Published in the Sun (with some editorial changes) March 6, 2013
Dr. Al Armendariz displays heat waves in Texas and the Southwest
photo by George Flynn
“We need to be very careful about monkeying with nature.” Dr. Al Armendariz, senior representative of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, warned 133 Sun City Democrats that continued use of coal for electricity generation will worsen climate change and contribute to the devastating droughts, heat waves, and fires that are already occurring right here in Texas and the rest of the Southwest.
Dr. Armendariz went on to explain that carbon dioxide (CO2) levels in the atmosphere will soon reach 400 parts per million (ppm), after 600,000 years of fluctuating between 180 and 280 ppm. Increasing CO2 levels trap heat from the sun and prevent it from radiating back into space, just as a greenhouse remains warmer than the outside air. The increased CO2 comes from burning fossil fuels such as coal and petroleum, a practice which has accelerated since 1800.
Texas is number one in CO2 emissions of all the states; emitting more than twice as much CO2 as any other state. About one third of all greenhouse gases emitted in the United States originate from power plants generating electricity, and 81% of that amount is from coal-fired power plants. In addition to greenhouse gases, burning coal also releases disease-producing particulate matter and mercury into the air. Whereas coal used to be mined from underground tunnels, these days entire pristine mountaintops, euphemistically call “overburden”, are dynamited away to expose the coal seams. Mountaintop removal destroys whole landscapes, including the streams that flow into the valleys.
The Sierra Club considers coal “an outdated, backward, and dirty 19th century technology.” The Beyond Coal grassroots campaign would like to see one third of the nation’s more than 500 coal plants retired by 2020 and replaced by clean energy sources such as wind and solar. A member of the audience at Sun City asked about the current trend toward using natural gas to generate electricity. Dr. Armendariz explained that although natural gas releases fewer greenhouse gases and pollutants than coal when burned at the power plant, the mining process for natural gas leaks methane into the atmosphere, and methane itself is a very potent greenhouse gas. The benefit of reduced CO2 emissions at a gas-fired power plant is negated if as little as 4% of the natural gas leaks from the wells.
Dr. Armendariz, a native Texan, was a professor of Environmental Engineering at SMU before becoming chief of the south central region of the Environmental Protection Agency in 2009. His passion for clean air regulation led to some well publicized conflict with the business community. In illustrating how strict punishment of environmental violators could act as a deterrent for other companies, Dr. Armendariz unfortunately chose the example of ancient Romans crucifying a certain number of Turks to keep the Turkish population compliant. Since the word crucify is most commonly used in reference to a particular innocent victim of the Roman judicial system, Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma concluded that the statement proved the EPA was eager to prosecute innocent energy corporations just to restrict oil and gas development. Although Dr. Armendariz regretted his choice of metaphor, he resigned his position at the EPA amid the furor. He quickly found a home at Sierra Club, where his zeal for controlling air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions were in line with the philosophy of the organization.