A few months ago one of my neighbors, a proudly conservative man, saw me carrying a package of high-efficiency light bulbs into my house. He gave me a disappointed look loudly said: “Buy some real light bulbs, Erich.” This neighbor has repeatedly made it known that that liberal concerns and proposals regarding energy are unnecessary because there is plenty of oil and coal, and we should make it our national priority to keep digging and burning these resources.
I know that my Republican neighbor is not the only “conservative” in the U.S. willing to scoff at conservation. I previously argued that this anti-energy-efficiency climate–science-denial attitude like my neighbor’s outlook has become a badge of group membership among conservatives. It has become a salient display that one believes, above all, in the alleged power and wisdom of the “Free Market,” an unsubstantiated leap of faith so incredibly bold that I once termed it the Fourth Person of the Holy Trinity (and see here and here). These free-market fundamentalists are contemptuous at well-informed suggestions for using energy resources more efficiently and for reducing our reliance on dirty and dangerous fossil fuels. Many of them consider national policy aimed at energy conservation to be totally unnecessary and ridiculously expensive. Proposals that we should be smarter consumers of energy annoy and anger them and they offer no evidence-based alternatives for peak oil (and see here and here and here ). They refuse to consider the damage being done to our environment, our health and our budget (especially our military budget) as a result of our reliance on fossil fuels .
My neighbor displays a startling lack of curiosity regarding the ramifications for continuing to attempt to drill and dig our way to energy independence. This same attitude is found in many conservative politicians, the most prominent being Sarah Palin. Based on an extraordinary video of a recent debate at Washington University in Saint Louis, this same attitude is also embraced by of the executives at the largest private coal company in the United States, Peabody Coal Company.
I recently commented on the long train loads of coal working their way into the St. Louis area. Much of the electricity produced in St. Louis comes from burning coal. St. Louis also happens to be the home of the largest private coal company in the United States, Peabody Coal. Therefore, St. Louis was a logical place to hold a detailed debate between Bruce Nilles, Director of the Beyond Coal Campaign at the Sierra Club, and Fred Palmer, Vice President of Government Relations at Peabody. You can watch the entire debate here. The moderator of the debate indicated that through the efforts of the Sierra Club, 118 coal plants have not been granted permission to be built.
The idea of such a debate fascinated me. I often wondered how a sophisticated coal company would defend itself in light of what seems to me to be overwhelming science suggesting that coal is a terribly unhealthy and environmentally damaging way to make electricity. Many of these dangers concern climate change. Other dangers concern the way that coal companies and utilities deal with the remnants of the coal after it is burned in power plants. Before getting to the summary of the debate, I’d like to put it into context by referencing the April 1, 2010 edition of Rolling Stone, which dramatically presented the dangers of coal sludge in an article written by Jeff Goodell titled “Coal Toxic Sludge: It’s Deadly, Barely Regulated, and Everywhere. Can Obama Crack Down on America’s Second-Biggest River of industrial Waste?” Here’s an excerpt from that Rolling Stone article:
Big coal has spent millions of dollars over the past year touting the virtues of what the industry calls “clean coal,” but it’s no secret that coal is the dirtiest fossil fuel. When you burn it, coal releases monstrous quantities of deadly compounds and gases — and it all has to go somewhere. The worst of the waste — heavy metals like arsenic, cadmium and mercury, all of which are highly toxic — are concentrated in the ash that’s left over after coal is burned or in the dirty sludge that’s scrubbed from smokestacks. Each year, coal plants in the U.S. churn out nearly 140 million tons of coal ash — more than 900 pounds for every American — generating the country’s second-largest stream of industrial waste, surpassed only by mining. If you piled all the coal ash on a single football field, it would create a toxic mountain more than 20 miles high.
