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David Roberts

David Roberts

Posted: December 5, 2008 02:15 PM

'Clean Coal' Salesman Joe Lucas Shucks and Jives for NPR


grist.org

This NPR story on "clean coal" is astounding. Pardon the long post, but I had to transcribe several parts of it so you wouldn't think I'm making it up.

The story begins with Al Gore making (and repeating several times) a single point: clean coal -- insofar as that means coal power generation that has sequestered 90+ percent of its greenhouse gas emissions -- doesn't exist. There isn't a power plant in the country that fits that definition. There aren't even any large-scale pilot projects.

Simple, right?

Then comes Joe Lucas, vice president of communications for the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE), who might as well be whistling and twirling his bowler hat. He's such an obvious huckster that at some points NPR's Robert Siegel can barely keep from laughing. It's old-fashioned street theater, showing you the con and charming you into nodding along anyway. You kind of have to give him style points.

Siegel's trying to get him to admit Gore's point: that clean coal -- coal that emits hardly any greenhouse gases -- doesn't exist. Turns out, it all depends on what the meaning of is clean is, says Lucas:

"Clean coal" is a term of art that's been around for over 30 years.

See? He shows you the con right up front. The "art" here, of course, is propaganda. He says flat out that clean coal is an "evolutionary term" -- it's just the name they give to whatever they've got going at the time. Coal has always been clean, because it has always been slightly cleaner than before. You are feeling sleepy ...

This is the bit that made me laugh out loud:

There is not that plant [i.e., a coal plant that sequesters its CO2 emissions]. That is not what clean coal is today. "Clean coal" is an evolutionary term, just like "medical technology." Thirty years ago when we didn't have MRI machines, we didn't say that we didn't have medical technology. But now we have medical technology that includes MRI machines. So our understanding of what is medical technology has evolved.

Robert Siegel, fairly agape at the shamelessness, notes with raised eyebrow that the analogy is "a bit imperfect here." Later he tries again: this stuff, coal with sequestration, isn't here, right?

Witness:

Somebody asked me that question over a year ago, about clean coal. And I said, I learned a long time ago, when my grandmother told me to go clean my room, that people's value judgment of what was clean was different. I thought I did a good job of cleaning my room only to find out that her definition was different.

Siegel, now fully agape, asks him about the very clear definition laid out in the McKinsey report: 90+ percent CO2 sequestration. Lucas:

That's what they described. When I look at what a majority of Americans say is clean coal, the fact that we're using technology today to reduce the emission of hazardous air pollutants, and the fact that we will be able to over the next ten years to begin to bring technologies into the marketplace to capture and store carbon, that's what the American people believe that clean coal is.

What we will be able to do is what the American people believe it is. Sleeepy ...

I guess only liberal academic pinheads define "clean coal" the way McKinsey does, the way the media does, the way the industry itself does when begging for taxpayer handouts. Real Americans believe the industry snow job that 10 more years of unabated CO2 emissions is "clean." Possibly because the industry spent a quarter-billion dollars just this year convincing them.

Reality, however, is stubborn. When coal was first used to generate electricity at the turn of the 20th century, power plants sequestered none of their greenhouse gas emissions. Today, after over a century of "evolution," coal plants sequester none of their greenhouse gas emissions. For the next decade, at least, coal plants will sequester none of their greenhouse gas emissions.

By then our goose will be cooked. That's why James Hansen says shutting down dirty coal plants is the sine qua non of serious climate policy. At a very minimum, no new dirty coal plants can be built. The existing fleet of coal plants must be retrofit for 90+ percent carbon sequestration or shut down in the next 20-40 years. That's the only way we'll meet the emission goals laid out in Obama's plan.

I feel a little bad for Lucas -- the faux-populist up-is-downism he's so artlessly selling would have been more at home in the Bush Era. These days people seem, if only slightly, less inclined to blow smoke up their own posteriors. Reality may be back in vogue.

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