Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Why Nuclear Power Is Part of Our Future

America is falling behind in the race to develop green energy technologies. As John Doerr, a partner at the venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, recently told a U.S. Senate energy panel, “The United States led the world in the electronics revolution, and we led in biotechnology and the Internet. But we are letting the energy technology revolution speed by us.”
Mr. Doerr noted that the U.S. is home to only one of the top 10 wind turbine producers, only one of the 10 largest photovoltaic solar panel producers, and only two of the top 10 advanced-battery manufacturers.
China is leading this race, and I saw this first hand during a recent trip there. China has doubled its wind-energy capacity each of the past four years, and it is expected to become the world’s largest manufacturer of wind turbines this year. It is already the world’s leading producer of solar panels. The Chinese understand that clean-energy technologies are the key to controlling their energy future.
However, while the U.S. may be trailing on renewable energy and storage technology, we are still the world’s largest operator of commercial nuclear power.
We have 104 licensed commercial nuclear reactors—generating about 20% of our electricity and more than 70% of all carbon-free electricity. My company, the North Carolina-based Duke Energy, has seven reactors and we are planning three more. France operates 58 reactors and China has 11, but it is currently building 24 more.
Additionally, the U.S. remains a leader in researching and developing nuclear technologies. Our national labs and private sector know-how provide the resources and the scientific foundation for the U.S. to compete as a global leader in commercial nuclear power.
Our private-sector expertise and interest in new nuclear plants is causing regional energy hubs to sprout up, creating thousands of well-paying jobs. In our headquarters city of Charlotte, N.C., Toshiba America Nuclear Energy recently announced it is adding about 200 new jobs and investing nearly $3 million to establish a nuclear power construction management center.
Also in Charlotte, Siemens Energy is adding over 220 new jobs over the next five years and investing $50 million to grow its local power facility, which employs 780. The Shaw Group located and expanded its 1,000-employee Power Group here. Similar stories are being repeated around the country. This naturally occurring, market-driven expansion of nuclear jobs didn’t have anything to do with stimulus spending.
We must maintain this momentum. Not only is this a major shot in the arm for our local and national economies, but with zero greenhouse gas emissions, nuclear power is tailor-made for addressing climate change. This is critical as Congress prepares to put a price on carbon.
Investing in new nuclear power plants, which produce electricity 24 hours a day and seven days a week, can be a major growth engine for our economy. Nuclear plants can be located close to growing demand centers, and next to existing transmission lines. Renewables, which produce power intermittently, must often be sited far from cities and the grid.
According to industry estimates, building a new nuclear plant can result in the creation of 1,400 to 1,800 jobs during construction, with peak employment as high as 2,400 jobs. Operating a new plant can generate 400 to 700 permanent jobs that can pay almost 40% more than average local salaries. These are good, long-term jobs—the kind you can raise a family on.
Additionally, each year the average nuclear plant generates approximately $430 million in sales of goods and services in the local community and nearly $40 million in total labor income, including both direct and secondary economic impacts. Imagine the economic stimulus if the 26 or so new nuclear plants currently planned for the U.S. were fully developed.
To generate electricity that is affordable, reliable and clean as we transition to a low-carbon future, we must also invest in and expand our use of wind, solar and other new renewable energy technologies. Duke Energy alone is poised to become one of the 10 largest wind energy producers in the U.S. this year.
When it comes to creating thousands of 21st century jobs—energy jobs on which we can rebuild the middle class—nuclear power clearly has the edge. We can and must grow our lead.—Mr. Rogers is chairman, president and chief executive officer of Duke Energy Corporation.

Nuclear power ‘needed to fill energy gap’