The Rolling Stone article also notes that the democratic process is being corrupted by the coal industry, as it has been by almost every other big industry:
In the coming weeks, the EPA is expected to propose new rules laying out federal standards for how coal ash is stored, monitored and recycled. But the exact shape and substance of those rules remain uncertain — and nailing down the details may prove to be the clearest indication yet of whether the Obama administration is prepared to get tough with an industry it has left largely untouched. The White House Office of Management and Budget is currently reviewing a cost-benefit analysis of the rules — and big electric utilities are waging a furious last-minute lobbying campaign to keep them from being enacted. Sen. Evan Bayh, who accepted $126,000 in campaign contributions from electric utilities last year alone, drafted a letter to the White House — signed by 26 of his fellow senators — urging the EPA to back off.
The article ends with this definition of clean coal: “Clean-coal technology is nothing but a code word for ‘let’s generate more waste than ever before,’” says [Jeff Stant, who directs a coal-ash initiative for the Environmental Integrity Project].
But back to the video. I watched the entire debate, which runs for one hour and 20 minutes. In this post, I am providing a detailed summary the main points made by the two participants. I would recommend that you watch at least part of this video in order to observe the demeanor of each of the participants. Note the startling contrast in their expressions, their ability to relate to the audience, their respective abilities to engage (or not) with scientific facts, their willingness (or lack of willingness) to answer the questions and the extent to which their levels of passion motivated by private profit.
I was startled by many of the positions taken by Fred Palmer, the Peabody Coal executive. He offered many unvarnished and unsubstantiated positions that would not seem to have any persuasive power unless presented by large teams of lobbyists coupling these positions with large campaign contributions. If you don’t believe my characterizations or this summary of the outlandishly Peabody Coal’s bizarre positions, watch the video for yourself.
Here are some of the main points made by both sides during the debate, starting at the beginning of the video:
In his opening statement, Fred Palmer (again, he is the Vice President of Government Relations with Peabody Coal) repeated spoke of “green coal.” He claims that working in a coal mine is safer than working at a Wal-Mart, a claim he made while making reference to a chart referring to total numbers of injury “incidents.” This chart raised suspicions in me because I would assume that the typical “incident” at Wal-Mart is a relatively minor injury, whereas an “incident” in a coal mine would tend to be far more serious. Perhaps someone reading this could help pinpoint the source of the data used in this chart on which Peabody relies.
Palmer did not defend mountaintop mining. He maintains that Peabody does not mine coal this way, although they do “surface mine.” He then showed a slide of a bucolic scene (complete with deer) as an illustration of what a surface mine looks like. He claimed that land that has been surface-mined is more “productive” after the mining.
Palmer claims that coal power plants are “on a path to zero emissions,” and that the industry will get to that point within 30 years.
Palmer repeatedly urged that coal enables the current excellent way of life of America. He stated that 85% of electricity in Missouri comes from coal-fired plants, and that these plants are “low cost,” because they use coal. His PowerPoint presentation included a large map of the United States. On this map, Palmer had colored coal-using states green.
Palmer stated that using more electricity is good, and that we should use more of it because it eradicates poverty and creates jobs. He then interjected that an option to burning coal would be to burn the trees and other biomass, like people do in Africa, which destroys the environment and leads to abject poverty. He claims that it would be “immoral” to not burn coal. He characterized coal as the “low carbon alternative.”
At 23:57 mark, Bruce Nilles of the Sierra Club began his opening remarks. The title to Nilles’ PowerPoint presentation was “Coal: Dirty, Expensive and Unnecessary.” He argued that no coal is “clean.” Coal is the dirtiest fuel of all, and 80% of the carbon in our atmosphere comes from coal. He explained that most of our coal plants are quite old, and most of them do not have even basic pollution controls because the coal industry has lobbied strongly to allow this.
He agreed that St. Louis gets much of its electricity from coal plants, but that St. Louis air is unsafe to breathe on many days, according to federal measurements. Nilles cited to a study showing that the soot and smog from coal plants costs $750 million per year in Missouri because of increased health care costs. Therefore, he argued that coal is expensive when one does not “off-shore” the true costs of coal.
