Politicized ‘Scientists’ Bring Anti-Coal Crackpottery to Colorado Springs

By Sean Paige | On Nov 27, 2012 | 2 Comments | In Featured

It’s an effective tactic long favored by the propagandists of the environmental movement: Claim an alleged polluter is imperiling the community, threaten to sue—and base your case at least in part on a “new study” issued by a seemingly authoritative group of scientists. The news media are more than likely to pick up the story, not so much because of the allegations or the threat of litigation—of which even green-leaning reporters are growing wary, and weary—but because the claims are purportedly backed by hard science.

Yet scratch the surface of the research—which few in the media or general public ever take the time to do—and it turns out to be based on a whole lot of arbitrary assumptions, circular reasoning, fuzzy numbers and outright wishful thinking. Scratch the surface of the group producing the research and—surprise—it turns out to be driven far more by politics than science.

Of course, that doesn’t stop it from grabbing headlines—or cowing politicians and even driving policy.

A case in point is the Sierra Club’s hyperventilation over downtown Colorado Springs’ coal-fired Drake power plant, a mainstay of municipally owned Colorado Springs Utilities. Per standard procedure, the Sierra Club’s legal team has drafted a complaint it is circulating widely and threatening to file in court in an attempt to shut Drake down.

As if by coincidence, the Sierra Club’s kindred spirits at the Union of Concerned Scientists just happened to release a report that names the Drake plant among some 350-plus coal-fired power plants nationwide that the group deems “ripe for retirement.”

The report’s premise, as recently reported in the Colorado Springs Gazette, is that “two of three of Drake’s coal-fired power generators are ‘old, inefficient, dirty and no longer economically competitive.’” By “no longer economically competitive,” the report’s authors mean—and actually state, presumably with straight faces—that the plant costs more to operate than to replace with power generated by natural gas and/or renewable-energy sources, like solar and wind power.

If sheer logic and simple math tell you that conclusion just doesn’t add up—after all, coal is still the cheapest practical energy source, and an existing power plant, regardless of which fuel it burns, costs less than building a new one—rest assured the Union of Concerned Scientists isn’t the kind of organization that settles for sheer logic and simple math.

For one thing, they are factoring into the existing cost of running Drake the additional cost of fitting it with upgraded pollution-control equipment. Naturally, that stands to up the ante for keeping Drake in operation. It’s also a measure that’s already being implemented by Springs Utilities, which is investing $121 million in cutting-edge pollution control technology, including new scrubbers pioneered by local tech firm Neumann Systems Group. Oh, and it’s worth noting—the Sierra Club’s pending legal action notwithstanding—Drake is currently in compliance with air pollution standards.

At any rate, could even so sizable a sum  as Drake’s pollution-remediation measures come close to the hundreds of millions of dollars it would cost ratepayers to replace Drake outright with one or more new power plants and/or other energy sources? Especially if the new sources of power were generated by costlier and less reliable forms of energy? And don’t forget Drake produces upwards of a third of the Springs area’s electricity. That’s a whole lot of generation capacity to plaintiffs who won their viagra lawsuit in court in 2010 replace.

So, just how do they figure it would be cheaper to close Drake? Well, the Union of Concerned Scientists’ report never actually discloses the specific calculations for any plant on its “ripe for retirement” list – which is odd for an organization that tries to trade on an aura of scientific precision, evidence and integrity. Instead, it references a wide range of assumptions that are factored into the presumed “cost” of running the coal-fired plants.

Among them are, “… the cost of complying with existing and pending pollution standards, and whether a price is placed on carbon dioxide.” Meaning, of course, that potential policies like a much-debated, but as-yet unrealized “carbon tax”—penalizing ratepayers who rely on fossil fuel—is a given by the lights of the “Ripe for Retirement” report even though it may never make it through Congress. Another factor: “…With additional policy support such as tax incentives, considerably more wind and solar energy facilities could compete with existing coal plants…” Translation: Renewable energy can be as cheap as coal—if the nation’s taxpayers are forced to make up the difference with generous subsidies.

So it goes throughout the study. All sorts of costs are imputed to coal, and assorted efficiencies attributed to solar and wind power, and all it takes to make the often-tenuous connections seem plausible is to believe hard enough, as does the Union of Concerned Scientists and, well, Peter Pan.

If that sounds like a stretch—maybe even an earnest effort to torture the facts in order to reach a pre-determined, politically driven conclusion—then understand that the Union of Concerned Scientists has spent decades honing politics into a science.

Yes, many of its members are distinguished men and women of science in their own right, but it’s important for the media and the rest of the public to remember that these scientists are also human beings with their own political biases, just like the rest of us. And the agenda of the Union of Concerned Scientists is all about its members’ politics’, not their science.  As we are reminded by the watchdog,  this is the group of “scientists” that has aligned itself over the decades with decidedly left-of-center causes ranging from nuclear disarmament to opposing U.S. military involvement in Iraq. Certainly, viewpoints worthy of debate—but hardly matters for science to take up.

Meanwhile, note the new twist here in the environmental movement’s evolving efforts to play to Middle American sensibilities: This study doesn’t try to harp on climate change or vague threats to public health. Particularly in a community like Colorado Springs, talk of climate change is likely to be greeted with a snicker, and worries about air pollution—given the Pikes Peak region’s comparatively pristine skies—would be met with a shrug. And the publicity mill peddling this study knows that. So instead, they attempt to appeal to the public’s presumed fiscal conservatism. You have to give the group credit; it’s a clever approach.

You have to give the Union of Concerned Scientists a hat tip in another respect, too.  However, ginned-up its arguments, loopy its agenda and just plain unscientific its “science” may be, it nonetheless has gone far in its 40-plus years—on sheer hype. While that may not count for much in the world of bona fide science, in politics, it just may be the most potent renewable resource of all.

Written by Sean Paige


  • Thank you, Sean. Important article. I have shared it with a number of friends.

  • Drake and Birdsall both have natural gas support for running the boilers. Nixon and Front Range also have natural gas. It’s about the land, that is the truth.

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