Robin Pagnamenta, Energy Editor
Britain should treble the share of electricity it generates from nuclear power to avoid sleepwalking into a dangerous dependency on imported gas, Gordon Brown will be warned today.
Malcolm Wicks, the Prime Minister’s special envoy on energy security, is to publish a report this morning arguing that the country’s national security is at stake and recommending an acceleration of plans to build a new generation of nuclear reactors.
Mr Wicks, MP for Croydon North, who has worked on the report for almost a year, is understood to be concerned that energy policy risks becoming imbalanced by being overly focused on the environmental agenda while insufficient attention is paid to long-term energy supplies.
“The question is whether or not the same rigour [that is being devoted to cutting emissions] is being applied to energy security,” someone familiar with the report said.
“The Government has not been good at asking serious questions about whether or not the UK is in the right place ... It’s a dangerous world and when we emerge from recession there will be a global grab for diminishing supplies of energy. Where is it all going to come from?”
With North Sea oil and gas production in steep decline, Mr Wicks is expected to call for the UK to boost the share of electricity generated from nuclear stations to as much as 30-40 per cent of the total, up from only 13 per cent last year.
He will also propose that the Government should adopt a more interventionist approach to ensure new reactors are built — and in greater numbers — than currently planned.
The report from Mr Wicks, a former energy minister, also questions whether the Government’s projection that the North Sea will still be supplying 55 per cent of the UK’s total gas needs in 2020 may be overly optimistic because it is based on ambitious planned improvements in energy efficiency and a vast increase in power generation from wind farms, neither of which can be assured.
Oil & Gas UK, the industry group, estimates that by 2020 the North Sea will be capable of producing less than half that amount — only 25 per cent of the UK’s needs. The remainder will need to be imported from countries including Russia, Qatar and Algeria, exposing consumers to the threat of Ukraine-style supply disruptions and volatility in wholesale prices.
While six new UK nuclear plants are on the drawing board to replace ageing reactors, none is due to enter service before 2017 and EDF, the French state-controlled company that is leading the push, has raised questions over whether they will be built without state support.
As well as calling for an acceleration of nuclear power, the report also calls for the construction of coal-fired power plants, gas-storage facilities and power connections to continental Europe.

India sets out ambitious solar power plan to be paid for by rich nations

India plans to generate 20GW from sunlight by 2020, putting green energy targets of developed nations in the shade
Maseeh Rahman in New Delhi, Tuesday 4 August 2009 18.01 BST

India has decided to push ahead with a vastly ambitious plan to tap the power of the sun to generate clean electricity, and after a meeting chaired by the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, it wants rich nations to pay the bill.
Although India has virtually no solar power now, the plan envisages the country generating 20GW from sunlight by 2020. Global solar capacity is predicted to be 27GW by then, according to the International Energy Agency, meaning India expects to be producing 75% of this within just 10 years.
Four-hundred million Indians have no electricity and the solar power would help spark the country's development and end the power cuts that plague the nation. It would also, say some analysts, assuage international criticism that India is not doing enough to confront its carbon emissions. It is currently heavily reliant on highly polluting coal for power.
The plan provoked prolonged discussion at a meeting of the national climate change council in New Dehli yesterday, which resulted in major changes from early drafts. The draft document had envisaged a government subsidy of around $20bn (£11bn), and falling production costs, in order to achieve a long-term 2040 target of 200GW of solar power.
But experts pointed out that a large government subsidy contradicted the Indian government's stated position in the negotiations to agree a treaty to fight global warming. India, along with China and others, has demanded that the costs of clean technologies should be carried by developed nations, which have grown rich through their heavy use of fossil fuels.
Under the revised plan, India's solar mission will seek to achieve its targets by demanding technological and financial support from the developed nations. "In order to achieve its renewable energy targets, the Indian government expects international financing as well as technology at an affordable cost," said Leena Srivastava of the TERI energy research institute.
The move suggests New Delhi could use its solar energy plan as a bargaining chip at the forthcoming climate change summit in Copenhagen. The government reaffirmed its hardline position last month when the environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, told the visiting US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton: "There is simply no case for the pressure that we, who have been among the lowest emitters per capita, [have] to actually reduce emissions." If rich nations do fund the solar plan, the aim of both sides – economic growth for developing countries but with low-carbon emissions – will have been met.
Nonetheless, the plan's optimistic cost projections were debunked at the meeting, leaving it unclear how much money the 2020 target would need. "In terms of vision, it's a very good plan," said Kushal Singh Yadav of the Centre for Science and Environment. "But the nuts and bolts will remain uncertain until we get a fix on how much money is needed, and where it will come from."
Yadav pointed out that India has taken significant strides in wind energy production thanks to a shift in government policy.
Spain, for instance, added 3GW of solar power capacity in just one year in 2008.
In another significant policy shift following the meeting, solar thermal power (which heats water) will be given as much importance as photovoltaic (which generates electricity).
The Tamil Nadu government has already asked for New Delhi's assistance for setting up a 100MW solar thermal plant in the southern state.

