04/13/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

An Open Letter to President Obama: No More "Clean" Coal

Thursday, February 11, 2010

President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Ave., NW
Washington, DC 20500

Dear President Obama,

Thank you for taking a moment to
engage with me about coal and renewable energy at the Gen44 event last Thursday night. As you may recall, we had a short but spirited back-and-forth about what many experts consider to be the false promise of "clean" coal, and the prospects for ramping up our clean energy capacity.

The main point I was making last week[i] is that federal investments in so-called "clean coal" i.e. carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) are not investments in a clean energy future. We believe that instead of creating a "Clean Coal Task Force," we should be focusing on investments in renewables like wind and solar, and in energy efficiency programs that will immediately help reduce our carbon emissions. We're concerned about your public support for making massive investments in so-called "coal," for the following reasons:

  • CCS technology is very costly[ii] – far more costly than renewables.[iii]
  • CCS is a technology that's not yet available at the utility scale and isn't expected to be commercially viable for another 10-15 years.[iv] In contrast, renewable energy is ready now, and will only become more viable the more we invest in it. Last year, over 10 gigawatts of new renewable capacity was added to the U.S. grid, compared to zero gigawatts of energy from coal with CCS.[v]
  • Investments in renewable energy create far more jobs – nearly four times the number of jobs created by making comparable investments in fossil fuel infrastructure.[vi]
  • International competitors like China are investing far more in renewables than in CCS because renewables are proven and cost-effective.[vii]
  • The American public does not support a government bailout for dirty, outdated, coal infrastructure.[viii] In the aftermath of federal bailouts of large corporations, it is unlikely you will be able to sustain public support for corporate welfare for the coal industry.
  • We've seen no indication from the coal industry that its definition of "clean" includes protecting the environment and the families in coal country by ending practices like mountain top removal, which are devastating hundreds of communities nationwide.

You told me last week not to be stubborn about getting all our energy from renewables, because "the technology's not there." We agree with you that it is going to take some time to get off coal (10-20 years if we start now[ix],[x]).  But we do not agree that continuing to make federal investments in coal is a practical way to make the transition to a clean energy future. I understand the challenging politics of the U.S. Senate that encourage compromises with the coal industry and others. But you yourself have said that America must fight these entrenched special interests head on in order to jumpstart a clean energy economy.

The public is tired of watching the federal government throw away billions of dollars bailing out dirty sources of energy while renewables are left behind. As we work with organizers to plan events and attend townhalls all over the country, we hear this again and again. The public wants an immediate transition to a vibrant, clean energy future and will not stand for major compromises on energy in order to pass climate legislation

Mr. President, we need your leadership to make the transition to a clean energy economy a reality. We need you to make a prime time clean energy address to the American people to explain what is at stake and fully endorse passage of a comprehensive climate and energy legislation this year. We are counting on you to reserve the phrase "clean energy" for only energy sources that are completely free of carbon. And we need your leadership to help us defend the Clean Air Act from recent attacks from big polluters, and to rally Americans in support of real clean energy solutions. The facts show that clean energy technologies are available now, and
that they will sustain us for years to come.  The more we invest, the cheaper they become, the faster we jumpstart our economy, and the faster we can move beyond coal and other dirty
fossil fuels of the past.

Rather than a task force on clean coal, we encourage you to create a national task force to propose an ambitious roadmap to America's genuinely clean and renewable energy future. That roadmap should identify the energy mix we plan to achieve, when we'll achieve it, goals and milestones along the way, and how the powers of federal, state and local governments can be better coordinated to get there. A transition plan of this kind – not unlike the plan recently announced by the United Kingdom –would help guide public and private investment as well as public policies. If it operates with the transparency you have pledged in your Administration, the work of the task force would encourage a level of public discussion we need, and have not yet seen, on the nation's energy future.

Thank you again for taking the time to speak with me last week. Needless to say, I'd be happy to convene some of our allied experts to talk more about this in person. This country is ready to move away from the status quo that tells us to invest in dirty energy like coal. With your leadership and investments in renewables, we can jumpstart a clean energy economy, create millions of new jobs, and secure a healthy planet forfuture generations. We've got no time to waste.

In partnership,

Gillian Caldwell
Campaign Director, 1Sky


- Secretary of Energy, Steven Chu

- Secretary of Interior, Ken Salazar

- Secretary of Labor, Hilda Solis

- EPA Administrator, Lisa Jackson

- Nancy Sutley, Chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality

- Carol Browner, Director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate
Change Policy


[ii] According to studies done by the NETL, marginal abatement cost for CCS will fall somewhere between $39 and $83 per ton of CO2 sequestered, thereby requiring a stringent carbon price to be deemed cost-effective. Other studies are less optimistic: A recent Harvard study estimates CCS costs as high as $120 to $180 per ton of CO2 sequestered. . EPA projections of carbon prices under climate legislation currently before the 111th Congress start at around
$11/tonCO2 in 2012, rising to $16/tonCO2 in 2020, and $70/tonCO2 in 2050, thereby making CCS dependant on massive subsidies in order to be cost competitive, even with a substantial price on carbon.

[iii] DOE analysis shows that generating 20% of our power from wind without further technological breakthroughs would require 300,000 MW of wind, delivering electricity for about 6 to 8.5 cents per kilowatt hour, unsubsidized and including the cost of transmission to access existing power lines within 500 miles of wind resources. This 20% wind scenario could require an incremental investment of less than $0.0006 (6 one-hundredths of 1 cent) per kilowatt-hour of total generation by 2030, or roughly $0.50 per month per household.

[iv] Synapse Energy Economics, Inc. 2008. "Don't Get Burned: The Risks of Investing in New Coal-Fired Generating Facilities"

[v] According to the Energy Information Administration, approximately 13.7 gigawatts of new renewable capacity were added in the U.S. between 2007 and 2008, the latest years for which data is available

[vi] Political Economy Research Institute and the Center for American Progress. 2008. "Green Recovery: A Program to Create Good Jobs and Start Building a Low-Carbon Economy"

[vii] China's leaders are investing $12.6 million every hour to green their economy. Nearly 40 percent of China's proposed $586 billion stimulus plan—$221 billion over two years—is going toward public investment in renewable energy, low-carbon vehicles, high-speed rail, an advanced electric grid, efficiency improvements, and other water-treatment and pollution controls. This stimulus is on top of historic levels of government spending and private investment in renewable technology, energy efficiency, and low-carbon growth all across China. China does not have any existing carbon capture and storage (CCS) plants but there are at least two full-scale pilot projects underway which will be completed by 2014. According to an analysis of Chinese stimulus investments conducted by the HSBC Climate Partnership, "Opinion is divided in China on the feasibility of CCS due to concerns about high cost and the environmental risks associated with storing massive amounts of CO gas."

[viii] According to a recent poll conducted by Opinion Research Inc. on behalf of CLEAN: Solar and wind power would be the choice of more than three out of five Americans (62 percent) if they could tell their "power company or utility where to get the power to run [their] house," compared to 12 percent for nuclear and 3 percent for coal.

[ix] Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory scientist Jeffery Greenblatt and model a clean energy future with zero coal power by 2030:  Greenblatt, Jeffery. 2009. "Clean Energy 2030:Google's Proposal for reducing U.S. dependence on fossil fuels" 

[x] Al Gore's RePower America campaign suggests that we can transition to 100% renewable electricity by 2020