Gorilla in the Greenhouse Meets the Coal Machine

The Natural Resources Defense Council embarrassed the coal industry last week by acquiring and distributing video of Don Blankenship, CEO of number-four U.S. coal producer Massey Energy, proudly professing his continued denial that climate change is real. Now multimedia producer Jay Golden and environmental media firm SustainLane have released video that’s considerably more entertaining and, thus, potentially far more damaging: a high-energy, Scooby Doo-esque production called “Turn It Up Day” from their savvy Gorilla in the Greenhouse cartoon series:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

I heartily endorse the review by online videobiz blog NewTeeVee, which calls Gorilla in the Greenhouse “genuinely entertaining and informative”:

Green gorilla KJ is an enigmatic environmental savant, telling the future through riddles that the kids who share his greenhouse must solve in order to ward off threats to the planet. (And in their spare time, they have a rock band. Of course.)

In the 7-minute episode released last week, the Green Gorillas gang exposes the blend of complacency and deception that allows our civilization to literally chew through mountains in search of the coal that fuels half of U.S. electricity production. With sage advice from KJ and a little follow-the-wire detective work, the kids trace the cause-and-effect connections between their own profligate energy use, the ‘turn it up’ hype embedded in popular media, and mountaintop removal mining.

As NewTeeVee put’s it, the Green Gorillas’ 2nd episode “fires on all cylinders”:

It teaches complex issues in a digestible way; it shows the characters taking practical action; and it even goes a little deeper, teaching kids to not buy into the hype about something just because it calls itself green, but to really learn about what’s going on behind the scenes.

My favorite character is the talking worm that plays the coal baron, Wormulus, who delivers several crucial Seussian rhymatribes. His malicious gloating opens the show: “My Wormulator chops the rocks, making loads of watts per hour. So They get their precious energy, but it’s Me who gets the power!” Later his willful deception is exposed in this dialogue with Dr. Morlon Hufflebot, whose brain Wormulus inhabits: “Our robot tears at the Earth as fast as it can,” says Hufflebot. “It’s a cause and effect they don’t understand,” says Wormulus.

Kentucky author, poet and social critic Wendell Berry noted how hard it is for people to connect power use and coal mining when he spoke at the Society of Environmental Journalists’ conference in Roanoke, VA this fall. He also told a poignant Christmas tale of direct action that helped me make the connection. Recalling a holiday season advertisement years ago by the coal industry with the message, “We dig coal to light your tree,” Berry said he never again allowed an electrified Christmas tree in his home. The tale struck a nerve: I’ve been avoiding escalators ever since.

AND NOW A NOTE FROM OUR SPONSOR: The 800-pound savant in Gorilla in the Greenhouse, KJ, is in no way related to the Green Gorilla power spray system, highlighted last week as a “special gift for the gardener in your life” by Canada’s Financial Post. That Green Gorilla puts an end to hand pumping garden sprays thanks to its rechargable lithium ion-powered pressurizer. “No more sore arms and sore backs,” assures the Post. It’s a steal at C$71.95! (Solar charging kit not included.) Or buy direct and get the dual-tank bundle for just US$94.99! (With separate tanks for your herbicides and insecticides you’ll “never cross contaminate again”!)

Season’s Greenings from Carbon-Nation!

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This post was created for Energywise, IEEE Spectrum’s blog on green power, cars and climate

Clean Coal’s Mountainous Upstream Blindspot

Gasification-based IGCC power plant technology offers a powerful means of cleaning up local air pollution from coal-fired power and, via carbon capture and storage, its carbon footprint. Carbon-Nation has argued in past that it should be legally mandated for new power plants burning coal because (1) air pollution laws require use of the best emissions controls available, (2) carbon capture and storage will be economically viable under emerging carbon caps and taxes, and (3) adding new carbon emissions from coal is unjustifiable given the critical need to stabilize atmospheric levels of CO2. 

But let’s be clear on one thing: IGCC and carbon capture can substantially clean up the coal-fired power plant, but they can’t deliver “clean” coal. That’s because extracting coal to feed the power plants is, in itself, a dirty business — at least as it is currently practised. Last week I witnessed this firsthand at two West Virginia mines where mountains are literally dismantled to reveal their hidden coal seams, then piled back to a rough approximation of their original contours or left flat for development. I visited the mines as part of the Society of Environmental Journalists’ annual conference, held this year in the heart of coal country in Roanoke, Virginia. 

Mountaintop removal mining, as this practice is called, accounts for about a third of Appalachian coal production but contributes a considerably larger share of Appalachian coal burned in power plants (conventional deep mines yield more metallurgical coal used in steel mills). They are, without question, environmentally and culturally destructive. Thousands of cubic meters of rock, sand, and soil dumped into valleys bury ephemeral stream beds; wildlife are displaced; sludge impoundments from coal-cleaning operations threaten groundwater and communities; and residents of the mountains suffer internal devestation as the lands that define their existence are blasted into oblivion. For a sense of scale check out this 5MB panorama of the mine pictured above by National Geographic executive editor Dennis Dimmick.  

Can the coal industry do better? Yes. For example, reclamation experts from Virginia Tech told the tour that mountaintop mines are adopting a new reforestation approach that could restore the mountains’ ecology within two generations. That’s huge improvement over current practices where grasses and shrubs take over, leaving the land in what Virginia Tech forestry professor James Berger called a state of “arrested succession.”

Will the industry ever make coal mining socially and environmentally sustainable? Appalachian activists who have fought ‘Big Coal’ for decades doubt it. For one thing, the coal companies enjoy undivided support from state legislators and governors in coal states. That’s why West Virginia author and political activist Denise Giardina told the SEJ conference attendees that she was “rooting for global warming” to stop coal. “I think it will force us to change,” said Giardina, who made it clear that IGCC power plants sequestering CO2 weren’t the kind of change she had in mind. Quite the opposite in fact: “If we ever have clean coal,” said Giardina, “you can kiss the mountains goodbye.”

I’m going to need more time to reflect on what I saw and heard last week. The scale of carbon reductions required and developing nations’ right to develop may yet justify the ongoing use of coal. But, at the very least, it is more clearer to me than ever that cleaning up our energy systems must start with energy efficiency and less extractive forms of renewable energy. We are all, as willing users of coal-supplied power grids, contributors to Appalachia’s plight everytime we turn on the juice. 

Storied author, poet and social critic Wendell Berry put that message to the SEJ conference in the bluntest of terms: “It’s awfully hard to remember when you push that button that you are authorizing mountaintop removal.” 

For more on mountaintop removal mining check out this week’s article by the Associated Press which I believe was inspired by the SEJ mountaintop mining tour.

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This post was created for Energywise, IEEE Spectrum’s blog on green power, cars and climate