By Christopher B. Daly
Another week, another episode of harm to the planet and to individual human beings.
—Here is a heartbreaking account of one family’s struggle with the air pollution in India (granted, some of India’s air pollution is not caused by burning fossil fuels, but we know where most of it comes from — burning coal). Of course, this story involves a family from the developed world with every advantage, so imagine how miserable life is for the typical, poor Indian.
–The world’s largest “sovereign wealth fund” (that’s an investment vehicle created by a government to make money for its public-employee pensions, for example) has decided to divest from coal. Norway is taking that step in part because of the “feel-good” politics of voting against polluters that many liberal polities would find appealing. But I suspect that it also reflects a dawning awareness among all economic players: All the world’s coal companies are based on ownership of an asset (coal) that is destined to decline in value. Which raises a question for all parties who invest in coal and oil, too: what is the economic sense in owning stock in an industry that is destined to go out of business? That question pertains to individuals, university endowments, wealth managers, everybody.
–In The New Yorker, the redoubtable Elizabeth Kolbert shines a light on the world’s biggest source of coal: the border area between Montana and Wyoming. (“. . .where the skies are not cloudy all day . .”) Guess who owns all that coal? We do!
The Powder River Basin, which stretches over twenty-six thousand square miles of southeastern Montana and northeastern Wyoming, is the largest coal-producing region in the world. Roughly forty per cent of the coal that’s burned in the United States is mined there; this comes to nearly four hundred million tons a year. And there’s plenty more still in the ground. A recent report by the U.S. Geological Survey estimated recoverable reserves in the region at more than a hundred and sixty billion tons.
The federal government owns most of the coal in the Powder River Basin, and leases the land to private companies that mine it for a profit.
So, what are WE going to do about it? Apparently, we are going to do the same thing that China is planning: keep burning coal and set clean-air goals for a half-generation or so from now (i.e., long after most current officials in both countries have retired). Thanks a lot!
–In the inaugural post in this series, I wrote that no journalist covers fossil fuel as a “beat.” Turns out, that’s not quite true. At the Houston Chronicle (no surprise, I guess), the business section has a vertical devoted to covering the oil
and natural gas business, which they call “Fuel Fix.” It’s a team effort to cover the largest local industry in Houston. It seems to take a fairly deferential attitude toward that industry, which is hardly surprising. It’s reminiscent of the way the Wall Street Journal covers capitalism, or ESPN covers sports. (Fun fact: one of the contributors to “Fuel Fix” is a former student of mine, Josh Cain, who’s identified as a “digital producer.”) “Fuel Fix” is useful as a roundup, but it suffers from the same problem that A.J. Liebling identified when it comes to reading conservative newspapers — it’s like learning to use a rifle that you know has a deviation to the right. You have to “correct” for the misfire. For example, here’s an AP story from the site that follows up on the Santa Barbara spill.
—This one was just too awful: about 100 people in Ghana, seeking refuge from a flood, got killed when a gas station exploded.
–Last (but hardly least) in this week’s roundup is this story from The Nation about how Chevron has a whole country in its grip.
A special hat-tip here to the author, James North, the nom-de-plume for a journalist who has been covering
the developing world for 40 years — ever since graduating from college a few years ahead of me. (We worked together on the student newspaper.)