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Byron Shire
April 23, 2021

Carbon tax repeal monstrously dumb

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Fossil industry: an open-cut coal mine. Photo Wikipedia.
Fossil industry: an open-cut coal mine. Photo Wikipedia.

Noel Barton

Sometimes governments make really bad decisions. I’m talking about monstrously stupid decisions that will be incredibly hard to rectify, yet if left unrectified will be a huge burden for decades.

I’m talking about a decision so bad that our descendants will shake their heads in incomprehension, sadness and, yes, anger. They will ask how we could have been so badly and stupidly governed.

Last week the Australian government repealed its carbon tax legislation. This tax was paid to the government by major CO2 emitters. Money received was redistributed to the electorate to reimburse costs passed on by emitters. This was done in a reasonably fair way, with people on low incomes receiving preferential reimbursement compared to those on high incomes.

The carbon tax had been in operation in Australia for two years. It was working; CO2 emissions were falling as gas and renewables replaced coal-fired power generation and industry introduced new processes and saved energy in response to the cost signal. Yes, there were losers in this process, particularly the coal-fired electricity generators. But there were big winners, too, particularly new industries based on renewable power and energy efficiency. Jobs might have been lost because of the carbon tax, but jobs were created too.

It needs to be stated clearly why the carbon tax is a good thing. Today there is a 97 per cent consensus among climate scientists that CO2 emissions from fossil fuels are changing the Earth’s climate. The change will be slow at first but the effects are cumulative and irreversible on the timescales of millenia. In the worst-case scenarios air temperatures will rise 4°C by the end of this century. The polar ice caps and glaciers will melt and the sea level will rise, thereby imperilling infrastructure and threatening the entire livelihood of those in countries like Bangladesh who live close to sea level. More extreme weather events are expected, biodiversity will be affected, the oceans will become more acidic, and there will be adverse effects on human health.

Every credible expert I’ve read says that it would be far better for humankind to act now to avoid problems caused by CO2 emissions, rather than to act in response once effects have occurred.

Meanwhile, the low-carbon future should also be viewed as a huge economic opportunity. There are immensely powerful global drivers at work:

Decarbonisation of supply: This is the switch towards solar and wind for electricity generation, and the introduction of new industrial processes that reduce CO2 emissions and save energy.

Pollution reduction: Coal doesn’t only involve CO2 pollution, it causes many other problems as well.

Energy security: Every country in the world wants an assured energy supply, not something that can be turned off at the whim of an autocratic regime elsewhere.

New-build infrastructure: Just in case we forget, there are billions of people on this planet still without an electricity grid. These citizens want the convenience of electrical power, and renewables will offer the easiest way for them to get it.

Manufacturing policy: Some countries see the low-carbon future as an opportunity to strengthen their industrial base. They will put in place initiatives to promote the interests of their own economies, including R&D incentives and government programs.

Our government is blind to these drivers.

And here is my special message to deniers who don’t accept the science of climate change. The trend is not your friend. Pioneers and early adopters are reshaping the economic landscape across the world, and they will be rewarded for their foresight as the effects of climate change become more evident. In contrast, those who seek to preserve the status quo – our local fossil-powered dinosaurs – will be left with stranded assets and a huge task to fix the mess that has been caused.

So even if you deny anthropogenic climate change, influential people in the rest of the world disagree with you, and they are today making cool-headed decisions in boardrooms in countries like Germany and China that will affect you tomorrow.

Our fossil fuel reserves are undeniably finite, so we have to move to a clean energy infrastructure eventually. But we now know that our fossil fuel gift from nature comes at a terrible price. If we burn all the fossil fuels we will be hot, flooded, traumatised by weather, threatened by disease and morally weakened by the changes we have wrought to our planet. We are literally threatening the prospects for human life on this planet.

There is a clear path forward that involves collaboration and good governance to move us to a low-carbon and then zero-carbon future. It’s not even a difficult path, because it offers a cleaner and more comfortable environment, without economic disadvantage, as well as jobs in sunrise industries and better stewardship of our resources.

But the low-carbon path is challenged by those who want to preserve their current position and wealth – generally old men who manipulate the levers of power to their advantage.

Reprinted with permission. See the full opinion piece with reference notes at www.sunoba.blogspot.com.au.

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  1. The time has come to tax coal ash so coal burners are motivated to use technology to eliminate coal ash entirely. Let’s say a tax of $10 per ton of coal ash is levied on every coal-fired plant in the US. With 140,000,000 tons of coal ash per year being produced, about 90,000,000 million tons is being buried and stored for later disposal (fill), while the rest (about 45,000,000 tons) is being used in concrete and other products.