Regarding coal mining, Nilles pointed out that the coal industry has “decapitated” 500 mountains in Appalachia. Worse yet, 2000 miles of streams in Appalachia have been filled in with mining waste. There are no fish in these streams, and the people cannot drink the water of these streams anymore. In fact, he showed slides indicating that many of these streams don’t exist at all anymore. Nilles pointed out that if any of us threw trash into the Mississippi River, we would be arrested. In Appalachia, the coal industry destroys streams every day, without any legal repercussions. As far as effect of mining on the economy, Nilles points out that West Virginia, which has excelled in coal mining for the many years, is one of the poorest states. Why should this be, he asks?
Nilles stated that the air pollution caused by burning coal costs us an additional $64 billion every year as a nation. At the 31 minute mark, Nilles asserted that because of the mercury released into the environment by burning coal, 49 states have fish consumption advisories for pregnant women. Only Wyoming does not have such an advisory, and that’s because Wyoming refuses to allow tests to be done on his fish. Even new generation coal plants that are now on the drawing boards would each release 280 pounds of mercury into the environment every year, and that mercury is a dangerous neurotoxin.
Is coal cheap? Nilles described the TVA disaster of last year, wherein 1,000,000,000 gallons of toxic sludge broke out and overran an entire community. Nilles made statements that concurred with the Rolling Stone article cited above, indicating that there is no federal oversight for coal ash; utilities can legally place the coal ash into huge pits without any lining. Less monitoring is required for coal ash than individual citizens are required to do for household waste. President Obama is taking steps to start to monitor coal ash, and Nilles points out that the coal industry is furiously fighting this attempt to evaluate these dangers by sending large numbers of lobbyists to Congress.
Does America need coal? Nilles says no, indicating that we could be totally off coal in two decades, but the industry is preventing progress. Contrary to Palmer, Nilles argues that investing in coal plants “locks up market share” for cleaner alternative energies. He indicated that the way to make lots of new jobs is to get old coal plants out of the loop and to bring in new technologies.
At the 36 minute mark, Nilles argues that global warming requires that we move away from coal.
At the 37 minute mark, Nilles again discusses the damage to the health of individuals due to the burning of coal. Ontario has noticed this correlation between burning coal and bad health. Its solution is to require the shutdown of all coal burning plants by 2014. In fact, the entire country of Canada will be off coal within 10 to 15 years. By getting rid of coal, Canada will have no more coal mining, no more coal pollution and no more coal ash. Los Angeles Mayor has declared that Los Angeles will be off of coal within 10 years. Gov. Jim Doyle of Wisconsin is going to phase out all state owned coal plants. This should be happening everywhere but, according to Nilles, an army of coal lobbyists that is subverting the democratic process.
At the 42 minute mark, Nilles brought up the “FutureGen” “clean” coal plant planned for Illinois. He explained that the Sierra Club took an unusual position on this plant, telling told the coal industry “go ahead–see if you can do it.” He explained that the coal industry keeps saying that this “demo plant” is “just around the corner.” Nilles asks why it isn’t built yet. There hasn’t even been one shovel of dirt turned on this plant yet. It’s all just talk and no action. He claims that the reason for this is because the plant is being held up as the future of “clean coal” to allow business as usual when there isn’t even such a thing as clean coal.
Nilles several times stated that resident Obama understands the need for climate change, and understands many of the problems with coal. He needs our help and backing to fight off the lobbyists.
At the 45 minute mark, the moderator opened up to talk to questions from the floor. A woman asked Palmer “Do you believe climate change is real” and “Do you believe climate change is caused by carbon emissions”? Palmer stated that his industry will attempt a 90% reduction in greenhouse gas by 2050.” He stated that the EPA has “handled it wrong,” with too much emphasis on computer models and not enough concern about business and the American way of life.
