"Environmentalists Say"

A rant about biased news coverage.
This post is part of the research project: The Dirt on Coal

Once in a while I watch regular broadcast media and I’m just bowled over by how biased it is. For example, check out this King 5 segment on the phase-out of coal at the TransAlta plant in Centralia, Washington. Here’s the opening line:

It produces 12 percent of the state’s electricity, but environmentalists call it Washington’s largest single source of pollution.

What’s wrong with this statement? Pretty much everything.

First, the TransAlta plant does not, in fact, produce 12 percent of the state’s electricity. Even the company only claims it produces 10 percent of the state’s power—and that’s a claim my colleague, Jennifer Langston, has thoroughly debunked.

Second, “environmentalists call it the largest single source of pollution”? Seriously? What is the point of this formulation, if not to make the claim sound suspect?

The truth is it almost doesn’t matter what pollutant you pick—carbon dioxide, mercury, sulfur dioxide, smog-forming compounds, particulate matter—the TransAlta coal plant is far and  away the single biggest polluter in the state. There’s nothing else even remotely comparable. And none of this is controversial or a matter of debate. It’s just the basic facts of the case, the sort of thing one would think a reporter might inquire into.

An accurate and unbiased formulation would have gone like so:

The company claims it produces 10 percent of the state’s electricity, but it is  Washington’s largest single source of pollution.

Easy, right?

But the fun doesn’t stop there. The piece goes to length to frame up the phase-out as a conflict between the environment and the economy. (One of many examples: “The move praised by environmentalists, questioned by the thousands in the community who would be impacted.”) Nowhere is mentioned the serious damage that coal burning does to public health (particularly to to children), the diminished views at Mount Rainier National Park, the havoc wrought by climate change, or the precariousness of a local economy dependent on a foreign multinational energy company that has sent shock waves through the town’s labor force before.

No, we don’t get any of that. We get the hackneyed old stuff we’ve always gotten: “environmentalists” versus simple working folk. I’m awfully sick of this stuff, and surprised—naively so, I guess—that this is the standard of supposedly impartial broadcast journalism.

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  1. Cascadian says:

    Luckily, the audience for this kind of news is shrinking. I don’t think I know anyone below the age of 60 who watches King 5 regularly. I used to watch it long ago but with the availability of news online, the only value added for local television news is sensationalism about murder and hack pieces like the one you highlighted.

  2. rjm_sino says:

    A well-informed citizenry is the cornerstone of democracy. Thank you Eric and Sightline for shedding some light on the completely biased way in which so many US citizens receive their information!

  3. Derrick says:

    Amen! I too have been so uterly frustrated with the the silly-ness that we call “news.” Like Cascadian, I also quit watching broadcast news and cringe everytime I’m subjected to it. Thank goodnes other options like the Sightline Daily exist!

  4. Bryan says:

    Now, Eric regardless of what you may think I do find this site rather informing. But, I sure wouldn’t call it unbiased!! What you may not like about the “news” is exactly what you do here. Your very biased in your views on the environmental side, that’s ok I don’t really agree with many of your arguments, but that is your right. The comment that was made is correct though, environmentalist vs jobs and tax revenue, round one goes to your view at Longview, but I really don’t think that it is going to be that way come April or in June…

  5. Eric de Place says:

    Bryan,What I’m objecting to is primarily a contortion of facts in the piece. The plant does not, in fact, produce 12 percent of WA’s power. And it is, objectively, the state’s largest polluter. Surely we can agree about those things, right?I’m not surprised that there are differences in the way we interpret the facts. That’s fair enough. I just wish that my interpretation got some airing in the piece alongside yours. Unbiased journalism would try to present both intrepretations with something like equal weight, which it doesn’t.

  6. Wells says:

    Broadcast network news is also called “info-tainment” for a reason, namely, its intent is to hold viewer attention for the commercial ads. Whether TV news slant toward entertaining ‘fluff’ or emotion-stimulating political bias, TV station managers are more loyal to commercial sponsors than viewers.

  7. John H says:

    The use of the word “environmentalist” has been driving me insane for years… the media brands anyone or any organization that takes the slightest measure of environmental impact into their decision making as “environmentalists”. In any given news report that uses the word “environmentalist”, about 90% of the time you could just substitute the word “informed people” or “scientists” or “neighbors” or what have you. I read today, “Environmentalists near the nuclear plant in Japan are concerned about leaks…” Really? You mean everyone else nearby who isn’t an “environmentalist” is completely unconcerned about leaks? Is that why the Japanese government is evacuating everyone?

