"Clean coal technology is something that can make America energy independent!...We put a man on the moon in 10 years. You can't tell me we can't figure out a way to burn coal that we mine right here in the United States of America and make it work!"
That was Barack Obama on the campaign trail. He believes in clean coal, and the industry trade group known as the American Council for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE) -- which drew cries of amazement from journalists when it briefly featured the animated "Clean Coal Carolers" on its website -- has a new television ad out featuring the President-elect intoning those very words.
The Clean Coal Carolers: Heavenly voices of anthracite.
ACCCE will tell you, "Today, America's coal-based generating fleet is 70 percent cleaner (based upon regulated emissions per unit of energy produced) thanks, in part, to $50 billion invested in new technologies."
There is a tug of war for Obama's soul on this issue. Among the many priorities on the Obama/Biden "New Energy for America" website is this one: "Develop and Deploy Clean Coal Technology." But environmentalists consider the phrase "clean coal" to be an oxymoron. Most domestic coal (especially the less-polluting, harder anthracite) is obtained by lopping the tops off our beautiful, hardwood-topped Appalachian mountains in West Virginia and eastern Kentucky. That "waste" material is then dumped in the valleys between the mountains, obliterating what were once clear-running streams -- and the lifeblood of hardscrabble communities.
The Center for American Progress (CAP) is counterattacking with a new report that points out that ACCCE, which represents 48 coal and utility companies, has spent $45 million on slick advertising campaigns so far in 2008. But it has invested a relatively meager amount in actually developing the carbon capture and storage technology that would make clean coal a reality.
It's worth noting here that the co-chair of Obama's transition team, John Podesta, is the on-leave president and CEO of CAP, which has called for a renewable energy Marshall Plan to put people back to work. And Obama has personally embraced the concept for early implementation.
According to a CAP report, the 48 ACCCE companies made $57 billion in profits in 2007, but have invested only $3.5 billion in carbon capture research. "That means the companies combined made $17 in 2007 for every $1 invested in carbon capture over several years," the report said.
As noted, ACCCE says its total clean coal investment is $50 billion, in 80 carbon capture projects.
CAP's Daniel J. Weiss, in a conference call with journalists December 22, compared the coal industry to the auto companies that consistently delayed and fought against federal fuel economy improvements. "They're good at blocking investment in progress, but they spend very little money on actually progressing themselves," he said.
Weiss said he thinks the "one-trick ponies" in the coal industry will try to block Congressional action on a Obama-approved plan to reduce carbon emissions 20 percent by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050. Their preferred strategy, he said, will be non-binding incentives for clean coal development until carbon capture is perfected -- in at least 10 or 15 years.
Weiss, who faulted President Bush for failing to lead on reducing global warming emissions, said the coal industry and its allies should be investing $20 billion in carbon capture technology, which is less than half their profits for one year. "That would be a good place to start," he said.
Coal plants make half of America's electricity, and produce 27.2% of its greenhouse gas pollution. But utilities are a powerful lobby, and Obama's home state of Illinois is big on coal. This issue could really put the new president to the test.
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