Tell President Obama About Coal River Mountain

Coal River Mountain and the Heathrow Airport runway remind me how important it is to keep our eye on the ball.

Coal River Mountain is the site of an absurdity. I learned about Coal River Mountain from students at Virginia Tech last fall. They were concerned about Coal River Mountain, but at that time most of them were working to support Barack Obama. They assumed Barack Obama would not allow such outrages to continue.

The issue at Coal River Mountain is whether the top of the mountain will be blown up, so that coal can be dredged out of it, or whether the mountain will be allowed to stand. It has been shown that more energy can be obtained from a proposed wind farm, if Coal River Mountain continues to stand. More jobs would be created. More tax revenue would flow, locally and to the state, and the revenue flow would continue indefinitely. Clean water and the environment would be preserved. But if planned mountaintop removal proceeds, the mountain loses its potential to be a useful wind source (
http://www.coalriverwind.org/; http://www.crmw.net/).

There are two major requirements for solving the global warming problem:

(1) rapid phase-out of coal emissions, and (2) a substantial, rising price on carbon emissions.

Election night euphoria is subsiding. Now we are in a tricky situation. The President faces enormous tasks, so he must be given time. But directions, once set, are hard to change. Clarity about what is needed is important. Young people (who deserve a large share of credit for helping Obama get the nomination and win the election) had better ask what is happening. The answer, or so it seems: not much. If that impression is right, there had better be a hue and cry soon, or the opportunity for fundamental change may be missed.

Action 1. The important thing needed quickly is a moratorium on new coal. Coal River Mountain is just one example of the idiocy that is proceeding. I am swamped by requests to write letters. Can you believe that Nevada, with all its sunshine, wind and geothermal energy, is going ahead with plans for new coal-fired power plants? So is South Dakota, South Carolina, etc. I could harp about the greenwashed (or worse) politicians, but what is the point of that? Now, given the election that has occurred, it should be possible to solve the problem. Solution is possible, but will it happen? The national government has all the power that it needs to, in effect, declare a moratorium on any new coal plants that do not capture and store the CO2.

Action 2. The other essential action is imposition of a rising carbon price. Is Barack Obama going to explain the need for a substantial and rising carbon tax on coal, oil and gas in his first Fireside Chat? Or will the matter be brushed aside, with a pretense that the world can be moved in a fundamentally different direction by tweaking Kyoto-style approaches? In order to move to the world beyond fossil fuels, there must be a strong economic incentive to do so, and the business community must realize that we mean business. The tax does not have to start out large, though it should be substantial. It has to be a tax that covers all fossil fuels. It should not be a cap-and-trade that allows some carbon to escape, and makes Wall Street millionaires on the backs of the public.

Reasons for concern:

1. The big action so far is the indication that the government will demand fuel efficient cars. That is an important action. It will not prevent the world’s major oil pools from being used, but efficiency helps buy time, so we can move toward carbon-free vehicle propulsion. Absent improved efficiency, there would be pressure to squeeze oil out of coal, tar shale, etc. – disasters that must be nipped in the bud. However, note that the vehicle efficiency action will only truly succeed if Action 2 (carbon tax) occurs. Demand for highly fuel efficient vehicles will be limited (not large enough to drive a thriving economy) unless fuel price makes them essential. People will need money in hand to buy them – one of the reasons for 100% dividend (another: the public will not accept a large enough tax if Washington and lobbyists are going to decide where the money goes).

2. Jesse Ausubel makes a case that government policies don’t matter much – the energy-fossil fuel situation determines things. Let’s look at data for fossil fuel emissions and the economy:

Data sources: (left) Marland, G., T.A. Boden, and R.J. Andres. 2008. Global, Regional, and National Fossil Fuel CO2 Emissions. In Trends: A Compendium of Data on Global Change. Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, U.S. Department of Energy, Oak Ridge, Tenn., U.S.A. (http://cdiac.ornl.gov/trends/emis/tre_usa.html) (right) U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Economic Analysis, National Economic Accounts (http://www.bea.gov/national/index.htm#gdp)

The numbers on these graphs are misleading. Emissions and economic growth in the first year of a President’s term probably should be credited to (blamed on) the prior President. In that case the numbers become:

Annual Growth Rates for:CO2 emissionsReal GDP
1981 -> 1989(Reagan)1.2%3.5%
1989 -> 1993 (Bush, G.H.W.)1.3%1.9%
1993 -> 2001 (Clinton)1.1%3.5%
2001 -> 2007 (Bush, G.W.)0.7% (first 6 years)2.6% (first 6 years)

The CO2 emissions support Ausubel’s thesis, but the period covered was all business-as-usual. There is such a thing as free will. With coal phase-out and a rising price on carbon emissions, the curve can be changed fundamentally, and move downward fast. But it will not happen as a consequence of “goals” and weak cap-and-trade measures -- and a temporary downturn of emissions due to economic slowdown should not be misinterpreted as fundamental change.


We are only weeks into the Obama administration. But people are getting restive. I have been asked to speak at or support several different actions, in different parts of the country, by young people and not so young. I don’t know what to say. I feel that more time must be given. But these people are right – the directions that are taken now are important.

Someone needs to tell President Obama: Coal River Mountain is a symbol of the promise and the hope and the possibilities for a brighter future. As he begins to address the nation’s energy, climate and economic challenges, he needs to remember these people, among his core original supporters. They are counting on him to change direction – a real change.

Dr. Hansen's report continues at:
this link

Additional information:

Coal River Wind Website
Coal River Mountain Watch


Doctor James Hansen, an adjunct professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University, heads the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Sciences. His website can be found at: http://www.columbia.edu/~jeh1/