Confusion Reigns Under Heaven

06/28/2007 03:26 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Dallas, TX -- The Sierra Club's first line of defense against pulverized coal power plants has been to demonstrate that they could be shut down, blocked or dragged out indefinitely almost anywhere -- Florida, Arizona, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Illinois, Wisconsin -- and that, even if the plants are built, states might not accept dirty power, as in the case of California and Oregon. More examples are coming every month, and already financial investors are responding. T. Boone Pickens this week completely divested himself of his shares in Massey Energy and Arch Coal while also reducing his Peabody stock by 39 per cent (that still leaves him with more than 500,000 shares).

Coal is so threatened that -- along with its allies, the utilities -- it is pulling out all the stops in Congress. We now know that it was the Southern Company, Tennessee Valley Authority and Duke Power that prevented the Senate from including renewable energy standards in the bill it passed last week. These utilities fed southern senators a mantra: The South cannot rely on renewable energy. Why not? There is not enough wind -- or even sun! And besides, wind turbines are just too environmentally destructive. "Forcing Tennesseans to either build 40-story wind turbines on our pristine mountaintops or to pay billions in penalty taxes to the federal government amounts to a judge giving a defendant the choice to be hanged or shot," warned Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.). Senator Alexander, however, is considerably less threatened by the choice of mowing off the tops of those same pristine mountains to get at the coal underneath them.

The auto industry is equally confused. It appears that Detroit never thought through what would happen if, in spite of its protests, Congress moved to require the companies to modernize their vehicles and make them fuel-efficient, just as Chrysler admitted earlier in the year that all of their business models assumed that gasoline above $2.50 a gallon was impossible. Now the companies have no good choices. GM, for example, just cancelled production of its two hybrid pick-up trucks, the Silverado and Sierra, because they weren't selling. They weren't selling because they were designed in such a way that they got only two more miles to the gallon than the conventional models did! Instead, the hybrid feature was used to enable the trucks to function as generators to power a house in remote locations. Just selling fuel economy is so -- well, so 21st century -- that GM couldn't understand it.

Oddly, GM belongs to US-CAP, a coalition of organizations that favor a limit on carbon dioxide emissions. Then again, so does Duke Energy. Indeed, many of the members of US-CAP favor limiting CO2 emissions as long as there are no regulations requiring them to do their part. Yesterday Chrysler and Ford joined GM in the coalition.

Even this very abstract stand, however, is generating a firestorm from the reactionaries. At its most recent shareholder meeting, Caterpillar Corporation, another US-CAP member, was intensely criticised by the National Center of Public Policy Research, a reactionary think tank, as well as former Attorney General Ed Meese, not to mention the usual mix of extractive industries. Their argument? "Capping U.S. emissions will accomplish little while hurting the poor and many of the industries upon which Caterpillar has depended for sales," said David Ridenour of the National Center. "When Caterpillar President James Owens has presided over the destruction of the oil, mining, timber and agricultural industries, what product will it have to sell then? Emissions credits? This is one of the questions stockholders should ask him when they meet tomorrow."

In fact, if we limit emissions of carbon dioxide while doing nothing to make our cars, homes and buildings more energy-efficient, consumer prices indeed will go up. But if we concentrate on energy efficiency and make our fuel sources less carbon-intensive, then carbon limits and lower energy costs for everyone go hand in hand. It's a win/win scenario, but only if we do it right -- by redesigning our whole energy economy around sustainability, competition and efficiency.