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Outlook: The True Cost of Coal

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Jeff Goodell
Author, "Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America's Energy Future"
Monday, August 27, 2007; 12:00 PM

"The blunt truth is, if we're going to become more dependent on coal, more miners will die. How many mining tragedies will we accept in the name of 'cheap' electricity?"

Rolling Stone contributing editor Jeff Goodell, author of " Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America's Energy Future" was online Monday, Aug. 27 at noon ET to discuss his Outlook article on the environmental and safety problems the coal industry as struggling with even as it promotes itself as an oil alternative.

Glenny is a former BBC correspondent and the author of "McMafia: A Journey Through the Global Underworld," scheduled to be published in April of next year.

Archive: Transcripts of discussions with Outlook article authors

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Jeff Goodell: Hi everyone. Glad to be here to talk about coal today.

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washingtonpost.com: What It Costs Us (Outlook, Aug. 26)

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Washington: Goodell's information about coal suggests that carbon dioxide produced by coal plants belongs underground, and should stay there. Even U.S. coalminers have little interest in its future -- as they encourage their own children to aspire to careers elsewhere, U.S. coal companies are importing miners from Mexico and China.

Is anyone advocating for getting rid of coal mining altogether? (Don't laugh!) What can citizens do to promote this?

Jeff Goodell: Some people do advocate getting rid of coal altogether, but given that it generates 50 percent of electricity, we're not going to get off coal tomorrow. But I do think it's important to recognize that coal is the fuel of the past, not the future. As for what can begin transition away from coal, tough caps on CO2 emissions would be a good place to start.

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Munich, Germany: Have you looked into the efforts to create a cleaner burning liquid or gas from coal? Is this technically feasible?

Jeff Goodell: Yes, the technology to make liquid fuels from coal is well-proven. It's called Fischer Tropsch. It's a bad idea, however -- expensive, water-intensive, and creates roughly twice as much CO2 as petroleum refining. If you must use coal for vehicles, best way is with electricity -- i.e. plug-in hybrid cars.

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Washington: Do you think proposed legislation (such as cap and trade or a carbon tax) could be the answer?

Jeff Goodell: Yes, putting a price on carbon is the single most important thing we could do to change the dynamics in the electric power industry. The devil is in the details, however -- some cap-and-trade legislation includes "safety valves" and other loopholes that make it nearly worthless. In the end, we may need both cap and trade and some kind carbon tax.

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washingtonpost.com: Check out The Post editorial on coal: Coal (Post, Aug. 26)

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Washington: What do you think about carbon capture and storage?

Jeff Goodell: I used to be quite hopeful about it -- but the more I learn, the more skeptical I become. It will clearly work on limited scale, in a few places, but it often is pitched as a silver bullet for CO2 from coal. It's not -- it's very expensive, there problems of leakage and regulatory issues, liability, etc.

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Washington: What steps towards lobbying or finance reform do you see as necessary to limit the influence of the coal lobby?

Jeff Goodell: Tough question. I think best hope is to change the economics of electric power industry -- i.e. figure out ways to price in "externalities" like CO2 emissions and environmental destruction related to mountaintop-removal mining. I think it's already becoming clear to many people, including Wall Streeters, that "cheap" coal is a myth -- that only will get more true in coming years. The price of coal-fired power has nowhere to go but up, while the price clean energy of all types are heading down.

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Moorpark, Calif.: The BNSF and Union Pacific railroads have a huge stake in the Powder River Basin coal operation, and Dakota, Minnesota & Eastern railroad is revving up to get a piece of the action. How strong is the railroad lobby in resisting any change to the status?

Jeff Goodell: Railroads are a huge part of the equation (and I say this with huge affection for railroaders, who are among my favorite people). I have a whole chapter about this in my book, but basically large part of the profits of BNSF and UP come from coal. They are the monster in the middle, widely disliked by coal mining companies and electric power companies because of the monopoly power they enjoy in many coal markets.

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Alternative Fuels: I assume you're sitting in the dark and powering your computer with an exercise bike, right?

Jeff Goodell: No, but I do buy 100 percent wind power from my utility.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Mr. Goodell, how soon might we see any real evidence that sequestration or some other means of capturing carbon emissions has any real chance of working?

