THE BLOG
12/15/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Greening Hollywood: Grist.org's Russ Walker Weighs In On The Clean Coal Conundrum

Prior to joining Grist, Russ Walker was assistant managing editor for Nation and World at Washingtonpost.com.

Walker agreed to this interview while attending the Opportunity Green Conference held this past weekend on UCLA's campus. Media coordination provided by eConnectGroup.

Paige Donner: Are we going to see a sea change with this new administration?

Russ Walker: Anything after the last eight years will be a sea change. We do know that Obama is looking to staff his cabinet, particularly in the environmental and energy areas, with more creative thinkers who are not beholden to big oil or big coal. That's the good news.

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Russ Walker, Executive Editor of Grist.org

The problem Obama faces is that he's dealing with an economic condition in America and in the world that is unprecedented in the lifetime of most Americans. We can be headed into a recession that lasts years instead of months and that will confine what he's able to do.

I think though that he has made clear that he doesn't want traditional public works programs like maybe you've seen in the New Deal era or in decades past where we spend a bunch of money to put people to work. They want to spend a bunch of money to put people to work on types of things that will pay off in the longer run for the economy.

For example, spending money on more research into renewables. Spending money to improve the electrical grid so that it's smart enough to deal with. The grid right now can't take in all these inputs. There's all this energy and solar coming online in the next few years but the grid itself can't sustain it.

It's like we're trying to jam too many cars onto a highway that wasn't built for this. So we'll need to make the grid bigger but we'll also need to make it smarter because renewables like wind and solar are available only a certain percentage of the time. We need to be able to figure out a way to store that energy and use it later when we need it. That's what I think you're going to see Obama doing. Question is whether or not he'll be able to win over Congress to the plan because without Congress, he can't do anything. And it's not a given that just because there are expanded democratic majorities aligned with Obama that you'll get this passed. Look at the Clinton era. The first two years of the Clinton era there was a Democratic Congress and there was no blanket adoption of his plans by any means.

Paige Donner: Attack or defend this premise, "Clean coal isn't."

Russ Walker: There's a lot of coal in Southern Illinois and I think any politician who represents a state with the coal industry has to pay heed or tip their hat in the direction of clean coal. If you pay close attention to what Obama and McCain said on the campaign trail, there were some subtle but very important differences.

When McCain talked about energy it was almost like a laundry list: Yes we're going to do clean coal, nuclear power and renewables and we're going to drill for more oil. He didn't put any nuance into it when he talked about clean coal, but Obama did.

It's a very clear signal that he's not ready to embrace clean coal hands down the way McCain was. What he said is that clean coal, if it works, if it's truly clean, we're going to invest in it. And I don't think anybody would disagree with that. If there was some way to actually sequester the carbon from coal and to mine it in a way that wasn't completely destroying large tracks of Appalachia and even Western states like Wyoming, then I think we'd all be fine with it. But, I think Obama is smart enough to know that there is no actual clean coal technology out there.

The Energy Department this year canceled the one effort to build a carbon capturing sequestration clean coal plant because they had a limited budget and they weren't able to afford it.

We've spent millions and millions of dollars on clean coal over the last few decades but no one really knows what that means.

I think for the current environmental movement it means first and foremost capturing the carbon and making sure that it doesn't go into the atmosphere. There's absolutely no proven technology for that now. There's one experimental station in Germany that's coming online right now and what we know is that they're going to be ejecting the carbon emissions deep into some abandoned mines there, I believe, is the plan. But we don't know. It's a test case. Will that carbon stay in the ground or will it ultimately seep out?

So, we're years away from clean coal technology if there even is one. And Obama has been clear that this needs to be a proven technology.

Likewise with nuclear. Nuclear probably should be and can be a big part of our solution to getting off of carbon. But as Obama has said over and over again it needs to be safe, it needs to be clean, and then we have to figure out a way to deal with the waste that the country actually wants to buy into.

Right now the only effort to get rid of all the highly radioactive waste revolves around Yucca Mountain and Yucca Mountain has been debated for twenty years and they haven't put any nuclear waste in there because the people of Nevada don't want it. Barring some sort of sea change in the politics of Nevada, we're not going to see safe storage of nuclear there any time soon.

HuffPost's own Dave Burdick interviewed Thomas Friedman on the subject of clean coal. Read more here: Thomas Friedman on Clean Coal

Paige Donner: Mandatory or Entrepreneurial-led Green changes?

Russ Walker: America culturally and politically is not very open to top-down government solutions. It's never been that way and the few times the government has been successful in that kind of change is during great periods of cataclysm like the Great Depression or during the World Wars. So I personally think that the government's role in transitioning us to a new sort of green or clean tech economy has to be one of setting rules and leveling the playing field.

I mean, for example, we do not truly pay for the cost of carbon when we go to the pump. Because when you think about what goes into the gasoline that we burn or the coal that fires our electric plants it's not just the cost of extracting it, refining it and delivering it to us but it's also in terms of oil and national security costs. We're spending $10 billion a month in Iraq right now and that's directly related to oil supplies in the Middle East no matter what anyone wants to say about spreading democracy.

Secondly, the environmental costs of burning coal, which emits great amounts of mercury, are significant and we're not paying for that at the pump, we're basically transitioning that off into the future and expecting the government to somehow swing in behind and clean up hazardous waste, or figure out ways to scrub smoke stacks clean of mercury. So carbon needs to reflect the true cost.

Just like when you go now, in certain states, to buy a bottle of soda, you're paying up front the costs of recycling when you pay the deposit and you're getting the money back later on as a reward for actually recycling the bottle.

Paige Donner: So there has to be something put in place by government and then we'll follow the lead?

Russ Walker: There has to be something put in place by government so that it creates an ability for entrepreneurs in the green area to compete fairly with carbon.

When you had oil at $140 barrel, what happened? T. Boone Pickens appears out of nowhere, a Texas oil man, a bit of a gadfly but also a brilliant businessman, and he's building one of the biggest wind farms in the world in Texas and a big huge water aquifer. The wind farm is good, the effort to buy the water that sits under his land probably not good. But the big challenge with his wind farm is how does he import that into the grid?

If you read some of the literature of what he's up to, he's facing incredible challenges in getting the electrical grid backbone built so that he can actually plug into it. But still, when oil is $140 a barrel, which probably still doesn't reflect its true costs to the American people, you see incentives.

The Government needed to come in, it's probably too late now, particularly in a recession, and say, 'We're not going to let oil go below a certain point.' Every time oil gets near $70 a barrel or $100 a barrel, a tax kicks in, at the oil company level and not at the consumer level to insure that price per gallon doesn't ever get as low as it is today where it's at the $3 range.