Vestas wins court order as protest spreads

• Activists climb second plant as four workers leave• Sit-in workers vow to stay on until bailiffs move in
Rachel Williams, Tuesday 4 August 2009 21.47 BST

The owners of a wind turbine company on the Isle of Wight won a court ordertoday to end a fortnight-long factory sit-in by workers, as another group of protesters occupied a second site belonging to the Danish company.
Six men remain barricaded inside the Vestas plant at Newport, on the Isle of Wight, protesting against its closure with the loss of 625 jobs. Five more activists climbed on the roof of a building facing the Solent at East Cowes after climbing up at 4am.
Four workers decided todayto leave the main protest, where a growing "red and green" coalition of trades unionists and climate campaigners is camped. The departing workers met with applause and cheers, and embraces from their wives.
Those still inside were said to be determined to stay until the bailiffs arrive. On Monday night, the protesters managed to get out of the offices that they have been stuck in and move into the rest of the building, where they were able to have a shower for the first time in two weeks.
One of the occupiers, Ian Terry, said they would stay until the workers were moved on.
"We're sticking to our guns," he said. "We're strong enough to fight on and we're determined to stay until we're moved. It was a rollercoaster waiting for the court decision, but everyone's cheery now."
Terry said the protesters hoped they would be less hungry now that there were only six people sharing the food, especially as one of those who had left the main protest "could eat for England".
One of four who left was due to take part in a charity cycle ride from Land's End to John O'Groats, while another had a wedding to attend. The men quickly got into waiting cars and drove away, but left a statement.
"We felt the time was right for us, but this is not the end for us. We're eager to get home, we miss our loved ones and we're dying to take a shower, so please excuse us for leaving swiftly. We will be back very soon to fight on."
Four Climate Camp activists, including a woman and an RMT union member, scaled the Vestas building in East Cowes at 4am, using a ladder attached to the building, which is decorated with a huge painted union flag. The protesters are all experienced climbers.
"There was no James Bond stuff, we just climbed up," said protester Martin Shaw, adding that they had plenty of vegan food and were erecting tents.
"We intend to stay for a long time. We'll be here until the occupying workers leave the other site."
The judge's decision to grant Vestas a repossession order was met with jeers and boos outside the court from a crowd of around 200 people, who then marched to the plant on the St Cross industrial estate, where they were cheered from the occupying workers out on the balcony.
Gathered outside the building, as RMT and Climate Camp flags fluttered in the breeze, they chanted: "We fight on."
Addressing the crowd, one of the workers inside called for a national day of action on which workers around the country would down tools or organise a rally in support.
Over the past fortnight the camp has grown from a handful of protesters to 25 tents set up on a traffic island at the far end of the St Cross industrial estate.
Climate campaigners have set up a play zone under one gazebo, where local children queue to get their faces painted. Others make paper windmills erected on the temporary fencing around the site, or play on a bongo drum. A makeshift kitchen area has a "wishlist" penned on a whiteboard outside. "Recycling boxes" is the top item, followed by "Locals to take our waste home please".
A local fastfood van has set up stall nearby, offering not just bacon rolls and cheeseburgers at special solidarity prices – pretty much anything plus a coffee for £2.50 – but also Southern Fried Quorn burgers.
The van proudly advertises that only free range eggs are used, meeting a request from the green protesters.
"We've sold an awful lot of Quorn burgers," said the chef, Phil.
On the balcony where the occupying workers often gather, signs bearing messages to their wives adorn the windows, professing "Love you Ali" and "I love you Leanne".
A play on a Vestas slogan written in felt-tip pen reads: "All global Vestas workers have the will to win."
Partners of those inside wore company T-shirts customised in white paint with the phrase: "Failure is not an option." Many of the workers' friends and family members have been at the camp each day since the protest began.
Barbara Moody, 67, whose son Justin is inside the building, said: "The lads up there have got more courage between them than the whole of the government have. They're just cowards and they can't even talk to the people."
The RMT's general secretary, Bob Crow, said of the men: "Every single one of them is a hero and the country should be proud of them. They've done more for the future of green energy and green jobs in the UK in two weeks than the government has done in 12 years."
James Fieldsend, representing the occupying workers, had argued at Newport county court that the application for a possession order had not been properly served, but the judge, Graham White, decided it had and granted the order to Vestas.
It remains unclear how soon bailiffs could move in, but Peter Kruse, a spokesman for Vestas, said the company "was in no hurry". "We are as patient as we have been all the way. We have been in wind turbines for 30 years – we are very patient in everything we do."