    Do the math. That 90 million tons/year generates 900 million dollars of tax that can be used to clean up the mess that’s being made by current coal ash disposal methods. Coal fired plants can use plasma-arc vitrification systems – the same being used on the newest US Aircraft carriers – to vitrify the ash so it is reduced by 95% or more into an inert glass. And if technology to gasify the coal ash is adopted, it may be possible to recover some of the wasted energy for steam, which in turn generates electricity. That process could negate the “Coal Ash Tax” because it could provide electricity to consumers, keep our environment clean, and generate revenue for the coal-fired plants – – all at a much lower cost than hauling and storing the ash as being done now.

    Here’s the plan. All coal ash produced by US coal-burning energy plants will be taxed at a rate of $10 per ton. At the rate of 140,000,000 tons per year generated in the US, the coal ash tax potentially generates $1.4 billion per year that would be held in an environment cleanup trust fund, controlled by publicly elected representatives living in communities near coal ash disposal sites, much like your mayors and sheriffs – – make it local and not from some fantasy land in DC. And to spice up the motivation, when coal ash disposal sites are located within a flood plain or near a waterway, the coal tax would be doubled to a rate of $20 per ton.

    “Motivators” that qualify as waivers to escape the coal ash tax are simple. First, the coal ash tax is waived on ash that is recycled for building materials, which currently averages 40% at typical US coal-fired plants. Of the 140,000,000 tons currently produced each year in the US, about 56,000,000 tons are reused in building materials. That brings the Coal Ash Tax Trust Fund (let’s call it the CATT Fund) down to an annual potential of $840,000,000 for the coal ash that’s being disposed in landfills. But if a landfill or holding area (e.g., pond) is on a flood plain or within 500 yards of a waterway, an additional tax of $10 per ton is levied on ash disposed in those sites. For round numbers, let’s assume the CATT Fund will collect $1 billion in taxes annually for the mix of disposal sites being used today.

    At a $1 billion in new taxes, one would think energy companies will be motivated to eliminate coal ash altogether. Their second option is to apply a technology that was developed, tested and is being implemented by the US Department of Defense. A very-high-temperature process known as plasma-arc waste destruction is currently being installed on the next-generation of US Navy aircraft carriers. These plasma-arc systems can be optimized for a variety of waste streams. For coal ash, a plasma-arc system can be packaged to vitrify and gasify about 98% of the coal ash currently being buried in landfills. That’s roughly 82,000,000 tons of coal ash that can be kept out of your waterways and nearby landfills using a very affordable alternative to landfills.

    So what do you do with the remaining 2,000,000 tons that’s left each year from plasma-arc vitrification? This glassy-like residual material is an inert binder of minerals that traps traces of formerly toxic residuals, which can also be used for building materials beyond the current concrete and gypsum use. But there are dozens of other potential and high-value uses, particularly if you are a ceramics engineer who can add certain ingredients to the molten glass as it pours out of the plasma-arc vitrification system. How about amorphous photovoltaic cells? It’s possible to produce an 18% efficient photovoltaic cell from vitrified coal ash (as long as Solyndra isn’t working on it).

    The third motivator for energy companies using coal-fired plants is to set aside a research and development fund derived from a 10% portion of the CATT Fund. Qualified companies would be able to propose R&D projects and receive matching funds to achieve greater efficiencies in coal ash elimination or improve processes, such as using a plasma-arc vitrification system to generate synthetic gas that can drive a turbine generator. If a company’s coal ash elimination R&D project is successfully demonstrated and implemented, the company would be reimbursed from the CATT Fund’s R&D portion.

    In summary, neither energy companies nor their electricity customers would have to pay a cent of coal ash tax if all of the coal ash is reused for building materials, eliminated with technology such as a plasma-arc system or converted to energy by yet-discovered processes via CATT Fund.

    How do we as citizens put the Coal Ash Tax on our November ballots? It’s probably too late in most towns. But if you’re serious about a Coal Ash Tax that would inspire energy companies to keep your water and land clean, there’s a way to make it happen. Vote for candidates like Thom Tillis who have pledged to support using new technologies to eliminate coal ash – – but make them draft the legislation before the elections so you can read it and you know they’re serious about starting the effort on their first day in office.

    Beware of candidates (like Kay Hagen) who tell you a coal ash tax is not the solution; this means they don’t have a plan to stop coal ash from being buried in your backyards, and it means they don’t have a clue about harnessing existing technology to eliminate coal ash. The incumbent politicians have had years to solve the problem, and it keeps getting worse, so vote against every incumbent in the upcoming elections. For example, Thom Tillis is already investigating plasma arc vitrification of coal ash for his plan to eliminate coal ash entirely; Kay Hagen doesn’t have a plan. Your vote for the right candidate could begin to eliminate all the coal ash in your community during that candidate’s term. In a few years, coal ash could be something we had to live with before American voters got involved.


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