Dear Carol Browner: Dirty Coal Will Turn Green Recovery Gray

01/19/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

President-elect Barack Obama, energy/climate point person Carol Browner, and DOE nominee Stephen Chu face a historic decision: To commit to non-fossil fuel energy sources and effective action on climate destabilization, or remain quietly beholden to the dirty realities of coal.

Al Gore's visit with Obama in Chicago last week could not have been more symbolic. Six months ago, in his "Generational Challenge to Repower America," Gore unveiled a remarkable challenge to our nation "to commit to producing 100 percent of our electricity from renewable energy and truly carbon-free sources within 10 years."

But that carbon-free vision has never seemed so far away.

Just last week, a controversial EPA ruling did away with a 25-year tradition to regulate the dumping of coal mining waste into waterways--a key component in the devastating impact of mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia. Departing EPA chief Stephen Johnson summed up the George W. Bush administration's unabashed support for the coal industry by literally quoting from the coal lobbyists outrageous marketing slogans: "Americans should not have to choose between clean coal or effective environmental protection; we can achieve both."

But the ravages of mountaintop removal are not the only Bush legacy for the Obama administration to inherit.

The incoming Secretary of Energy will have the choice of committing billions of dollars to relaunch the shipwrecked FutureGen coal-fired plant, or allocating that amount of funding to launch a sustainable wind or solar clean jobs project in the same Illinois area.

In many respects, Mattoon, Illinois, like the coalfields of Appalachia, is emerging as a symbolic litmus test for Obama administration's plan to break our nation from its dependence on fossil fuels.

Obama transition director John Podesta's think thank, Center for American Progress, released a plan for "Green Recovery" last month that called for an addition $1.1 billion investment in FutureGen in Mattoon, Illinois, which they labeled as a project that "offers both a down payment on a long-term investment in a clean energy economy and a contribution to near-term economic recovery."

On the other hand, CAP's brilliant energy and climate expert Joseph Romm declared last year that FutureGen was "either doubly pointless or doubly cynical," given that "the climate will have been destroyed irrevocably before FutureGen could have accomplished anything useful in the marketplace."

But Illinois lawmakers are intent on making FutureGen happen. After meeting with FutureGen investors last month, Illinois Senator Dick Durbin proclaimed: "We are going to work hard to make sure that the new Secretary of Energy and the new Administration make an early commitment to FutureGen so we can move forward."

Durbin, like the coal industry, is convinced that President-elect Obama will give his home state a parting gift.

So why are the extraction industries celebrating the holidays with Christmas coal carols? Why did coal stocks rise the day after Obama's energy announcements?

Multinational coal operatives have been crowing this month about the incoming Obama administration and the rebirth of the FutureGen carbon, capture and storage experimental plant. Abandoned last January by the Bush administration as a spiraling boondoggle, critics concluded that the experimental plant had no hope of become a zero-emissions reality for more than a decade .

The truth is that FutureGen is a colossal albatross devised by a partnership between the Department of Energy and the world's biggest extraction and utility corporations. Debunked by energy experts as infeasible and prohibitively expensive, it ultimately puts the down payment of our coal-fired future on the tax payers and burdens the government with potential accidents, leaks and disposal problems, and the enduring issue of mercury and carbon dioxide emissions.

In effect, FutureGen simply allows the coal industry to continue to mine coal at record profits, and carry out the unremitting devastation to our environment and communities reflected in the recent EPA ruling. While we wait for FutureGen to prove itself over the next decade, here are the daily costs:

*Tens of thousands of premature lung and heart disease-related deaths from coal-fired plants;
*Thousands of black lung coal miner deaths;
*Hundreds of thousands of strip mined forest and farm acreage
*Countless miles of destroyed streams and toxic aquifers
*Shattered economies in Appalachia and other coalfield communities
*Massive mercury emissions
*40 percent of our carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired plants

Bottom line: Pandering to the FutureGen "clean coal" illusions will turn a "green" recovery into a grey one.

As Bill McKibben has written, we are past the carbon tipping point. Nor can we afford this risk and destruction in today's economic crisis. The real question should be: Given the unpredictable bet on FutureGen, why not invest the the same amount of government funding to provide more enduring jobs of energy through wind or solar? Or, why not commit a fraction of that money to create a "Coal Miner G.I. Bill," ensuring every coal miner the right to education, retraining and a position in the new clean energy programs?

While President-elect Obama likes to declare that he comes from a coal state, he rarely dwells on the historical reality that the shortsighted economic interests of the absentee coal companies have chained Illinois and Appalachian coal mining communities to nearly two centuries of economic helter skelter, ethnic conflict and environmental destruction.

Still, I'm very optimistic. In introducing his energy team this week, Obama drew from an Abraham Lincoln speech from 1862, declaring: "We won't create a new energy economy and protect our environment overnight, but we can begin that work right now if we think anew, and act anew. Now, we must have the will to act, and to act boldly."

But to act boldly, we must disenthrall ourselves, as Lincoln referred to the moral crisis of his day, from the grip of coal. We need Future Wind, not FutureGen. We need to stop mountaintop removal. We need clean energy jobs and investment in the coalfields. We need a green, not a gray, recovery.