  8. Jim Lazar says:

    In my opinion, the agreement between TransAlta and the environmental groups reported on Saturday will have the likely effect of prolonging the life of the Centralia coal plant, not shortening it.The “spin doctors” are calling this “coal-free Washington” but in fact, most of the coal-fired power used in Washington comes from Montana and Wyoming. Puget is the largest owner of Colstrip and gets about a third of it’s power from it, and Pacific Power and Avista both own shares of Colstrip as well. Plus Pacific Power and Light Company has the Jim Bridger, Wyodak, and Dave Johnston coal plants in Wyoming. None of those are affected by the legislation, and that coal power will continue to flow to serve Washington consumers.With this legislation, TransAlta can make long-term sales of power (currently prohibited) to Washington utilities, and use that revenue stream to make capital improvements in the plant, allowing it to continue to operate. Without this legislation, there is no assured revenue stream, and I believe that the economics of the plant are so fragile that it would likely close within three years. That’s a change from what I thought a few years ago, as I’ll explain. I know quite a bit about Centralia. I was the economic consultant to the USEPA in 1999, when the owners agreed to installlow-NOx burners and SO2 scrubbers. I was the expert for the Attorney General in 2000, when the WUTC considered the proposal to sell the plant to TransAlta. And I was a consultant to the Washington Department of Ecology a few years ago as they considered mercury regulations. The key change is the decline of natural gas prices over the past few years. Part of this is due to the soft economy, and part due to lax regulation of natural gas “fracking” that allows increased gas production (at a potentially devastating cost to water quality). The change from a few years ago is the declining cost of natural gas. When I did my work for Ecology, the gas price futures were around $6.50/mmbtu, or about $50/MWh for electricity from natural gas. Today gas prices are $4/mmbtu, and not forecast to exceed $6 until at least 2017. Thus the cost of making electricity from gas today is more like $30 – $35/MWh. I just don’t think Centralia can compete without a handicap, and the legislation provides that handicap.Simply stated, the running cost for Centralia (fuel and labor) is about $32/MWh (actual 2009 data). Current market prices for baseload (24/7) power are projected to be in the $20 – $40/MWh for several years to come, due to low gas prices. Lower in wet years, higher in dry years. Less than $10/MWh in the early part of March, as this is a wet year.The point is that there’s not much profit margin there. A major retrofit cost for NOx or Mercury could easily make the project unprofitable. The issue is “how large are the potentially required retrofits.” There are four major rulemakings underway affecting power plants, and one of them (MACT) will affect Centralia. A couple of studies, one by NERC, and one by CRA for the EEI, indicated the magnitude of investment that will be needed to comply with stricter environmental regulations. At page 51, the NERC study estimates about $1,000/kW retrofit costs for coal plants the size of Centralia (650 MW for each of two units). That means about a $1.4 billion retrofit cost for Centralia. Without long-term contracts, I don’t think TransAlta would consider this investment. The legislation may give them the confidence to go forward. This is the basis of my statement that the legislation means an extended life for Centralia. In this legislation, TransAlta has agreed ONLY to install what are known as “selective non-catalytic reduction” measures. This means ammonia (NH3) or urea (NH2CONH2)will be injected to the exhaust gas, will react with nitrogen oxides, and it will recompose into N2 + H2O. However, this process only typically eliminates about 50% of the nitrogen oxides, compared with 90% for “selective catalytic reduction” which is more expensive. Bottom line: some reduction of NOx, but not as much as under full emission regulation. Plus it creates the health risk of more ammonia hauling on rail lines and/or highways.There is another unacceptable part of the legislation—it allows private utilities to ‘earn a profit’ on a hypothetical investment in Centralia, even if they don’t actually invest a dime. There is no question that this drives the cost of the power up for electricity consumers. The legislation is vague enough that it appears to allow the WUTC to compare the total cost of power from Centralia (including the purchased power cost, the CO2 emission cost, and the profit to the private utility) in determining if the power is cost-effective. MacQuarie, the owner of PSE, stands to pocket $100 million for no cost and no risk. This gives them a strong incentive to sign a contract, and then to exaggerate the value of the power, compared to alternatives, when it comes before the WUTC for approval.I’m pretty confident that once all of these costs are considered, however, that the cost of Centralia power will exceed the market price, and it’s therefore quite likely the WUTC would reject any proposed contract. That would leave TransAlta with an obligation to install the limited pollution control they have agreed to, but no long-term source of revenue.

  9. westomoon says:

    Excellent point—in nearly every case where we used to say “experts” or “scientists”, these days a political point of view is assigned if the facts don’t agree with the right-wing rewrite of reality. When you’re talking climatology, “environmentalists” has become another way of saying “99% of the people who know anything about this subject, worldwide”.

  10. gulo says:

    It’s important to local this set of failures within the larger failures of the media. Part of what’s happening in the stupid quote is a reporter using ‘enviros say’ to _avoid_ reporting a politicized truth. You can often determine the extent to which a fact has been rendered controversial by the way in which the conventional press refers to it. Enviros enjoy a particularly poor seat in this intellectual opera-house, but only the fancy boxes really like the view. http://pressthink.org/2010/11/the-view-from-nowhere-questions-and-answers/

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