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Can Coal Be Clean? A Debate Between Michael Brune of Rainforest Action Network and Joe Lucas of American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity

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While John McCain and Barack Obama have painted clean coal as a panacea that will help solve the nation’s energy problem, many environmental and scientific groups have questioned whether the burning of coal can ever be clean. We host a debate between Rainforest Action Network director Michael Brune, author of the new book Coming Clean: Breaking America’s Addiction to Oil and Coal, and Joe Lucas of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Senators Barack Obama and John McCain are holding their second debate tonight at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee. The town-hall style debate will be moderated by NBC’s Tom Brokaw. While the candidates are expected to spar over the economy, the war in Iraq and healthcare, there is one issue both Obama and McCain have agreed on: the development of so-called clean coal technology to reduce the environmental impact of burning coal.

Obama has repeatedly praised clean coal in campaign speeches, including his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in Denver in August.

    SEN. BARACK OBAMA: As president — as president, I will tap our natural gas reserves, invest in clean coal technology and find ways to safely harness nuclear power. I’ll help our auto companies retool, so that the fuel-efficient cars of the future are built right here in America.

AMY GOODMAN: John McCain has also been a vocal supporter of clean coal technology.

    SEN. JOHN McCAIN: There’s another area that’s important, and that’s clean coal technology. Despite what may have been said by someone else, we’re going to have to continue to build coal-fired plants. And what we need to do, though, is improve and develop the technology for clean coal technology so we don’t continue polluting and continue to contributing to greenhouse gas emissions, which threaten our very planet.

AMY GOODMAN: While McCain and Obama have painted clean coal as a panacea that will help solve the nation’s energy problem, many environmental and scientific groups have questioned whether the burning of coal can ever be clean.

An editorial in today’s Los Angeles Times describes the phrase “clean coal” as an Orwellian marketing slogan invented by coal interests. The paper criticized both campaigns for embracing coal while claiming to be interested in fighting global warming and pollution.

Well, today we’ll host the debate you won’t hear tonight in the presidential debate. Michael Brune is executive director of Rainforest Action Network and author of the new book Coming Clean: Breaking America’s Addiction to Oil and Coal. Joe Lucas is the vice president of communications for the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity. The coalition formed earlier this year to promote coal technology, the coalition’s members including many of the nation’s largest coal companies.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Joe Lucas, let’s begin with you in Washington. Why do you think clean coal is the answer, and how important is it to you that both main party presidential candidates agree on the issue of clean coal?

JOE LUCAS: Well, Amy, it is not the answer; it is part of a lot of answers. I mean, meeting America’s growing demand for electricity or the world’s growing demand for electricity, for that matter, is going to require us to use all of our available energy resources: coal, wind, solar and others. And so, coal is 50 percent of our electricity we use here each day. We have more energy in the form of coal right here in America than the entire rest of the world has oil. And over the last thirty years, we’ve made great progress in ensuring, with technology, using coal to generate electricity has a lesser impact on the environment.

And going forward, we realize that a part of these technologies will be used to capture and store carbon. So, we can meet America’s growing demand for energy. We can do it cleanly. And we can also meet the challenge of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and at the same time keep electricity reliable and affordable for American families.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Michael Brune, what’s your problem with it?

MICHAEL BRUNE: Well, the words “clean” and “coal” really shouldn’t be in the same sentence together. Coal is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the country. It’s the largest — fastest-growing source of greenhouse gas emissions on the planet. It’s also the largest source of mercury poisoning in the country. And the American Lung Association estimates that 24,000 Americans die prematurely each year due to pollution from coal-fired power plants.

The choice that we have is whether or not to funnel billions of dollars toward so-called clean coal technology or begin the transition right now toward solar and wind and clean energy.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn for a minute to the debate, the debate between the vice-presidential candidates, Palin and Biden. So-called clean coal came up in the Thursday vice-presidential debate between Sarah Palin and Joe Biden.

    GOV. SARAH PALIN: Barack Obama and Senator Biden, you’ve said no to everything in trying to find a domestic solution to the energy crisis that we’re in. You even called drilling, safe, environmentally friendly drilling offshore, as raping the outer continental shelf. There — with new technology, with tiny footprints even on land, it is safe to drill, and we need to do more of that.

    But also, in that all-of-the-above approach that Senator McCain supports, the alternative fuels will be tapped into: the nuclear, the clean coal. I was surprised to hear you mention that, because you had said that there isn’t anything such a thing as clean coal. And I think you said it in a rope line, too, at one of the rallies.

    SEN. JOE BIDEN: My record — just take a look at the record. My record for twenty-five years has supported clean coal technology. A comment made in a rope line was taken out of context. I was talking about exporting that technology to China, so when they burn their dirty coal, it won’t be as dirty. It will be clean.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Brune, what’s the difference between clean and dirty coal?

MICHAEL BRUNE: What we need to understand is that there’s not a single coal plant in the country that can actually capture its greenhouse gas emissions. The coal industry itself will say that the technology to capture and store greenhouse gas emissions is at least a decade away. And so, the difference between clean and dirty is that one is real — coal is the dirtiest form of energy production and dirtiest energy source on the planet — and one is a marketing creation.