Global Warming and the Poor

A funny thing happened on the way to saving the world’s poor from the ravages of global warming. The poor told the warming alarmists to get lost.
This spring, the Geneva-based Global Humanitarian Forum, led by former U.N. General Secretary Kofi Annan, issued a report warning that “mass starvation, mass migration, and mass sickness” would ensue if the world did not agree to “the most ambitious international agreement ever negotiated” on global warming at a forthcoming conference in Copenhagen.
According to Mr. Annan’s report, climate change-induced disasters now account for 315,000 deaths each year and $125 billion in damages, numbers set to rise to 500,000 deaths and $340 billion in damages by 2030. The numbers are hotly contested by University of Colorado disaster-trends expert Roger Pielke Jr., who calls them a “poster child for how to lie with statistics.”
But never mind about that. The more interesting kiss-off took place in New Delhi late last month, when Indian Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh told visiting Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that there was no way India would sign on to any global scheme to cap carbon emissions.
“There is simply no case for the pressure that we, who have among the lowest emissions per capita, face to actually reduce emissions,” Mr. Ramesh told Mrs. Clinton. “And as if this pressure was not enough, we also face the threat of carbon tariffs on our exports to countries such as yours.” The Chinese—the world’s largest emitter of CO—have told the Obama administration essentially the same thing.
Roughly 75% of Indians—some 800 million people—live on $2 a day or less, adjusted for purchasing power parity. In China, it’s about 36%, or about 480 million. That means the two governments alone are responsible for one in every two people living at that income level.
If climate change is the threat Mr. Annan claims it is, India and China ought to be eagerly beating the path to Copenhagen. So why aren’t they?
To listen to the climate alarmists, it’s all America’s fault. “What the Chinese are chiefly guilty of is emulating the American economic model,” wrote environmental writer Jacques Leslie last year in the Christian Science Monitor. “The United States passed up the opportunity it had at the beginning of China’s economic transformation to guide it toward sustainability, and the loss is already incalculable.”
Facts tell a different story. When Deng Xiaoping began introducing elements of a market economy in 1980, Chinese life expectancy at birth was 65.3 years. Today it is about 73 years. The numbers are probably a bit inflated, as most numbers are in the People’s Republic, but the trend line is undeniable. In India, life expectancy rose from 52.5 years in 1980 to about 67 years today. If this is the consequence of following the “American economic model” then poor countries need more of it.
But what about all the pollution in India and particularly China? In Mr. Leslie’s telling, CO emissions are part-and-parcel with common pollutants such as particulate matter, toxic waste, and everything else typically associated with a degraded environment. They’re not. The U.S. and China produce equivalent quantities of carbon dioxide. But try naming a U.S. city whose air quality is even remotely as bad as Beijing’s, or an American river as polluted as the Han: You can’t. America, the richer and more industrialized country, is also by far the cleaner one.
People who live in Third-World countries—like Mexico, where I grew up—tend to understand this, even if First-World environmentalists do not. People who live in oppressive Third World countries, like China, also understand that it isn’t just greater wealth that leads to a better environment, but greater freedom, too.
To return to Mr. Leslie, his complaint with China is that it has become too much of a consumer society, again in the American mold. Again he is ridiculous: China has one of the world’s highest personal savings rates—50% versus the U.S.’s 2.7%. The real source of China’s pollution problem is a state-led industrial policy geared toward production, and state-owned enterprises (especially in “dirty” sectors like coal and steel) that strive to meet production quotas, and state-appointed managers who don’t mind cutting corners in matters of safety or environmental responsibility, and typically have the political clout to insulate themselves from any public fallout.
In other words, China’s pollution problems are not a function of laissez-faire policies and rampant consumerism but of the regime’s excessive lingering control of the economy. A freer China means a cleaner China.
There’s a lesson in this for those who believe that the world’s environmental problems call for a new era of dirigisme. And there ought to be a lesson for those who claim to understand the problems of the poor better than the poor themselves. If global warming really is the catastrophe the alarmists claim, the least they can do for its victims is not to patronize them while impoverishing them in the bargain.—Write to

