On the college divestment movement

I am getting regular requests from media and reporters who want me to discuss the issue of the college divestment movement. To help provide some answers for those who are honestly seeking them, here is a response that I put together to give them a prepared ACC response.

There are four main reasons why I believe the divestment movement is actually harming the students who have been drafted as its foot soldiers, and why I believe it is a misguided effort that will ultimately do more damage than good to its adherents.

Clean(er) Coal

First, the divestment campaigns completely, and quite possibly deliberately, ignore the fact that the coal (and fossil fuel) industry has a continuous and sustained record of investing in, and improving, its efficiency and environmental performance. Since 1990, the U.S. power industry has invested about $90 billion in clean coal technologies that are being used in coal plants around the country today. Over the past four decades investments in clean coal technologies have paid off well as emissions of criteria pollutants regulated by the Clean Air Act have dropped precipitously across the USA.

EPA data demonstrates that while coal use has nearly tripled, acid gas emissions – sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) – have decreased by almost 60% and 39% respectively. Over the same period, particulate matter emissions have decreased by over 93%. The EPA’s numbers are all available on the EPA website for those who would like to confirm them.

Of course many in the divestment movement are also concerned about carbon dioxide emissions and the potential threat of climate change. The coal industry has taken up that challenge as well and is investing in a variety of energy research and development projects that will help to address the issue of CO2 and other emissions.

For example, the Texas Clean Energy Project (TCEP) is a clean clean coal project that will gasify coal to produce synthetic natural gas for use in electricity generation. TCEP will also produce urea for fertilizer and it will capture and sell 90% of its CO2 emissions for use in enhanced oil recovery. In fact TCEP has already contracted to sell all of its captured CO2 for several decades into the future. TCEP will also capture 99% of its sulfur emissions, more than 90% of its nitrogen oxide emissions, and over 95% of its mercury emissions. Projects like TCEP are the reason why coal is a clean, reliable, affordable and abundant, domestic fuel for our future.

Of course other clean coal projects exist as well, including the Dakota Gasification Company, which began operations in 1984, and gasifies coal for energy generation, and then pipelines captured CO2 to Weyburn, Saskatchewan for use in enhanced oil recovery.

FutureGen 2.0 is another example of the development of the domestic market for clean coal technologies. FutureGen 2.0 is a planned near-zero emissions coal-fueled power plant, based in Illinois, and using oxy-combustion to produce electricity. The FutureGen 2.0 plant will capture and store over a million tons of CO2 every year.

A Self-defeating Contradiction

Second, people involved in the divestment movements typically rely heavily on the very energy and resources from which they are claiming a need to divest. The metals, rare earth minerals, plastics, etc. that make up their computers, internet services, protest signs, electricity, etc. are all largely derived from fossil fuels like coal, natural gas, and oil.Using those fossil fuel derived (or dependent) materials and energy resources to attack the very same materials and energy resources is contradictory and ultimately self-defeating. The schools that allow themselves to be sidetracked by the divestment movement are doing the same, as they all rely on the energy and infrastructure provided by fossil fuels to fund their operations, build their campuses, and employ their alumni.

Students Will Need Jobs

The students who attend these schools and  take part in the divestment uproar will at some point require jobs to pay down the average of over $24,000 in student loan debt that is typical for university graduates today. The fossil fuel industry provides millions of wellpaying careers across our nation (and internationally). Industries – like the coal industry – are very interested in hiring graduates for their skills in environmental science, researchmathematics and computer science, engineering, commodities trading,  public relations, business management, etc.

The coal industry is very well aware of the fact that new hires and young executives are often able to introduce fresh new ideas and methods of improving efficiency and environmental performance. By attempting to shut down fossil fuel industries, students in the divestment movement are actually making it harder for themselves and many other students to find jobs when they graduate.

Our Economy Needs Affordable, Reliable, Secure, and Abundant Energy

Whether the divestment campaigners want to admit it or not, our economy thrives on the ability to access affordable, reliable, secure domestic energy resources. One need look no further than North Dakota to see the beneficial effects of an energy boom on an economy. With an economy that grew at 13.4% in 2012 and an unemployment rate below 3%, North Dakota is out doing even the Chinese economy’s numbers.

However, when energy supplies and choices are diminished, the costs for everything that is produced in our economy grows. As fossil fuels are restricted the cost to produce electricity grows, the cost to produce and ship food and other products increases, the costs to heat or cool our homes and businesses grows. As those costs grow, those who are most heavily impacted are the poor, and those on fixed or limited incomes.

When they take part in the movement to shut down utilities and mines, these universities are working to put people out of work, forcing them out of their homes, and shuttering entire communities. The divestment movement is actually playing a role in closing thousands of local, “mom and pop” businesses who provide services to the targeted mines and utilities and the people who work for them. Additionally, students who take part in the divestment movement are actually making it more difficult for themselves and their cohorts to meet many of their basic needs, like food, rent, books, etc.

The divestment movement may be well-intentioned. We understand that people may honestly believe that their activism will help the environment and our economy. However, it is truly sad to face the reality of the economic, social, and environmental damage that these movements can cause. The people who are being put out of work when mines and utilities close are real. The lives and communities that are disrupted are real. In the schools themselves, it is even more sad to see students being co-opted into a movement that will do substantial damage to their own prospects today, and well into their future.

15. August 2013 by Jason Hayes
Categories: agenda, carbon, CCS, CCT, Climate Change, Emissions, Energy, Environment, EPA, Jobs, Marketplace Information | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on On the college divestment movement