07/04/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Great Coal Debate: How Lobbyists Pollute Our Politics

Bruce Nilles and Fred Palmer faced off April 27th at Washington University in St. Louis in what was dubbed The Great Coal Debate. Moderated by Time magazine correspondent Brian Walsh, the subtitle could have aptly been: "is the cheap energy worth the cost?"

Bruce Nilles, Sierra Club's Beyond Coal 'consigliere' is passionate about saving our planet and saving our democracy. More closely resembling a graduate student than an experienced advocate, he exudes the calm intensity of a tired parent dealing with a stubborn child. He not only wants to rid the planet of coal pollution, he wants to end this culture of 'polluting politics.' Condemning the corporate practice of hiring recent legislators as lobbyists, he decries the "army of lobbyists that are subverting our democracy."

Fred Palmer, senior Vice-President in charge of Governmental Relations for Peabody Coal is passionate about winning. He is also on record as being an early 'climate change denier,' spending 20 years running the Greening Earth Society, a now defunct organization that believes fossil fuel pollution increases biological growth and prosperity. Appearing grandfatherly, yet quirky, in an expensive suit and black scuffed cowboy boots, he has been quoted on record claiming: "every time you turn your car on and you burn fossil fuels and you put CO2 into the air, you're doing the work of the Lord."   

This event was orchestrated by a group of dedicated progressive students at odds with the university's longstanding, almost incestuous relationship with Peabody Coal and Arch Energy, two of the largest coal producers in the United States. Both corporations have representatives on the school's board of trustees, and students contend that they have undue influence on scientific energy research being conducted by the university.  

A particular source of academic embarrassment is the formation of the Consortium for Clean Coal Utilization (CCCU), funded by Peabody Energy, Arch Coal and local electricity utility, Ameren. CCCU plans to build a one megawatt demonstration carbon capture & sequestration plant on campus. This plan was ushered in by a symposium titled "America's Energy Future." Execs Steven F. Leer of Arch Coal, Fred Palmer of Peabody Energy, and other fossil fuel vendors were invited, while companies researching renewable energy found themselves excluded. In short, like a jilted bride, renewable energy researchers and environmental advocates were left out of the party.   

Student groups cried foul, citing both the consortium and the university board of trustees for deceitful practices and academic dishonesty. Multiple student groups, including Students for Endowment Transparency, sponsored an earlier protest questioning the status of allegedly 'independent' scientific research where corporate forces control the purse strings. These same student organizations -- including the school's Student Union, Student Senate and members of Washington University's Climate Justice Alliance -- delivered a letter to Energy Secretary Steven Chu articulating their concerns in response to Chu's scheduled appearance as featured speaker at this year's commencement. Specifically they demanded that Chu slash the term 'clean coal,' an oxymoron, from his speech. To put it bluntly, these students were not going to fall for the usual 'green-washing.'
In the packed audience of 500, many asked how any honest scientist could use the term 'clean coal,' or 'green coal.' Citing multiple studies by the EPA, Greenpeace, Sierra Club and World Health Organization, several students demanded that any scientific study of coal and its by-products dump the term 'clean coal,' citing it as biased. One student asked Palmer to admit that the use of the term 'clean coal' is inappropriate given the current science, to which Palmer responded, stony faced: "I don't accept the premise of the question."
Palmer did give timely condolences to the victims of the Massey coal mine disaster, while citing Peabody's alleged safety record and bragging that, "Working at a Peabody Mine is safer than working at WalMart."   

Unfortunately, the truth regarding Peabody's safety record is far different than this Palmer's account. According to a recent BusinessWeek article, cited by Nilles: "Peabody's Air Quality No. 1 mine in Knox County, Indiana, tops the U.S. in citations, with 1,419. The company's operation in Saline County, Illinois, has accumulated 1,217 citations, according to (Mine Safety and Health Administration) data."  

Palmer also claimed that Peabody has not used mountaintop removal mining techniques during his tenure with the corporation. Nilles points out that Peabody owned mountaintop removal sites in West Virginia and Kentucky until 2007, but Palmer's employment history with the company dates back to 2001.
Both Palmer and Nilles gave detailed presentations on the future of coal in this country and the world. In St. Louis the subject of coal is rife with conflicted ideals. Here, in the middle of the ever increasing 'Rust Belt,' Peabody Coal is one of the few remaining large employers. Those of similar mind to Palmer might argue that university students, spending a few brief years here, will not have to contend with the economic fallout of Peabody's threatening to move corporate HQ. Yet, St. Louis and the surrounding area has some of the highest rates of severe childhood asthma in the country; and with youngsters downing inhalers like some drink Pepsi, it seems clear that Peabody's policies are already affecting.

While Palmer enlisted coal as the cure for world poverty and 'energy apartheid,' Nilles rebutted each claim by citing abundant loopholes or exemptions in federal regulations. When Palmer spoke of economic benefits from coal mining, Nilles countered with the example of West Virginia, a state both dependent on coal mining jobs and amongst the poorest states in the union.
Palmer spoke of scrubber technology which allegedly removes some eighty to ninety percent of toxins, including mercury. Nilles confirmed the efficacy of the technology, but added that the majority of coal refineries in the US were built before 1980 and are not retrofitted with this scrubber technology. In fact, Nilles suggested that St. Louis has some 750 million in added health costs because no pollution control devices were ever added to the older plants here.
Both men spoke of renewable energy sources, with again, very different opinions. While Palmer pushed the 'expanding the definition of renewables;' Nilles, however, dealt with scientific facts rather than semantics. Citing the growing wind power technology, he explained how the US could be 'off of coal in two decades.' Again Nilles rallied against the multiple exemptions in the laws governing the coal industry, pointing out that, "we can't dump our trash in the river but the coal industry can."   

After the program Nilles was kind enough to allow a video interview explaining these arguments in more depth. Here is the video link:

Palmer had already left the building. 
In conclusion, while Palmer may not 'accept the premise of the question,' these student activist groups not only accepted the question, but also issued their own declaration of 'independence' from lawyerly 'Orwellian' doublespeak controlling the debate. They demand scientific studies to be judged by scientific evidence, not lawyerly exemptions and public relations 'greenwashing.' Not only that, but they expect Congress to legislate our energy policy based on sound science -- not closed discussion dictated by lawyers turned lobbyists. To quote Bruce Nilles, "at the end of the day, your voice is not being heard and that is a subversion of democracy." These student activists at Washington University intend to take their democracy back.