When Precision Is Only 92.11567% Accurate

The Numbers Behind Cash-for-Clunkers Imply Exactitude, but a Look Under the Hood Reveals Guesswork and Assumptions
Pity the owner of a 1987 Plymouth Sundance. Maybe in its youth the Sundance's pinched nose exuded sportiness and verve, maybe its vinyl-everywhere interior felt shiny and new. But nearly a quarter-century on, the thing is a clunker.
Still, someone hoping to dump an '87 Sundance in the cash-for-clunkers program was shocked recently when the Environmental Protection Agency re-checked fuel economy figures. In the new math, some Sundances got 19 miles per gallon, just ahead of the clunker-cutoff of 18. It and 77 other cars were bumped from the bad-enough-for-cash list.
In a statement, the EPA said "more precise" data calculated "to four decimal places" caused the revisions.
Just how precise can a fuel-economy test be? Not that precise. After all, 0.0001 miles is about six inches, and, if you could count it, a car getting around 18 miles to the gallon would consume about half a drop of fuel in that distance.
Such precision is futile when dealing with essentially unknowable quantities derived from rough real-world experiments and seasoned with debatable assumptions.
A Clunker or Not?
Some models were disqualified as others became eligible for the cash-for-clunkers program after fuel-efficiency ratings were recalculated.
"It is ludicrous to suggest that you can get fuel-consumption accuracy anywhere past the first decimal place, let alone the second," says Peter de Nayer, an independent U.K. auto tester.
Still, decimal places lend the aura of authority and the veneer of verisimilitude. So the modern world is awash in squishy numbers wearing the many-figured garb of faux precision. There are 307,085,556... no, wait 307,085,557 people in the U.S., according to the Census Bureau's ticking population clock. The Energy Information Administration says the vast continent of Africa has 117.064 billion barrels of proven oil reserves. The firm eMarketer "estimates that in 2009 96.6 million US Internet users will read a blog at least once per month."
The EIA says it gets its figures from a trade journal. An eMarketer analyst says the 96.6 million blog readers is accurate to "within 5% to 10%."
The state of Montana reported three weeks ago that its unemployment rate for June "increased 0.1% to 6.4%."
Did it? Maybe. The unemployment data come from the federal Current Population Survey, which interviews tens of thousands of people across the nation but only 1,200 in Montana -- too few for a precise figure. The rate is derived from a statistical model. The state says that the margin of error is plus or minus 0.8 percentage points at a 90% level of confidence. (It's actually plus or minus 0.9 percentage points.)
Barbara Wagner, a state economist, admits the figure isn't precise. But, she says, "it is still our best guess at the exact rate."
County numbers are even squishier. Nobody provides margins of error. What to make of the estimate that Petroleum County (labor force: 229) had an unemployment rate of 3.9% in June? Ms. Wagner says the county rates largely come from divvying up the state's overall rate, adjusting for things like unemployment claims. For small places, "there's no guarantee that there is someone in that county getting interviewed."
Faux precision has a number of causes. Wide error margins can render multi-digit precision meaningless. Other times, number crunchers run afoul of the rule of significant figures.
The principle is simple: When combining measured numbers, the final answer is only as precise the least-precise piece of data that went into it; you can't just add a tail of decimal places, even if they show up on the calculator. So a room that's 2.5 meters (two significant digits) by 3.87 meters (three) has an area of 9.7 square meters, though the two numbers multiply to 9.675.
But that is often messed up. In March, the New Scientist magazine published a short item questioning calculations of salt content in snack foods. One variety of cheese puffs "contains 0.4 grams of salt per pack, which the panel says amounts to 9% of a child's [recommended daily allowance]. This would mean that the [allowance] is 4.444 grams a day," the magazine wrote. A sharp-eyed reader wrote a scolding letter: Given those figures, the answer can have only one significant digit: four grams. The decimal places are unwarranted. The magazine ate humble pie in an editor's note.
The rule has even ended up in court. In 1991, a would-be lawyer, Frank Bettine, failed the Alaska bar exam, missing by 0.5 point the threshold needed for a re-evaluation of his test. Perhaps jump-starting his career, Mr. Bettine sued.
An engineer by training, he fought the math: Graders scored essay questions only with integers -- 1, 2, 3, and so on. But the score is an average of two graders' marks -- 1.5, for instance, if the graders gave 1 and 2. That's too many digits. Mr. Bettine argued that the essays should have either been graded with two significant figures in the first place, or rounded in the end to one -- pushing 1.5 up to 2.
Mr. Bettine lost at the Alaska Supreme Court, but the justices found his critique "convincing from a purely mathematical standpoint." Mr. Bettine passed the bar, practiced law for 15 years and then went back to electrical engineering.
Fuel mileage doesn't come from pumping in a gallon of fuel and seeing how many miles a car will travel. Instead, car makers record tailpipe emissions and, knowing how much carbon dioxide to expect after burning fuel, compute how much gas was consumed. Experts say that's more accurate than directly measuring the volume of fuel, which varies with temperature.
For decades, the EPA prescribed two fuel-economy tests performed on a dynamometer -- a pair of rollers on which the wheels spin without the vehicle going anywhere -- in a lab. A driver accelerates and stops 23 times for the city test and cruises at an average 48.3 miles per hour for the highway. The two results are recorded to four decimal places -- the law demands it, the EPA says.
Recently, the EPA added tests meant to mimic things people actually do with cars, such as turn on the air conditioning or drive them in cold weather. But these weren't done for older cars, so the EPA created a formula that estimated from the old data what would happen had the new tests been run. Karl Simon, an EPA scientist, says the results are "effectively equivalent."
When preparing its public database for the clunkers program, the EPA realized some figures going into these formulas came from rounded numbers, and others were at four-decimal-place precision. The agency updated the database so all cars were scored from the more precise numbers.
"Repeatability and accuracy is something we spend a lot of time on," says Mr. Simon.
Mr. de Nayer says the pursuit of precision is misplaced. "There is no such thing as a single figure you can attach to a car," he says. How and where you drive, on what kinds of roads, in what kinds of traffic -- all of it makes a difference far greater than variances in a lab test.
"When we are talking about first decimal places, we are rather straining at gnats and swallowing camels," Mr. de Nayer says. "In the real world, nothing, but nothing, is spot on."
Write to Charles Forelle at

