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Obama’s Rope-Line Debate on Coal

by Bill Becker If you suddenly came face to face with President Barack Obama, what would you say? Gillian Caldwell found herself in that position last week when she encountered the President on a rope-line.  Caldwell – the leader of the climate-action group 1Sky – decided to debate the President over his position on coal. As she shook Obama’s hand, Caldwell appealed to him to stop supporting federal investments in “clean coal” and to put the money instead into renewable energy.  To his credit, Obama stopped long enough to engage. Here are excerpts of their exchange (see the video and full transcript): Caldwell: It’s got to be renewable energy. No more clean coal. It’s a unicorn. It doesn’t exist. Obama: I disagree with you…We are not going to get all our energy from wind and solar in the next 20 years. Caldwell: Let the market do it…Can’t the market make the investment? Obama: They can’t do it. The technology’s not there. I’ve got a nuclear physicist in my Department of Energy who cares more about climate change than anyone and he will tell you you can’t get it done just with that – so you’ve got to have a transition period to do all this other stuff. Don’t be stubborn about it…If I could do it all with wind and solar, I would! We can ramp it up. That’s what we’re working on. Obama made his case for coal more formally in his State of the Union address, where he called for more investment in carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). In an energy policy meeting with governors at the White House Feb. 3, the President said: One of the things that we’re going to be talking about today is investing in the kind of technologies that will allow us to use coal, our most bountiful natural resource here in the United States, without polluting our planet. It’s been said that the United States is the Saudi Arabia of coal… If we can develop the technology to capture the carbon pollution released by coal, it can create jobs and provide energy well into the future. The President then announced he’s created a Carbon Capture and Storage Task Force charged with figuring out how to deploy coal burning on a “widespread scale” within 10 years. As the dirtiest and the most abundant of fossil fuels, coal is a dangerous bridge to a clean energy economy. How has the president who vowed to restore America’s leadership on climate change become coal’s First Friend?  One explanation may be the advice he is receiving from his inner circle – Emanuel, Axelrod, Gibbs and Jarrett – political savants who may assume that expedient politics is the same as good public policy. According to an analysis by Edward Luce in Financial Times, Obama may be relying on these four advisors far more than he listens to his talented Cabinet, including Secretary Chu.  None of the four is an energy expert, and it shows in Obama’s position on coal. For example, if our objective is jobs, renewable energy technologies have been found to produce more than fossil fuels.  Coal is not our “most bountiful natural resource”.  Assuming the President was referring to energy resources, that honor goes to sunlight. We have a 7 billion year supply. The fuel is free and we don’t have to blow the tops off of mountains to get it. Collecting sunlight doesn’t kill rivers, contaminate groundwater, make people sick or destroy their culture, as is happening today, every day, in the rape of Appalachia. We don’t have to capture the sun’s greenhouse gas emissions because it doesn’t produce any.  So if abundance, cost, jobs and low carbon are our criteria, then the money we’re dumping into coal should be invested in pre-fossilized solar energy. Instead, Obama is taking the path of least political resistance – the position that to meet America’s energy appetite all our supply options must be on the table. With respect, that’s a cop-out designed to evade hard choices and to keep coal-state congressmen pacified.  If we assume we do not have enough taxpayer money to subsidize all supply options and if we want to simultaneously achieve energy independence, economic vitality, global competitiveness and greater national security while managing the risks of climate change, then some options need to come off the table as quickly as possible . One of them is coal. I like the fact that Obama stopped on the rope-line long enough to engage Caldwell in this discussion. I like that he went eyeball to eyeball with House Republicans on national TV.  Now, it would be good politics as well as informative for him to engage his disillusioned base in the same type of open discussion. Here’s how he might proceed on energy policy. First, if he hasn’t done so already, the President should order Air Force One to fly over Central Appalachia. On a clear day, he’ll see what surface mining and rampant corporate greed are doing the some of the world’s oldest mountains and to North America’s most biologically diverse region.  After the flyover, he should land long enough to talk to some of the Appalachian people most affected by mountain top removal.  These visits may change his mind about the true costs of coal. Next, he should invite Caldwell and a few dozen of her closest friends in the really clean energy movement to the White House for a televised conversation about energy policy. In addition to the big mainstream green groups from inside the Beltway, he should include the leaders in smaller organizations who are dedicating so many of their waking hours to this issue – people like Jessy Tolkan, Alec Loorz, Mike Tidwell, and Eban Goodstein. Bill McKibben should be there. So should Terry Tamminen, the architect of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s climate program. A respectful conversation should ensue, with the President examining his position on coal rather than defending it.  For example: 1)    Caldwell deserves a better answer to her question about why the market can’t make the investment in clean coal.  Why shouldn’t coal and electric power companies pay for their own research into CCS?  Public funding for mature, well-financed industries such as coal is classic corporate welfare. It’s also inconsistent for a White House that has proposed eliminating subsidies for fossil fuels. 2)    Conservatives warn that pricing carbon will cause energy prices to rise. But so will avoiding carbon. The price of electricity is expected to be considerably higher from “clean coal” technology.  CCS requires more energy and coal to produce a given amount of power. The power plants are more expensive to build. Carbon storage will cost money.  So will the pipelines to move carbon dioxide from power plants to storage sites. Responsible environmental regulation of coal mining will add to the price of coal, too.  Meantime, the cost of generating power from wind and solar technologies is coming down.  In CCS, are we wasting time and money on a technology that won’t be cost-competitive by the time it’s ready for market? 3)    Why will the politics of storing a toxic gas be different than it has been for storing nuclear waste? The ability to store huge amounts of carbon dioxide for long periods of time isn’t just a technical issue; it’s also a legal and political issue.  Whoever is responsible for sequestering CO2 will have to purchase sub-surface rights from landowners over large geographic areas. All those landowners will have to agree to allow a colorless, odorless gas to be stored beneath them – a gas that can contaminate groundwater and kill people if it escapes in concentrated form. Isn’t the endless fiasco over nuclear waste a preview of the politics of storing carbon dioxide? 4)    If America needs a fossil fuel for the transition to a de-carbonized economy, why not natural gas?  Now that we know we have ample domestic reserves of gas, doesn’t it make more sense to replace the dirtiest fossil fuel with the cleanest?  Gas extraction has its own environmental problems, but they seem easier to solve than coal’s.  If we’re going to spend money on a transition fuel, shouldn’t we invest in the processes and technologies that will reduce the environmental and social impacts of gas extraction? 5)    In his meeting with governors, President Obama talked about using coal “well into the future”.  Does he regard coal as a transition fuel or part of our lives for generations to come? The coal industry likes to argue we have hundreds of years of supply. Hundreds of years is not a transition; it’s an energy epoch. 6)    What is the Administration’s timetable for America’s transition to a truly sustainable energy mix? Do we have a roadmap for the journey to a clean energy economy, with goals, timetables and the policies we’ll need to get there?  (For an example, see the United Kingdom’s “route map” to a low carbon economy by 2020) A comprehensive transition plan would guide public and private investments. It could prevent policy collisions, false starts and wasted time by coordinating the powers of  federal, state and local governments. Shouldn’t the President convene an Economic Transition Task Force before he creates one on clean coal? There’s a lot to talk about here. When he spoke to the governors at the White House, President Obama took pains to show he has an open mind about national energy policy.  “I want to be clear that my administration is following a non-ideological approach to this issue,” he said.  What’s less clear is whether the President and his advisors have found an energy policy that makes good sense as well as expedient politics.

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