Good News in the Air, Maryland

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Deciding air quality in Maryland

Doris Toles, watches as decisions are made on the quality of her air. Toles has been hospitalized when poor air quality in Baltimore left her struggling to breathe. She was attending the Air Quality Control Advisory Council meeting at the Maryland Department of the Environment in Baltimore, MD. The council approved new regulations which will require coal burning power plants to use their existing pollution controls daily and meet new emission standards.

There is good news in the air for those who breathe in Maryland: The Air Quality Control Advisory Council approved new regulations which mandate that all coal burning power plants must use their existing pollution controls.

WHAT?!!!! We needed regulations to get the owners of coal burning power plants to use their existing pollution controls?

That’s right. Outside of what the Maryland Department of the Environment are calling the “Summer Study,” quite a few coal burning plants had been switching off their pollution controls until they started bumping into mandated emission limits. A report by the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) found that if the Brandon Shores and Wagner power plants had used their pollution controls continuously in 2012, they could have prevented 2,035 tons of NOx (nitrous oxide) emissions.

Until the “Summer Study,” some plants had simply not used their SNRC controls for years; others were using them less than half the time.
These new requirements to use their existing pollution controls, combined with daily and monthly emission levels are good news for Marylander’s who enjoy breathing.

It is interesting to be in a room where people are deciding how clean (or dirty) our air will be.
To people who breathe, this can seem to be a simple question with an equally simple answer: CLEAN.
But inside the conference room at MDE, the discussion is complex and strategic.

Remember that bit about the coal burning power plants not using their pollution controls?
The same stuff is going on in other states like Ohio, Virginia, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania –and their air comes here, sometimes making up a majority of the ozone (smog) we experience in the summer.
How do we get them to stop sending us polluted air if we keep polluting our own?

An executive from a power producing company warns of power blackouts if they have to close their polluting plants. Pointing out that the demand doesn’t go away just because we quit producing electricity; he suggests that plants in other states would simply step in to provide the power and pollution that we lost.

An executive from another power company supports the regulations, perhaps eager to inherit market share from other power companies who might have to close under these rules.

A member of the council worries that natural gas might actually cause more harm to the environment than the coal that these regulations are attempting to replace.
Another member wonders if the state will be sued by a power company to delay or nullify the regulations.

Underlying each of these complex conversations is our addiction to cheap, dirty energy.

Look across our skylines– the smokestacks from coal burning power plants look cigarettes that our cities are chain smoking day after day, hour after hour. But inside the room, the talk wasn’t focused on renewable energy or gains in energy efficiency. It’s about rising power demands and perhaps a transition to natural gas, another fossil fuel– a different brand of smoke.

Responding to questions about the dangers of NOx pollution, a power company executive talks about balance, cost and reliability: weighing of the benefit of the electricity against the harm of the emissions. But he doesn’t talk about the costs of air pollution which are borne by the public. Their deaths, asthma and hospitalizations are not found on the balance sheets of his plants.

A recent two part study by Harvard, Syracuse and Boston Universities estimated that lowering pollutants from power plants in a scenario similar to the proposed EPA plan would prevent 3,500 early deaths and a thousand hospitalizations every year in the United States by 2020. Their report found that Maryland would see some of the greatest health benefits of this plan.

How many early deaths, hospitalizations or heart attacks will these new NOx regulations prevent in Maryland?
How many more will the two year extension for closing or refitting power plants create?
These are hard numbers to come by, but stay tuned as we talk to health and energy experts over the next few months.
And say a prayer with me for Doris, the kind woman with COPD, that her life will stay in the saved column.

Will Science Kill Us or Save Us?


Will Science Kill Us Or Save Us?

The record so far is…Yes.

Nice invention, da Vinci, but if the plane flies, how would you shoot it down?
Great theory, Einstein, but how can we use it to make bombs that could destroy the world?
Nice process, Haber, it can help produce food to quadruple the world population.
So how can we use it for gas warfare and explosives?
Interesting demonstration, Edison. How many enemy soldiers did you say your machine could electrocute?
Even our vaunted Nobel peace prize, was established by Alfred Nobel who established over 90 armament factories in his lifetime.