Obama's green credentials tested by battle against mountaintop mining

James Hansen and Darryl Hannah among those opposing open-cast coal extraction that destroys mountains and forests
Suzanne Goldenberg in West Virginia, Tuesday 4 August 2009 13.27 BST
It is still technically possible to see the original white paint of Larry Gibson's pick-up truck beneath the myriad of stickers declaring his love of West Virginia's mountains and his opposition to coal mining.
But it would be a mistake to see the truck as mere conveyance. This is a mobile command centre in Gibson's one-man 25-year war against King Coal and the highly destructive mining method known as mountaintop removal.
Windscreen-mounted video camera in working order? Check. CB Radio on to listen for miners arriving for their shifts? Check. Luminous green t-shirt and cap for maximum visibility? Check. And Gibson, who is about five feet tall and in his 60s is usually armed, like many people in this part of West Virginia.
"The mountains in West Virginia are the oldest in the world and now they are gone in the blink of an eye," he said. "I am the man who is holding the fort down here. I am the man holding them back."
Mountaintop removal begins with the clear-cutting of entire forests and then the shearing off up to 1,000 vertical feet of mountain peak. This exposes thin seams of coal that cannot easily be reached by underground tunnels.
Some 500 mountaintops across West Virginia, Virginia and Kentucky have already been replaced by dry flat plateau, and 1,200 mountain streams have been buried beneath dumped rock and dirt. By 2012, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that more than 2,200 square miles of Appalachian forest will disappear.
At some sites, the mining companies try to rebuild the silhouette of the old mountain, or replant. But mostly they leave the mountain missing its crest. In any event, nothing ever grows on the land again, locals say.
Kayford Mountain, or what Gibson calls his home place, is one of the frontline positions in an epic confrontation between the coal industry and a broad coalition of local activists, environmental organisations, national figures and Hollywood celebrities.
The struggle against mountaintop removal is also proving an uncomfortable test of Barack Obama's green credentials.
The US administration has frustrated environmentalists who had relied on the president to ban a practice that devastates landscapes and uproots hundreds of local communities.
Robert F Kennedy Jr, the environmental lawyer and son of the assassinated presidential candidate, recently accused Obama of presiding over an "Appalachian apocalypse".
James Hansen, the Nasa scientist who coined the term global warming and who has become a passionate supporter of Gibson, demanded activists hold the president to account. "We can not continue to give President Obama a pass on this much longer," Hansen said.
Now Obama could be upstaged by the Senate which has taken up a bill to ban mountaintop removal by prohibiting mining companies from dumping debris in streams. The bill has support from Republicans as well as Democrats.
The bill is too late for Gibson's beloved Kayford Mountain. A short stroll from his campsite brings visitors to a view that looks like something out of a science fiction film. Giant trucks crawl over the earth on a vast yellow plateau below; at 5.10pm there is a loud blast.
"It looks to me like descriptions of places that got bombed in Hiroshima ," said Lora Webb, who lives in the nearly abandoned town of Twilight, which is surrounded by mountaintop mining. "It looks like what I would imagine if I was going to imagine what hell would look like: dry, dusty, no air or water."
Webb is about to leave Twilight herself, exhausted by blasts so forceful they have blown her out of her bed and on to the floor, shattered her glassware collection , and left a thick coating of dust on her ceiling fan.
