Clean-Coal Debate Pits Al Gore’s Group Against Obama, Peabody

by Daniel Whitten 
Last Updated: 04 February 2009

Feb. 4 (Bloomberg) -- Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore and his Alliance for Climate Protection say clean-coal technology is a fantasy.

Peabody Energy Corp., the biggest U.S. coal producer, says another prominent Democrat has pledged to make the technology a reality: President Barack Obama.

The Gore-Obama split  illustrates a growing  debate in the U.S. as

the new president attempts to deliver on his promise to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in the country 80 percent by 2050. Depending on who’s speaking, coal is either the villain or part of the solution.

“The coal groups are saying we need clean coal,” said Mark Maddox, the former head of the Energy Department’s fossil energy office under former President George W. Bush, in an interview. “Environmentalists are saying there is no clean coal, and we aren’t going to help you get it.”

Coal is at the center of the discussion about so-called green energy because the fuel provides half of U.S. electricity -- and 30 percent of the greenhouse-gas emissions that contribute to global warming.

The issue, framed in dueling television campaigns, is whether U.S. energy policy should be based on what is still largely an assumption: that technology can capture carbon emissions before they go into the air and store them permanently underground.

$300 Million Campaign

Portraying clean coal as a mirage, the Alliance for Climate Protection’s first commercial, shown on broadcast and cable networks starting last December, features an announcer showing off “today’s clean-coal technology” as he gestures toward empty terrain. In a new ad now running, an actor playing a coal company executive says, “Don’t worry about climate change, leave that to us.”

The commercials are the start of an ad campaign for clean energy that the group, based in Menlo Park, California, has said will cost $300 million over 3 years. Spokesman Brian Hardwick declined to say how much advertising has been purchased so far. Gore is the organization’s founder and chairman.

“We thought it was a key moment to let people know that we are faced with a climate crisis, and we shouldn’t have any illusion that clean coal exists today,” Hardwick said in an interview.

Obama’s Words

Gore has called for the U.S. to produce all of its electricity from renewable energy by 2018, instead of “dirty fossil fuels” such as coal and oil.

After the environmentalists began their anti-coal commercials, response ads were mustered by companies led by Peabody of St. Louis and operators of coal-fired power plants, such as the Southern Co. of Atlanta and American Electric Power Co. of Columbus, Ohio.

The coal industry’s commercials tap into Obama’s credentials as a clean-energy advocate, showing excerpts from a speech he gave in Lebanon, Virginia, in September.

“Clean-coal technology is something that can make America energy-independent,” Obama says in the ad, which has run on cable channels such as CNN, Fox News and MSNBC.

The industry-sponsored American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity spent $18 million last year on television commercials, compared with the $48 million for those run by Gore’s group, according to Joe Lucas, a spokesman for the Alexandria, Virginia-based group of coal producers and users.

False Start

“We thought it was important to do what we could to get another side of the story out there,” said Michael Morris, AEP’s chief executive, in an interview. The industry is trying “to reach out to some of the policy makers” with its message that adding restrictions on coal would damage the already struggling economy.

Power producers spent $36 billion on coal in 2007 and consumers paid $343 billion for electricity from all sources, or almost 3 percent of U.S. gross domestic product, according to data from the Energy Information Administration.

Prospects for the new technology were clouded last year, when Samuel Bodman, Bush’s Energy secretary, canceled plans to build a clean-coal plant in Illinois. The cost of the facility, initially estimated at $1 billion, had soared to at least $1.8 billion. Bodman said funding the technology at multiple plants would be an “all-around better deal.”

The House-passed version of Obama’s economic stimulus plan would provide $2.4 billion for development of carbon capture and storage, according to a summary issued by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat. The version now before the Senate has at least $4.6 billion for that purpose, according to Bill Wicker, a spokesman for Senate Energy Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman, a New Mexico Democrat.

‘Robust Research’

Obama, who has pledged to spend $150 billion over 10 years to combat climate change and create “green” jobs, hasn’t said how much of that should go to clean-coal technology.

Even Gore supports research.

‘It’s quite responsible to support robust research into whether or not it might in the future become possible to safely capture and sequester CO2 from coal plants,” Gore said in testimony last week before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “But we should not delude ourselves about the likelihood that that’s going to occur in the near-term or even the mid-term.”

While Gore remains skeptical, industry groups are encouraged that members of the Obama administration have tempered their past comments about coal, according to Luke Popovich, a vice president for the Washington-based National Mining Association, which represents coal producers.

‘A Huge Sum’

Months before Obama’s campaign remarks about the promise of new technology, he said in a recorded interview with the San Francisco Chronicle last January, “If somebody wants to build a coal-powered plant, they can, it’s just that it will bankrupt them because they’re going to be charged a huge sum for all that greenhouse gas that’s being emitted.”

Obama’s Energy Secretary Steven Chu had called coal his “worst nightmare” in a 2007 speech. At his Senate confirmation hearing on Jan. 13, Chu said the fuel is a “great natural resource” that the “the U.S., with its great technological leadership, should rise to the occasion to develop.”


To contact the reporter on this story: Daniel Whitten in Washington at 



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