Monday, March 31, 2008

WP Article on Wise Coal Plant: Home Run on Politics, Strikeout on Science

The Washington Post has paid virtually no attention to Virginia's plans to build a new coal-fired power plant in Wise County. But finally on Sunday, reporter Tim Craig did a lengthy article on the proposal.

Craig proved why he's a political reporter for one of the nation's top newspapers. He nailed the politics of the issue, covering the damage Gov. Tim Kaine has suffered for his unwavering support of Dominion Virginia Power and the proposed plant. Well done.

But Craig also proved why he's covering politics, not science, absolutely butchering some basic environmental facts. Reading Craig's writing on global warming was like watching William Hung's rendition of She Bangs. Just brutal.

Since I can't look away from a good train wreck, let's review:

"[E]nvironmentalists are opposed to the project, saying that coal-fired plants are a leading cause of airborne pollution, which has been linked to global climate change."

The reference to "airborne pollution" was odd enough to be a red flag for me. It's not wrong, it's just an odd phrasing. Most people would just say "air pollution." If someone was writing about movies and referred to them as "moving pictures," it would make you tilt your head a little, no?

That sets up the absolutely incoherent statement that aforementioned airbornes "have been linked to global climate change." It's a gross oversimplification to say global warming is caused by air pollution, akin to saying food has been linked to obesity. And what's "linked"?

Man-made carbon dioxide emissions cause global warming. Simple. Easy. Say it that way.

The plant "would use updated scrubbing technology to limit emissions of carbon dioxide, a big source of acid rain."

In an amazing feat, Craig manages to fit four distinct errors and omissions in a 17-word stretch:
  1. Carbon dioxide emissions are not a major cause of acid rain. Sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide are two of the prime causes.
  2. The plant would not limit carbon dioxide emissions, spewing at least 5.3 million tons into the air
  3. The plant would not use "scrubbers" at all, which is a specific type of pollution-reduction technology. The plant would use a Circulated Fluidized Bed (CFB) to reduce emissions.
  4. Even with the CFB, the plant would still emit 3,300 tons of sulfur dioxide per year, enough to trigger objections from neighboring Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina.
Kaine's energy plan "called for a 30 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2025."

Not true. Kaine's plan called for a 30 percent reduction in projected emissions. It would only be a cut of about 7 percent from current levels. Lowell explains the difference at Raising Kaine. (Lowell also has more great fact-checking of Sunday's article.)

Finally, the article raises an economic paradox - how can you have a reliability and uncertainty at the same time?

"The sustainability of our economic development successes are dependent on having a reliable energy source," said Delacey Skinner, the governor's communications director.

Then ...

[C]ompany officials said they cannot yet estimate how much the average bill might go up.

So a new coal-fired power plant will be a rock-solid source of juice ... but Dominion Virginia Power can't even give us a guess about how much it will drive up our bills? And this is at a time when the price of coal is reaching new heights.

You'd think I'd be pushing the environmental case against this plant the hardest. But it's this economic danger that's actually the most alarming.

Virginia is last in the nation in spending on conservation and energy efficiency, but instead of investing in saving energy, we're going to drop at least $1.8 billion on a new coal plant? Instead of investing in clean energy jobs, we're going to pretend to provide economic opportunity by building a power plant that will actually cost Virginia 1,400 jobs?

None of it makes any sense.
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