Friday, April 24, 2009

King Coal Fights an Uphill Battle Against Environmentalists

King Coal is already the subject of the next big battle pitting environmentalists against big business. People involved in the issue are trying to determine how we can limit the use of the dirtiest and cheapest form of energy, and whether the notion of "clean coal" is a credible science or panacea.

Robert Kennedy, Jr. made news this week when he charged President Obama and many politicians with been too cozy with coal producers. Though the message was overshadowed by his use of the phrase "indentured servants" when characterizing political backers of clean coal, the son of RFK has been a long-time critic. Here's what he wrote for the Huffington Post in late 2007:
In fact, there is no such thing as "clean coal." And coal is only "cheap" if one ignores its calamitous externalized costs. In addition to global warming, these include dead forests and sterilized lakes from acid rain, poisoned fisheries in 49 states and children with damaged brains and crippled health from mercury emissions, millions of asthma attacks and lost work days and thousands dead annually from ozone and particulates.

Both sides of this debate have featured vociferous opposition to each other. Jeff Goodell, the author of Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America's Energy Future, will attempt to moderate a panel containing a scientist, two lobbyists and a venture capitalist next Tuesday at the Commonwealth Club of California.

Goodell presented the pros and cons of clean coal's main contention in a blog posting for Yale University last year. He wrote that coal's dirty byproduct -- carbon dioxide -- could be liquefied and injected underground, thereby theoretically making the fortified black rocks of energy scrubbed of their ozone-depleting hazards. The science and feasibility, he says, is somewhat dubious, though. "Unfortunately, CCS [carbon capture and storage] is more fantasy than reality at the moment," wrote Goodell.

He does agree with Kennedy on the implication that clean coal is politically expedient and neatly explained. "Politically, CCS is a godsend. Both Barack Obama and John McCain are eager to carry Big Coal (swing) states like Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Indiana, and Ohio, where the promise of 'clean coal' is the easy answer to every hard question about energy security, global warming, and the economy."

One of the leading proponents of Clean Coal is Joe Lucas, the vice president of communications for the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE) and a member of Tuesday's panel. He was called an "obvious huckster" by David Roberts of the Huffington Post while lampooning his powers of persuasion. "It's old-fashioned street theater, showing you the con and charming you into nodding along anyway," Roberts said. "You kind of have to give him style points."

At a time when populist tendencies are heightened along with broad acceptance of environmental platforms, corporate leaders are being pressured like no time since perhaps the early 1930s. If Clean Coal is nothing more than hokum, the onus of proving its viability to the American public may have passed -- like about six months ago, when more accommodating ears resided in the White House. In the meantime, only the great promise of scientific discovery is their best hope.

Author Jeff Goodell will moderate "Clean Coal: Myth or Reality?" with S. Julio Friedmann, Carbon Management Program Leader, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory; Ray Lane, Managing Partner, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers; Bruce Nilles, Director, Beyond Coal Campaign at Sierra Club and Joe Lucas, Senior Vice President, American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity. The program, April 28, begins at 6 p.m. Click here for more information.


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