Emerging scientific scientific evidence now suggests even more extensive damage from mountaintop removal than previously understood, with widespread and potentially permanent damage to water systems. Former mine areas are more vulnerable to erosion than unspoiled mountainside, and are at increased risk of flash floods and mud slides.
"There is irrefutable scientific evidence that the environmental impacts of mountaintop removal are substantial and they are permanent," Margaret Palmer, a professor at the University of Maryland's centre for environmental science, told a recent Senate hearing .
"You can't reverse it, at least not in any time span we can recognise as humans."
Meanwhile, the EPA has detected high levels of the heavy metal selenium, which can cause reproductive problems in humans, downstream from mine fill sites. Government biologists also detected deformities among local fish.
"It just destroys the health of the people who live here," said Joan Linville, who lives in the town of Van and whose home was nearly buried by a mud slide from a mined mountaintop. "One little tiny coal seam and they keep tearing up the country for miles. It's the most destructive thing I have ever seen in the 70 years I have been alive and I have been in every state."
Gibson's war against coal began in the late 80s, soon after an injury forced him into early retirement from a job at General Motors in Ohio. Around the same time, mining companies began buying up locals' small plots, and began to dynamite the peaks surrounding Kayford.
Gibson refused to sell out, and based himself on the mountain in a two-room cabin without running water or mains electricity. He persuaded his extended clan to come too.
His determination made him a hero to environmentalists. Over time, the patch of mountain has become a pilgrimage to environmental and other activists, even school groups, with Gibson's wife handling the scheduling requests. Next month he is due in court with the actress Daryl Hannah to face charges over a protest action.
But Gibson also has powerful opponents. Almost half of America's electricity comes from coal, and mining companies say mountaintop removal is cheaper and more efficient than tunnelling underground.
In Washington, industry lobbyists claim that locals welcome mountaintop removal — for its development potential.
"I can take you to places in eastern Kentucky where community services were hampered because of a lack of flat space — to build factories, to build hospitals, even to build schools," said Joe Lucas of Americans for Clean Coal Electricity. "In many places, mountain-top mining, if done responsibly, allows for land to be developed for community space."
Coal mining no longer fuels West Virginia, accounting for just 7% of the economy: there are more jobs at Wal-Mart than on the coal face. But while the number of mining jobs has shrunk from a high of 150,000 to just 12,000 over the decades, the scarcity of other employment still leaves plenty of locals threatened by Gibson's crusade.
Gibson — himself the son and grandson of miners — had his fourth of July protest picnic broken up by burly men with tattooed and shaven heads, and shots were fired at his cottage in June. "They just pulled out a gun and went pop pop pop," he said.
Like other opponents of mountaintop removal, Gibson had been counting on Obama, with his election promises of a clean energy economy, to shift the power balance away from coal.
But those hopes evaporated in May when the EPA signed 42 permits for mountaintop removal while turning down only six — a higher ratio even than during the latter part of the George Bush presidency. Some 170 more permits are pending, according to the Sierra Club.
In June, the White House announced it would strengthen oversight of mining operations, but it refused to endorse a ban on the dumping of debris into mountain streams.
That stand has infuriated Obama's natural allies. Gibson sees it as pure betrayal. "I think Obama's going to fall into line like the last president we had," he said. "He has developed into a coccoon that is going to end up not being a butterfly but a corporate president."