The coal industry, Big Coal, coal companies and the utility industry, have a problem on their hands, in that their substance is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions and one of the largest sources of air and water pollution on the planet. They can’t clean up the product, so they have to clean up the industry.


JOE LUCAS: Amy, I guess we could play this game back and forth all day. I mean, Michael is correct: we don’t have a plant here in the United States today that has commercially installed carbon capture technology. Also, by the same token, we don’t have any wind farms today that can produce steady forms of electricity that make it possible to displace traditional energy resources like coal. The fact is, it is not an either/or solution here. We’re going to need both wind, solar, as well as what we call base load power, like coal, nuclear and other resources, to meet that constant, steady demand of electricity we use here in this country.

Going forward, we’re a lot closer to having the technology that will allow us to capture and store carbon from greenhouse gas — or to restore — to capture and store greenhouse gas emissions from coal plants. And this whole issue of how to have these sort of on-demand renewables simply are not there. Today, wind and solar account for less than two percent of our electricity here in the United States. And even with Herculean growth over the next thirty years, that’s still only going to be about four percent. Now, that’s not to slam renewables; that’s just to say, if we’re going to have reliable power here in the United States to power our economy, to ensure that when we flip the light switch at night that the light does come on, we’re still going to need to have domestic energy resources, reliable energy resources like coal, and with technology.

And I guess the point that I’m making is, we’re supporting the development of these technologies, and we would like to have other groups like Michael’s join us to ensure that these technologies do come into the marketplace as soon as possible.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Brune of Rainforest Action Network?

MICHAEL BRUNE: Sure. Well, what we can remember is that the solar and wind industries are going — growing dramatically faster than the coal industry right now. We added three times more wind capacity in 2007 than we added new coal capacity. A new large wind farm was just approved off the state of New Jersey. Another wind farm was approved off the state of Delaware. Massive solar farms are being approved in Arizona, New Mexico, California, Utah — the Saudi Arabia of sun.

The reality — one thing that I will agree about that Joe says is that coal will be here for some time to come. Coal produces 50 percent of our electricity, and it will take some time to phase that out. The point is that every dollar that we invest in clean — or in coal technology, in the coal industry infrastructure, is a dollar that is better invested in solar and wind. We know — we know that the future economy has to be powered by clean energy. Why not go all in for clean energy today, rather than continuing to perpetuate our addiction to the dirtiest fuel on the planet?

JOE LUCAS: And Michael, I guess what I would say is, when you say invest in clean energy, I would agree with you there. And with that investment in clean coal, coal can be clean energy. If you look at Vice President Gore’s plan, when he talks about clean energy, he squarely says that carbon capture on coal plants meets his definition of clean energy. And that’s what we’re saying. We’re not saying let’s take money away from renewables to put into clean coal; we’re saying let’s build — let’s bake a big enough pie here, so that, going forward, we do have renewables added to the mix, we have clean coal added to the mix, we have all these things that will ensure that we meet our growing demand for electricity, as well as make sure that we have technology that can be — as Barack Obama said, we can have technology that can be sent overseas to places like China and India, where coal use is continuing to grow.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me go for a moment, since you raised, Joe Lucas, the issue of Al Gore — I wanted to ask you about his recent comments, the Nobel laureate, Al Gore, calling for civil disobedience against carbon-emitting coal plants.

    AL GORE: If you’re a young person, looking at the future of this planet and looking at what is being done right now and not done, I believe we’ve reached the stage where it is time for civil disobedience to prevent the construction of new coal plants that do not have carbon capture and sequestration.

AMY GOODMAN: Joe Lucas, vice president of communications for the American Coalition for Clean Coal, your response?

JOE LUCAS: I think that Vice President Gore’s statement is misplaced there. We have another problem in this country, and that is, electricity demand is growing twice the rate that we’re adding new capacity right now. And one of the things that we lose sight of is, once a new coal plant is proposed, it’s somewhere between eight to twelve years before that plant actually goes into operation. Now, you can call me an optimist, but I’m telling you that we’re making great progress on this technology, and I see the opportunity for these new carbon capture and sequestration technologies to come online at or near the time these new plants come online.

So, if we’re going to keep electricity reliable, if we’re going to make sure that we’re using affordable energy resources, if we’re going to have these carbon control technologies, we have to have a robust market for those technologies. And so, I don’t think that right now the best method of bringing these technologies to the marketplace is to have a moratorium. We need to be building new coal plants to meet our growing demand for energy and also ensure the market for these new technologies that we’re hoping to rush to the marketplace as soon as possible.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Brune, you sent Al Gore handcuffs?

MICHAEL BRUNE: Sure, I did. I did. You know, just to respond to Joe and then talk about civil disobedience, the coal industry itself says that the ability to capture and store emissions is at least ten to twelve years away. Joe talks about how coal plants take eight to ten years to build. Why would we want to wait that long? It takes two years to build a massive wind farm, two-and-a-half years to build a large solar facility, two weeks to put solar panels up on a rooftop. We know that the new economy has to be based on clean energy. Let’s start today.

