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Black coal, black swans

City Sage



At last week's meeting of the Colorado Springs Utilities Board (aka City Council), Washington-based energy consulant Rob Talley spoke on "key federal policy issues potentially affecting existing coal-fired power plants and specifically the Martin Drake decommissioning study."

If any board members imagined that Talley's PowerPoint presentation would lend clarity to the Drake Power Plant debate, they were mistaken.

So murky is the regulatory climate that the best move, as Councilor Joel Miller observed, might be to do nothing at all. Many Republicans don't believe in anthropogenic climate change, so are disinclined to take drastic action. Elected Dems are largely believers but lack conviction, and with the GOP in control of the U.S. House, there's nothing they can do legislatively.

The takeaway: "The electric industry is facing numerous regulatory and legislative proposals including efforts to reduce hazardous air pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions. ... Post-Obama Administration outlook (2017 and beyond) too uncertain to speculate but could result in determinative activity depending on outcome."

"Determinative activity" — don't you love that phrase? In bureaucratic parlance, it means that something might happen in five or 10 years, but don't hold your breath. If you want to shut Drake, it'll be expensive and the price of natural gas might go up. If you keep the coal burner going, you might get stuck with a fat carbon tax. But there's one certainty: Whatever the federal government does, it will do slowly. As Alfred E. Neuman said, "What, me worry?"

World War I began on July 28, 1914. In the century since, we have seen wars, revolution, economic crises and increasingly chaotic technological and social changes. Leading-edge companies have to reinvent themselves every 16 months or disappear. (Where's my Blackberry?) Yet if government at all levels had a theme song, it would be this: "Slow down, you move too fast / You got to make the decade last / Got no deeds to do, no promises to keep."

Slow governments hardly guarantee stability. Ours is a century of "black swan" events, placid bureaucracies overtaken by urgent new realities. On Aug. 2, 1939, Albert Einstein wrote to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In the typewritten missive, Einstein warned that "The element uranium may be turned into a new source of energy ... it is conceivable — though much less certain — that extremely powerful bombs of a new type may thus be constructed."

Einstein theorized that such a bomb would be too heavy to be carried by plane, but might be concealed in a ship.

On Aug. 6, 1945 an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. What six years before had existed only in the minds of a few physicists became a terrible reality, thanks to the fierce competence of the American government.

Photographs ( show men loading the second bomb, destined for Nagasaki. They're young; most were roaming the carefree halls of American high schools when Einstein delivered his fateful letter.

The bomb itself is unimpressive. It doesn't look like cutting-edge technology or the Angel of Death. It looks like a comical cross between a riveted iron boiler and a supersized radio transmitter.

History has a way of sneaking up on us, even when it gives plenty of warning. By the early 1930s, Japan and Germany clearly were spoiling for war, but not clear enough to waken England and the U.S. from the comfortable torpor of peacetime. Journalists and diplomats who predicted war were called leftist alarmists. When Neville Chamberlain returned from Munich to London in September 1938 and announced "peace for our time," he had some advice for a crowd outside the Prime Minister's residence.

"Go home," he said, "and get a nice, quiet sleep."

Nowadays, that's what the climate-change deniers say to those who warn that the world as we know it is literally coming to an end. If the past is a guide, a pale horse awaits — bringing a time we can imagine but not predict.

When it comes, the old order will be swept away once again. Our present-day Chamberlains will yield to fiercely competent men and women who can and will act — if we're lucky. If not, we may remember the words of the Bhagavad Gita, quoted by Robert Oppenheimer at Trinity Site in New Mexico on July 16, 1945.

"Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."

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