Baby emissions fuel global warming

Estimates of the carbon legacy of bringing a child into the world suggest that the green choice may be to stop at two kids

Another mouth to feed, another gas guzzler, long-distance traveller, consumer ... and future parent
There are already 6.8 billion people living on this crowded planet and the figure is expected to rise to 9 billion by 2050. How can we expect to reduce global carbon emissions by 50 per cent or more if populations continue to grow exponentially? Family planning is often regarded as taboo by environmentalists, but many are now coming round to the view that curbing population growth will be crucial to combat climate change.
The Optimum Population Trust (patron, David Attenborough) runs a campaign urging parents to "Stop At Two". Gordon Brown's green adviser Jonathon Porritt and Science Museum director Chris Rapley have also spoken of the environmental importance of tackling population growth.
Ed Miliband, the UK's secretary of state for energy and climate change, addressed the issue recently at a town hall meeting in Oxford. "There's no question that population growth is part of the reason why we have growth in carbon emissions ... but I'm not sure that there's an easy or necessarily desirable solution once you've stated that fact."
There are plenty of reasons why reducing birth rates might not be desirable. No country wants to end up with a situation in which the workforce is too small to support the elderly – as Japan and China are experiencing.
Most of the projected global population increase will happen in the developing world, but the impact of each extra person on the climate is less in poor countries because emissions per capita are lower. Can we quantify the extra emissions that result from each child born?
Statisticians at Oregon State University have done just that. Paul Murtaugh and Michael Schlax calculated that every child in the US adds 9,441 tonnes to each parent's carbon footprint. This is assuming that emissions per capita continue at today's levels. Compare that with 1,384 tonnes of carbon dioxide for each child in China, or 56 tonnes in Bangladesh.
To arrive at their estimates, published in the journal Global Environmental Change, Murtaugh and Schlax started with the basic premise that a person is responsible for the carbon emissions of their descendants, weighted by their relatedness. So a mother and father are each apportioned half of their child's emissions, a quarter of each grandchild's emissions and so on. The researchers used UN projections of fertility to simulate 10,000 family lineages in each of the world's 11 most populous countries, and estimated what the "carbon legacy" of an individual would be in different scenarios of future emissions levels.
"Many people are unaware of the power of exponential population growth," Murtaugh said. "Future growth amplifies the consequences of people's reproductive choices today, the same way that compound interest amplifies a bank balance."
The perceived right to start a family is a sensitive topic, so it's hardly surprising that some have reacted badly to Murtaugh's research. "However new-sounding the language about 'carbon footprints' may be, what we have here is the same old Malthusian view of people breeding themselves to destruction," wrote William McGurn, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush, in an opinion article in the Wall Street Journal. The Baltimore Reporter went further, calling the authors "reproduction Nazis".
Needless to say, Murtaugh and Schlax are not advocating eugenics. They "simply want to make people aware of the environmental consequences of their reproductive choices".
So now that you know that becoming a parent could lead to a legacy of 262 times more carbon emissions than failing to convert to energy-saving light bulbs, are you still keen to start a family?

Ministers accused of backsliding on carbon targets

Renewables use and recycling drop in government departments as MPs warn taxpayer may face cost of meeting targets
Andrew Sparrow
The Guardian, Wednesday 5 August 2009

MPs accused ministers today of "backsliding" on the government's commitment to cut its own carbon emissions, noting that departments have reduced the amount of energy they get from renewable sources.
The environmental audit committee (EAC) also warned that the taxpayer may end up having to foot the bill for purchasing carbon credits from the private sector if it fails to meet its own target of a 12.5% reduction in carbon emissions by 2012. It also criticised Whitehall for reducing the amount of waste it recycles, and suggested that the government could end up having to buy carbon credits from the private sector because of its slow progress in tackling its own emissions.
The EAC report, Greening Government, looked at the environmental aspects of how departments manage their buildings and run their operations in the year 2007-8. Departments have carbon targets but the committee's report said these needed to be more ambitious.
In a separate report, the government advisory body, the Sustainable Development Commission said the government made "good progress" in relation to renewable energy and recycling in 2007-8.
But the MPs said the phrase "good progress" was misleading because Whitehall was going backwards on renewable energy and recycling.
Around 22% of electricity used by government departments was produced from renewable sources in 2007-08. But the year before it was 28%.
And Whitehall departments achieved a recycling rate of 35% in 2007-08. But the previous year it was over 38%.
MPs were particularly critical of the revelation that Whitehall is not on track to hit its target for the reduction of carbon emissions from offices.
There were improvements in some areas, such as on government road vehicles, where emissions have been cut by 10.3%. But carbon dioxide emissions from offices — by far the largest source of emissions on the government estate — have only been reduced by 6.3% since the baseline year of 1999-2000. The proportion of renewable energy used by Government dropped from 28.3% in 2006-2007 to 22% in 2007-2008. And recycling rates dipped from 38.5% in 2006-2007 to 35% in 2007-2008.
Whitehall departments have signed up to the carbon reduction commitment (CRC), an emissions trading scheme involving large public and private sector organisations that will come into force in April 2010.
Organisations that do not hit their carbon targets will have to buy carbon credits and the MPs said there was a risk that the taxpayer could end up paying because of the failure of government departments to meet their obligations.
The MPs also said they "deplored" the failure of many executive agencies to publish annual information about their green performance, even though this was a requirement.
Tim Yeo, the Tory MP who chairs the committee, said last night: "Unless the government gets its house in order, taxpayers could end up paying a heavy price to buy carbon credits from the private sector.
"In too many areas, like emissions of carbon dioxide from offices, it has made little or no progress, and in others it is backsliding.
"Cutting government energy bills with better insulation, solar panels and new heat and power boilers could save us lots of money in the long run. But ministers have so far lacked the vision to invest for the future."
A spokesman from the Office of Goverment Commerce, which is responsible for the government's estate, said: "There is no evidence to suggest the taxpayer will incur additional tax burdens through departmental involvement in the CRC programme. Departments continue to perform well against their sustainability targets and have the potential to perform well in the CRC programme and achieve financial benefits from the scheme."