This is why Al Gore — Al Gore did talk about the fact that there is no such thing as clean coal. There is no blueprint for a coal plant that can capture and store its emissions. There’s no plants that are under construction. He says that the single biggest crisis facing our climate today is the construction of new coal-fired power plants. And so, he’s proposing that young people engage in civil disobedience. Civil disobedience —-

JOE LUCAS: Michael -—

MICHAEL BRUNE: — has brought our country out of its darkest hours. It’s helped to end segregation laws. It’s helped to end unjust wars. It’s helped to secure for women the right to vote. It is time for people today to engage in peaceful, nonviolent and creative protest to create a clean energy future.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Michael Brune, what does it mean to you that tonight, in the debate that the presidential candidates will have — some of them, the major party candidates — this is an issue they fully agree on. In fact, at the Democratic convention, clean coal was everywhere, the advertisements for it. Trucks were riding around with it. They were sponsoring events.

MICHAEL BRUNE: I write about this in my book, Coming Clean. It means that we have work to do. You can go to followthecoalmoney.org and find out who are the largest recipients of coal industry cash. You can go to followtheoilmoney.org and find out who are the largest recipients of oil industry cash.

To get clean energy, we’re going to need a clean government. And we won’t be saved by either administration. And so, come January 20th, if you’re a progressive activist looking to create a clean energy future, you have to get to work.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, what about that issue of the coal money and who — well, basically, who Joe Lucas represents? He represents the coal companies.

MICHAEL BRUNE: He does. He represents Big Coal, the utilities and the coal industry, that are writing energy legislation today. The bailout that we saw last week had significant guarantees for so-called clean coal money.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean?

MICHAEL BRUNE: There were — there’s about eight — two-and-a-half — excuse me, two-and-a-half billion dollars in loan guarantees that were provided for the construction of so-called clean coal technology. And again, that’s two-and-a-half billion dollars that is much better spent on energy efficiency and clean power.

AMY GOODMAN: Joe Lucas, did the coal companies, your organization, the American Coalition for Clean Coal, weigh in on the bailout? Were they —- were you satisfied with that bailout?

JOE LUCAS: We support -—

AMY GOODMAN: Were they — were you satisfied with that bailout?

JOE LUCAS: Well, keep in mind, we support the advancements of technology that will allow us to meet this challenge of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. And so, from that standpoint, we see this as a partnership between the federal government and private industry to bring these first-of-their-kind, first-of-their-scale technologies to the marketplace. And so, from that standpoint, these are technology incentives that have been debated throughout the Congress numerous times in numerous bills that had not passed that got added to this omnibus piece of legislation.

But I want to go back to two things that Michael said. First off, there is a blueprint for building a carbon capture near-zero emissions coal plant that also produces hydrogen, and that blueprint was developed in the Clinton administration that Vice President Gore was a part of. We’ve been trying to get the demonstration of that project off the ground in FutureGen. That was a project that was going to be the technology demonstration project that was going to build this plant. It was going to be in Mattoon, Illinois. Late last year, the Bush administration sort of put that program on hold. What they said, instead of building one big plant, they wanted to build seven or eight smaller plants. One of the things that’s in this bailout bill is the fact that it preserves the decision to move forward with FutureGen, so the next president can decide.

The other thing that I want to raise that Michael keeps talking about, solar and wind, the question that I have: how do you produce electricity from solar and wind when there is not sufficient wind speed or not enough direct sunlight? That’s why renewables are intermittent power resources, for the most part. They can be used for peaking power, not base load power, which is what you use coal for. That’s why I’m saying it is not a choice of either/or; in many cases, it’s a combination of both wind and solar.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Brune, last comment?

MICHAEL BRUNE: Sure. I just want to talk about FutureGen. The Bush administration realizes that it’s a financial boondoggle. If the Bush administration —-

AMY GOODMAN: What is it?

MICHAEL BRUNE: The FutureGen is this idea of a new plant that might be able to capture its emissions. If the Bush administration isn’t supporting a big plan for a new coal-fired power plant, you know that it has problems. Most executives are calling it NeverGen, because it never will be built.

And to address the issue of how we can meet our base load needs with renewable power, just look to other countries. Denmark gets a massive proportion of its power from both hydroelectric plants and wind power, and they don’t have any problems with base loads. When we scale up both solar and wind and when we scale up geothermal and hydroelectric power, all of those sources will begin to balance each other out, and we can start to retire coal plants and replace them with clean energy.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us, for sharing with us some diverse opinions that we’re not going to hear tonight on the issue of clean coal in the debate: Michael Brune, executive director of the Rainforest Action Network, his new book is Coming Clean: Breaking America’s Addiction to Oil and Coal; and Joe Lucas, vice president of communications for American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity. When we come back, we’ll be joined by Antonia Juhasz. She has a new book out, The Tyranny of Oil: The World’s Most Powerful Industry -— And What We Must Do to Stop It.

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The Tyranny of Oil: Antonia Juhasz on “The World’s Most Powerful Industry — What We Must Do to Stop It”

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