At the 47 minute mark, Nilles responded to Palmer’s non-answer by stating that the coal industry has an “addiction” problem and that it will get nowhere unless it admits some basic facts. When he argued that Palmer failed to answer the question, the audience applauded. Nilles warned the audience that their electric bills were partially paying to subvert their democracy.
At minute 49:00, an audience member asked how we can stop coal plants without damaging our lifestyles and economy. Nilles stated that new coal plants are extremely expensive, and that after they are built the utilities push for big increases (he gave an example of a recent new coal plant resulting in a 25% rate increase). Nilles explained that wind farms can provide energy at less cost than coal (even setting aside the issue of climate change), in addition to being much more environmentally responsible. This calculation gets even more favorable to the wind farms when one factors in the numerous “offshore” major costs such as health care increases due to burning coal. He explained to the audience that Northwest Missouri now has three large wind farms, and more are on the way—utilities are surprised and delighted at the advantages of wind power once they take the time to understand the possibilities. These utilities build their wind turbines in farm fields, and the farmers can earn money by leasing space for them.
At the end of Nilles’ answer, Palmer levied a lengthy unprovoked criticism at natural gas. He seemed to be criticizing natural gas producers for causing serious environmental damage. It was a bizarre moment, to say the least. It ranks right up there with his earlier suggestion that the alternative to burning coal is to be burning our forests for electricity, which would purportedly cause our civilization to become destitute like many poor African countries
At minute 54, a questioner quoted Palmer is saying the following: Every time you put carbon dioxide in the air, you are “doing the work of the Lord. ” She asked Palmer whether he still stood by this earlier statement. Palmer refused to answer the question.
At minute 58, another questioner asked Palmer why he continues to use the term “clean coal.” Palmer refused to answer this question too.
Nilles indicated that “clean coal” is used for putting a spin on whatever the coal industry happens to be doing.
At the one-hour mark, Palmer argued that “clean coal” equals “green coal” which improves the lives of people.
At 1:01, Palmer indicated that coal plant scrubbers were reducing the Mercury released into the environment by 80 to 90%. A follow-up question at the 1:09 mark asked whether the Mercury that is captured by the scrubbers simply ends up in the coal ash. That issue was not directly answered by either participant.
1:04 – A student asked why we should try hard to stop using coal when there is so many other countries in the world (India and China) that aren’t going to stop. Nilles explained it if we don’t stop using coal, as a world, the world is toast. He cited the work of NASA’s James Hansen. Nilles argued that the United States needs to show leadership in this area. We need to show the world that “the real green coal is that which is underground.”
At the 1:08 mark, Palmer again argues that coal brings people out of poverty. He argues that the storage of coal ash is regulated. He argues that the fact that people are enjoying their lives is “externality number one.”
At 1:12, Nilles directly attacks Palmer statement that coal ash is already being regulated. He states that the EPA is only now considering regulating coal ash, but that coal companies are now screaming bloody murder and doing everything they can to subvert democracy to keep the federal government from taking a look at coal ash
At 1:13, Nilles explains that many European countries are investing in solar, and doing this successfully, even though every country in Europe has less sunlight than any of the American states other than Alaska. He indicates that solar offers great job opportunities. A bigger source of alternative energy electricity, however, is wind. He explains that we could be much further along with alternative energy if coal companies were not blocking the subsidies needed to get alternative energy off the ground. Also, utilities are blocking consumers from adding their own energy to the electrical grids. There is much that could be happening in the field of alternative energy that is being prevented by large industries.
In response, Palmer indicates that it is trying to redefine renewable energy as “clean energy”, which (if I understood him correctly) would open up the coal industry for more subsidies.
At the 1:18 mark, a student stepped up to the microphone to state that we should stop wind power because wind turbines kill birds.
Palmer indicated that “climate gate” is a big deal and that those who claim that human carbine emissions are related to climate change are charlatans. If the science were ever subjected to the rules of evidence in court, those who claim that climate has been heated up by human carbon emissions would be convicted.
I would like to thank St. Louis progressive activist Adam Shriver for bringing my attention to this important debate.