Tuesday, August 18, 2015

The editorial board reveals its true loyalty

This Saturday the Kittanning Leader Times posted two editorials.  Well, to be more precise, the Leader Times reproduced two editorials written under the supervision of its parent newspaper, the Tribune-Review.  See here and here for the originals.  The first criticized the recently-announced Clean Power Plan for being too expensive.  It based its arguments on a Wall Street Journal article by Thomas Pyle.  Pyle, in turn, uses a study authored by Thomas Stacy and George Taylor that purports to do something heretofore not attempted, namely  compare the cost of bringing new power sources advocated by the Clean Power Plan -- especially solar and wind -- online to the cost of living with our existing power sources over the same timeframe.  Their study focuses on the relative LCOE (levelized cost of operation of electricity) for existing power generations sources to the cost of bringing new sources online to replace them prior to their natural end of life.  Trouble is, the federal Energy Information Administration already has described a measure called LACE (levelized avoidance cost of electricity) and provided estimates for precisely the comparative costs of bringing new power generation facilities of various sorts online vs. leaving existing facilities in operation for both 2020 and 2040.  Generally, the EIA report did find that bringing new sources online would cost more than doing nothing in 2020 but would yield cost benefits in 2040.  Significantly, the EIA report does not take into account external costs such as the larger societal effects of the use of or transition from/to any particular type of power source.   The Stacy and Taylor study does not use LACE estimates in its study, an oversight or a purposeful misreprentation?  The study includes no explanation for the failure to use or at least acknowledge the existence of the EIA's LACE estimates.

The study avoids discussing external costs imposed by power generation choices, such as the inability to use resources elsewhere once they are invested in building and maintaining new power generation facilities or handling the effects of power generation on the environment, including climate.  If rapid climate change is happening due to the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere by human activity, it hardly makes sense to omit the costs to society of pollution and climate change in a discussion of public power generation policy.  Yet, that is how Pyle and the Times Leader editorial board use the study.  Surprising?  No, given that the Times Leader editorial board, Pyle, and at least Thomas Stacy all agree that any climate change taking place now is not caused by humans and humans can do little or nothing to stop it.  If George Taylor has a position on human-caused climate change I couldn't find it.

Another major criticism of the study is that it grossly overestimates the cost of adding wind power to the electric grid.  According to the authors, wind energy costs 3 to 4 times as much as other power sources over its lifetime as well as causing other energy sources to be used less efficiently.  Critics challenge both of these claims, arguing that the authors used old data and ignored crucial mitigating factors in their estimates.  You can find a summary of these criticisms here.   To this non-specialist it appeared as if both sides could be making valid points and I have to admit I'm suspicious that the people making the pro-wind arguments may be trying to protect their financial stake in the spread of power generation by wind.

In general, it has to be said that the whole issue of the costs of power generation is complex and it is difficult to generalize, as the relative costs of one type of power generation compared to another are to some extent dependent on local factors.  Still, from the reading I've done a good argument can be made that alternatives to fossil fuels, considered singly or in combination, will not be able to replace fossil fuels as the major power source for electricity generation for the foreseeable future, unless something major changes the equations.   By major I mean something like a ground-breaking technical discovery that makes storage of wind or solar-generated power storable in large quantities for long periods of time at a low cost.  Or, a huge reduction in human population.  Or, massive gains in energy conservation.  Or, finally, the discovery of a way to exploit an alternate power source at a massive scale, nuclear fusion, for example.  I don't claim to know whether the Stacy and Taylor study is correct or not.

