “Let’s make a smarter adaptation to our planet Earth, out of which we were created and by which we are sustained.” It is the planet that is insufficiently smart, not its evolutionary prize-winning, big-brained, star tenant.

What makes IBM think that the planet is dumb? Well, obviously the mentally challenged Earth does not know how to keep on accommodating our continual economic growth, so we must redesign it with that remedial instruction in mind. For example, our growth requires fossil fuels, but when we burn a lot of them the resulting atmospheric CO2 slows down the radiation of heat back to outer space, heating up the stupid planet and causing dumb climate change. It would be easier to radiate heat energy out and make more thermal room for necessary fossil fuel burning if only we had less solar energy coming in. So a smarter planet would have a higher albedo to reflect more of that troublesome incoming solar radiation. Blasting light-reflecting particles of sulfur into the stratosphere or troposphere should raise the planet’s IQ a great deal.

This sophisticated planet-smartening pedagogy is known as geo-engineering. It will cheaply re-engineer the planet to allow BP to feed the sacred flame of economic growth by drilling deeper holes in more precarious places to pump more oil. That in turn will supply NASA with the resources to build more rockets, thereby to fulfill our cosmic destiny to escape this terminally dumb planet and build a really smart one from scratch in a better location. Scientists have long realized that geo-engineering and other retrofitting measures, while necessary to buy time for building up evacuation capacity, cannot be the final solution for a congenitally moronic planet. And if meanwhile an occasional oil spill reduces the photosynthetic capacity of life in the Gulf of Mexico — well, we have just seen that our silly planet already allows in too much solar energy, so if we reduce that inflow we will not have to trouble ourselves with converting it into food energy. Furthermore when NASA, BP, and IBM finish building our new smart planet, it will contain a new and smarter Gulf of Mexico.

To sum up, by serving only the interests of the growing economy, global corporations like IBM are providentially led, as if by an invisible hand, to also build a smarter planet! Of course, unlike Adam Smith, they do not really believe in any deistic providence with its invisible hand that converts private greed into public good. They know from modern science that random mutation plus natural selection explains everything, and that free will and purpose are illusions. But some of these illusions have survival value and must be persuasively advertised to secure support from the tax-paying masses (science is expensive) — at least until IBM, BP, and NASA have finished building a planet so smart that its inhabitants can safely be dumb robots.

British Petroleum Vs. a Sustainable Planet: Time to Ban BP from Doing Business in the United States

British Petroleum (BP) portrayed itself this past decade as an oil company investing in renewable sources of clean energy for a “Beyond Petroleum” future. BP had many people convinced that it was a very different kind of oil company, but the catastrophic spill this spring in the Gulf of Mexico is shedding light on the true nature of this transnational corporation.

The BP spill jeopardizes the entire northern coastline of the Gulf with its outstanding fish and shellfish productivity. Seventy percent of the U.S. shrimp harvest comes from the Gulf. This oil spill could exceed that of the 11-million-gallon spill by the Exxon Valdez in Alaska in 1989 and deliver a devastating blow to economies from Louisiana to the Florida panhandle.

BP is the embodiment of mindless growth, an organization that puts profits ahead of people and the planet. Its practices run counter to the prudent economic policies promoted by the Center for the Advancement of a Steady State Economy. BP in fact provides a case study of a corporation fixated on unlimited growth in oil consumption while pretending to be focused on sustainable living.

Prize-winning economist Kenneth Boulding could have used BP as the poster child for his critique of cowboy or frontier economics (see The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth). In contrast to an urgently needed spaceship economy for a planet of 6.8 billion people, BP’s cowboy economy exploits natural resources with abandon as if there were no such thing as peak oil. Maximization of throughput and growth of oil usage regardless of consequences underpin BP’s strategy, as it seeks oil in every nook and cranny of our planet and takes risks that jeopardize the well-being of millions.

BP’s advertising slogan “Beyond Petroleum” suggested that the company was going to move rapidly away from dirty oil, cut energy waste, and support clean transportation policies. BP pushed aggressively ahead with massive pursuit of fossil fuel, and rather than spend profits on clean energy investments, the company used $50 billion this past decade buying back its own stock.

Accidents and Sloppiness

In March 2005, explosions shook the BP refinery in Texas City, Texas, killing 15 workers and injuring 170. The CBS program 60 Minutes investigated the accident and found evidence that BP ignored warning after warning.

BP’s cavalier attitude toward safety revealed itself once again last fall when it opposed the Interior Department’s plan to require better safety measures on offshore drilling rigs. On September 12, 2009, Richard Morrison, Vice President of BP America for Gulf of Mexico Operations, wrote to the Department objecting to the new safety plan, saying “…we are not supportive of the extensive prescriptive regulations… We believe the industry’s current safety and environmental statistics demonstrate that the voluntary programs… have been and continue to be very successful.”  BP’s “successful” record includes 41 deaths and over 300 injuries between 2001 and 2007.

BP’s oil accidents and spillage are nothing new. In March of 2006, BP’s badly corroded pipeline in Alaska ruptured, sending hundreds of thousand of gallons of crude oil into the Arctic Ocean. The House Energy and Commerce Committee found in its 2007 hearing a mountain of evidence that BP’s cost-cutting maintenance had led to the spill. Once again last year in Alaska, BP spilled oil from its Prudhoe Bay pipeline.

Hypocritical and Irresponsible Decisions

This year BP announced the closure of its solar panel facility in Frederick, Maryland. BP says it is going to relocate in Asia. However, BP has also approached the U.S. Department of Energy for a taxpayer loan to build a central solar facility at the Brookhaven Lab on Long Island. What do actions like these say about BP’s community values? Is it ethical for BP to pursue federal solar grants, given its major disinvestment in solar energy in America?

Perhaps an even more disturbing demonstration of BP’s environmentally unsound tactics comes from its choice to route an oil pipeline from the Caspian Sea to the Black Sea right through a national park in the nation of Georgia. This move (a European corporation defacing a European national park) is akin to a U.S. oil company running a pipeline up the Yellowstone River smack dab in the middle of our first National Park.

The Best Bet? Banning BP

On March 31 President Obama launched an offshore drilling program, encompassing 167 million acres. In so doing he embraced the aggressive drilling program called for by the 2008 Republican National Convention and surprised many of his supporters who thought his administration would usher in a new era of clean energy. Last year the Interior Department waived the environmental impact assessment requirement for BP’s Gulf of Mexico drilling. Now the question is whether the Obama administration will treat BP like Goldman Sachs as “too big to fail.”

Some like Michael Brune, the new executive director of the Sierra Club, have called for separation of oil and state. This makes sense as an initial step, because the oil industry cannot police itself. But much more dramatic action is necessary to break the oil industry’s stranglehold on governments worldwide if we are going to achieve a prosperous, steady state economy.

Given the current massive BP oil spill and the history of BP’s malfeasance with repeated pollution debacles, it is time to deny BP the right to do business in the United States. The track record shows that BP:

  1. is lacking in basic moral principles;
  2. has perpetrated a fraudulent advertising campaign suggesting that it is better than other oil companies;
  3. has failed to take safety and environmental responsibilities seriously; and
  4. is unwilling to consider limits to growth in the fossil fuel industry.

BP is an obstacle to a sustainable, prosperous economy – an obstacle that we can no longer afford to tolerate.