So the jury is out on science and its getting more interesting by the moment.
Because it appears that we have been participating in man’s largest experiment– without noticing for the first 150 years.
This climate change experiment is particularly interesting for two reasons.
First, we are experimenting upon the entire world in ways that could have drastic consequences.
Second, we are trapped inside it.
Seems like this would create incentives for good outcomes and rapid results don’t it?
Once we experimenters realize that we are inside of the experiment we would immediately start altering the conditions to ensure that we and our planet live long and prosper, right?

Happy music plays, everyone hugs, movie ends. Goodnight, thanks for coming!

But…..
It is not quite going that way, is it?
You see this experiment involves a small zoo of lab animals. We have white mice, chickens, monkeys and sloths.
The white mice are wearing lab coats and pointing to charts of steadily dire temperature readings and photographs of melting ice sheets. They are standing on tip toe atop reams of data and squeaking as loud as they can to be heard . “It’s bad! Must change!”

The reaction among the rest of the animals is mixed.

The Big Chickens that own coal and oil companies are running around screaming “The sky isn’t falling! The sky isn’t falling! And the sea won’t rise!” They are very adamant that smoke from their products won’t harm us, just like the tobacco companies were very adamant that their cigarettes wouldn’t cause cancer.

The Scared Chickens with insurance companies have put money on the high water lines and they are squawking up a storm. With greenhouse emissions on the increase, insurance is becoming a very risky business. Payouts for flooding and extreme weather events endanger their golden nest eggs. These conservative guys are running the numbers and they do not like the odds.

The Monkeys have grabbed the car keys and are stepping on the gas. They like it fast and cheap and have their eye fixed on their bank account, the next quarterly return and their bucket list. They will fly across the world to view the melting of the last glaciers and put the images on flicker so their great grandchildren can have a glimpse of what was. But they won’t insulate their homes or put up a solar panel. Storms keep wiping out beachfront properties? Rebuild! Let’s Keep Dancing Until the World Ends!

The Sloths are hanging listlessly in the branches of government sending emergency aid to an increasing number of disaster areas, allowing oil pipelines and exports of oil, gas and coal. Money to improve energy efficiency or to switch to renewable energy is just a few inches from the sloths reach and he is pondering whether it’s worth the effort.

So with these animals running the zoo, things have not gone well.
Since the Kyoto Protocol world greenhouse gas emissions have risen by an average of two percent each year.
Of the ten hottest years recorded since 1880, nine have occurred in this decade.
The word from government isn’t “avoid” or “protect” any longer. It’s resilience.
Resilience is the new “Duck and Cover” from the Cold War where children were taught to hide under their desk in case of a nuclear exchange that would destroy life on earth. It means that we are willing to spend far more to try to patch a broken world than it would cost to protect it now.

If a foreign army or terrorist group attacked a square foot of American soil, we would sacrifice our lives and treasure to reclaim that soil and bring the invaders to justice. But what do we do when it is us attacking our planet with our needless carbon emissions? Who do we gas, bomb or electrocute then?

Scientists can no longer be patient, quiet or neutral as this war is waged upon our world.
Our future demands that we play a deep role in realigning human endeavor with our natural world.

Once we pretended to be the controllers of the world, somehow above and apart from nature.
But we now know that we are woven inexorably within the web of the living systems of our world.
Incentives that allow the few to profit as they poison our earth, our air and our bodies can no longer be tolerated.
The true costs of dirty energy should not be paid with the health of our citizens and the future of our world. Shifting the costs of pollution onto governments and citizens is not true capitalism or free enterprise but plunder and folly.
Scientists, health experts and economists must now join together to demonstrate the true costs of pollution and the economic viability of renewable energy.

And let’s join with some good lawyers.

As scientists we collect and analyze data using sound scientific principals and standards.

Lawyers call this evidence.

Just as tobacco companies had to pay for some of the health costs of their products, the coal and petroleum industries should pay for some of the damage they have done to our air and our health. They should carry insurance and bonds against future health and damage claims.

This will change the economics of pollution. No longer will those who pollute the air and water remain free of the health, economic and social costs that they create for others to bear. And the money from these payments will help develop and implement clean and truly cheap energy sources for our world.
At last, our free enterprise system will be able to choose energy, technology and industry that is truly efficient and sustainable.

In this experiment we are not chained and blindfolded like Houdini, but free to move inside the invisible box of our atmosphere like Marcel Marceau to create solutions that will protect us and our world. Let us not miss this critical moment to create a non-smoking planet.
It is time for science—for us– to save the world.