What I do know is that Pyle, Stacy, Taylor and/or the organizations for which they work have long-standing ties to oil, gas, and coal interests.  Pyle  used to be a lobbyist for Koch Industries and the non-profit he currently works for, the Institute for Energy Research, is also largely funded by oil, gas, and coal interests.  Thomas Stacy and George Taylor have also been involved in anti-wind power political activities for a good while.  Taylor is a fellow at E&E Legal, a right-wing non-profit, formerly known as the American Tradition Institute.  Here is the dirt on this organization.   But you don't need a Sourcewatch expose to figure out that E&E Legal is rabidly anti-regulation, pro-corporate organization; just look over their own blog!
Why didn't the editors of the Leader Times warn their readers that the source they were using as the factual basis for their arguments may be prejudiced and that some of the key figures they cite from this study are open to dispute?  The editorial concludes by citing the conclusion of Pyle's summary of the study: building new power plants "'would impose expensive and unnecessary costs -- and the public would foot the bill,' with low-income households hit the hardest."  That last phrase is a laugher.  Since when did the Leader Times editorial board really care about low-income households unless the interests of these low-income households happened to align closely with the interests of the 1%'ers that the Leader Times editorial board usually goes to bat for?  Let's say for argument's sake that the Stacy and Taylor study is right.  Who said that a future administration supporting the implementation of the Clean Power Plan would let the cost burden fall heaviest on low-income households?  In fact, an administration in favor of this plan, in the event that its costs ended up regressive, would attempt to implement policies to adjust the burden more fairly.  That fact highlights the real fear of the people behind the Leader Times editorial.  The 1% is afraid they will be forced to pay for the transition to power sources that generate less carbon dioxide over the long term.

If you think I am just pulling this accusation out of a hat, consider the editorial posted just beneath.  In that editorial, the board castigates people who purchase electrically-powered automobiles for paying extra money for a product that at least in some regions of the country -- including the Northeast -- is actually worse for the environment than a comparable gasoline vehicle when all factors are taken into account.  They base their conclusions on a study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.  The study itself is behind a paywall, but you can find a helpful and nuanced summary here.  The study includes many factors in its conclusions, including the amount of carbon dioxide generated to provide the energy to drive the car!  In fact, the main problem with driving an electric car in the  Northeast is that the electricity needed to power the car is most likely generated by coal or nuclear power plants, both of which impose heavy environmental costs.  The study is making a legitimate point.  The Northeast is not a good place to drive an electric car right now, unless you happen to live near Buffalo, NY.

 Didn't the first editorial just triy to make the point that preventing carbon dioxide emssions is not worth the costs?     So, maybe the editors think there are more economically viable ways to reduce carbon emissions.  If they believed there were and they believed climate change were a genuine threat to human well-being, you would think they would advocate for a different solution.  But in fact the editorial board does not believe climate change is a genuine threat.  It must be, then, that they are concerned about the other types of environmental damage caused by the use of elecrically-powered vehicles, perhaps the mercury, particulate matter, and other noxious gases emitted by coal-fired plants or nuclear wastes.  But no, there are no recent editorials by the Leader Times suggesting that any action is needed to reduce pollution from coal-fired plants or reduce the amount of nuclear waste generated by nuclear plants.

So what is the point of the second editorial?  It appears to be that attempts by ordinary consumers to act in an environmentally-responsible manner are bound to be counter-productive, especially if the government rewards them for doing so.  Only in this way does the second editorial dovetail with the first.  The real point of both is to turn readers against coordinated government action to protect the environment, because it costs too much money.

The editorial board's overriding concern with the costs would be admirable if it was coupled with some advocacy in favor of less costly and/or more effective ways to prevent or fix environmental damage caused by pollution or climate change.  Every once in a great while, the parent Tribune-Review has published an editorial criticizing one government agency or another for regulations that damage some industry involved in the environment.  Interestingly enough, though, the only example I could find was an editorial in favor of preserving the waste coal processing industry, which according to the editorial provides a positive service for the environment.   More to the point, it provides a positive service for the rest of the coal industry by protecting it from the charge of causing even greater environmental damage, which is the real reason the editorial board rose to its defense.

In short, what you can pretty much always count on from the editorial board is hostility to government action that will require money be taken out of the wallets of the 1% and used to achieve goals that have nothing to do with the 1% extracting more profits from the rest of the citizenry. 

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