Washington's Coal Wars

Washington's Coal Wars

The debate over clean coal has come to Washington in a big way. Specifically, you can see it in Metro Center, D.C.'s busiest subway stop, where millions of people, including those headed to town for President-elect Obama's inauguration, will see walls of posters and banners saying that "clean coal" is a myth.

The ad campaign comes courtesy of a coalition called This is Reality. Behind it are enviros including the Alliance for Climate Protection (Al Gore's group), the Sierra Club, League of Conservation Voters, Natural Resources Defense Council (disclosure: they're a client for whom I do some writing) and the National Wildlife Federation. The "reality" coalition says,

"In reality, there is no such thing as "clean" coal in America today. Coal cannot be called 'clean' until its CO2 emissions are captured and stored safely.
"Let's be clear: there are no US homes, factories, shopping centers or churches powered by coal plants that capture and store their global warming pollution.
"Today, coal power plants emit carbon dioxide (CO2), the pollutant causing the climate crisis. A third of the America's carbon pollution now comes from about 600 coal-fired power plants. And of the more than 70 proposed new coal power plants, barely a handful have plans to capture and store their CO2 emissions. If these dirty plants are allowed to be built, this will mean an additional 200 million tons of global warming pollution will be emitted in America each year. Until coal power plants no longer release CO2 to the atmosphere, coal will remain a major contributor to the climate crisis."

This is, in part, a response to a costly campaign created by a coal industry group called the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE), a group which says:

"As you might have guess, we are pro-coal and proud of it. Not only does coal keep America's lights on, it keeps everything else that needs electricity running.
"ACCCE believes that the robust utilization of coal -- America's most abundant energy resource -- is essential to providing affordable, reliable electricity for millions of U.S. consumers and a growing domestic economy. Further, ACCCE is committed to continued and enhanced U.S. leadership in developing and deploying new, advanced clean coal technologies that protect and improve the environment."

The truth is, both the anti-coal and pro-coal forces have a point.

There is, today, no such thing as clean coal -- not even close. And there is, today, no way to power the slumping U.S. economy without coal. If you hate coal, then turn off your TV, iPod, refrigerator, air conditioning, etc, for 12 out of every 24 hours -- because half of America's electricity comes from coal.

The reason that the debate is getting so heated is that coal, and clean coal, will be at the center of the debate over greenhouse gas regulation in Congress this year. Environmental groups, scientists and some big companies will argue for a rapid reduction in greenhouse gas pollution -- saying that a tight cap will be the only way to stimulate innovation, including the technology breakthroughs needed to capture and store the C02 created when coal is burned. Coal-industry types and utilities will argue that the regulation can't get too far ahead of clean coal technology or it will wreck the economy by driving up electricity costs.

This morning, the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, a coalition of environmental groups and big companies, will unveil it latest climate change proposals. Here's a preview from the WSJ's Environmental Capital Blog.

Six weeks from now, coal will again make headlines. As Bill McKibben writes in Grist, environmentalists are planning a day of protest and civil disobedience at the coal-fired plant that powers the Congress. He writes:

"There are moments in a nation's -- and a planet's -- history when it may be necessary for some to break the law in order to bear witness to an evil, bring it to wider attention, and push for its correction."

So those posters in the metro are just the opening shots in the coal wars.