Jeff Goodell: Unfortunately, I think the coal and electric power industry would like to delay the uptake of this as long as possible. The reasons are obvious: once you have to capture and sequester CO2, coal is an economic loser (except in regions of the country where CO2 can be used for enhanced oil recovery, which can help offset costs). So I expect to see a lot of talk about how important this is, about how seriously the coal industry is taking this, and about the need for more time and money to study the issue -- but very little action. When it comes to new technology, the political strategy is always the same: delay, delay, delay.

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Washington: Why haven't Fischer Tropsch plants been funded by coal-producing states?

Jeff Goodell: In short, because they are very expensive. And because making liquid fuel from coal is very CO2-intensive; as soon as we get a price on carbon in the U.S. (which nearly everyone -- even execs in the coal industry -- agree is coming soon) the costs will go even higher.

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Washington: Is there any solution to America's addiction to coal apart from a carbon tax? I ask because as rigorous as environmental standards are for non-greenhouse gases, the market for electricity today makes coal-fired power plants extremely profitable investments. Are there any other solutions using current regulatory tools?

Jeff Goodell: If there is, I don't see it. You're right, burning coal right now is extremely profitable. But I that's changing quickly. A price on CO2 is coming, and that, along with many other things, will drive price of coal-fired power higher. Meanwhile, thanks in part to massive investments from VCs in Silicon Valley, costs of renewable power are falling. For example, in sunny regions like Ariz., Nev., and Calif., large-scale solar thermal installations are nearly as cheap as coal, if you factor in CO2 costs.

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Washington: Do you think that if people knew more about the public health impacts of coal, that we would see an outcry of support for cleaner technology? Your book details some pretty disturbing facts that everyone should be aware of.

Jeff Goodell: Excellent question. Does having a look inside the slaughterhouse or feedlot change how you view your hamburger? For most people, it probably does. The trouble is, the public health impacts of coal mining and burning are not readily visible to most people.

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Washington: If the U.S. made a concerted effort to wean itself off coal, how long would it take to replace coal-fired power plants as an energy source? Conservation and renewable energy only will go so far. I think it's pretty clear that ultimately, we're looking at a return to nuclear power as the carbon-free fuel of the future.

Jeff Goodell: I'm not anti-nuke. As long as it's part of a larger vision that includes a hard push for efficiency, renewables, etc., I think they could play a modest but valuable role in the future. The problem with nuclear plants is that they are expensive, take a long time to permit and build and tend to be viewed by supporters as a silver bullet for America's energy problems -- which they are not.

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Minneapolis: What about co-generation gasification plants? My understanding is that there are plants that already have been using this technology for 20 years. I've heard that the initial start-up costs are expensive, but that the output from the plant is cleaner than most other coal-fired plants.

Jeff Goodell: Yes, coal gasification has been around for a while. It has a number of important advantages, including lower emissions, fuel flexibility and, most important, it's easier to capture CO2 from these types of plants. But as is the case with most new technology, big coal burners argue that the technology is not reliable or well-proven. I suspect the industry's main goal, as always, is to continue business as usual for as long as possible.

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Wind Power: I tried to put some windmills on my property to reduce my energy footprint, but some rich Democrats up the hill didn't want to have to look at them.

Jeff Goodell: Well, shame on them.

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Mount Rainier, Md.: Mr. Goodell, with coal and oil really not good options for powering anything -- what are your favorite alternatives? It seems that solar is one of the few that could be low impact, but wind has aesthetic issues, and nuclear has safety, environmental and disposal issues. Thanks!

Jeff Goodell: I'm often asked for my "solution." I don't think there is one, in the sense that we can just switch from one fuel or energy source to another and just go on our merry way. I think the challenges of dwindling fossil fuel reserves, rising demand and the coming of global warming will force us to reorganize virtually everything about our lives, from how we get to work to how we build our homes to how we grow our food.

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Arlington, Va.: I don't blame coal companies or miners for pollution from power plants using coal, I blame the power plants that refuse to install scrubbers to eliminate particulates and other pollutants from the air.

Jeff Goodell: Yes, and there is a lot of tension between the coal mining industry and electric power companies about this. It was especially pronounced during the power industry's fight regarding so-called New Source Review regulations, which would have forced them to install scrubbers on old coal plants, and which the power industry lobbied mightily against. Many coal mining companies were deeply unhappy about this.

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Falls Church, Va.: Re: Wind power. Good for you, but it's clear enough that wind and solar power generation cannot be scaled up to meet the needs of the entire country. A move away from fossil fuels inevitably means a shift to nuclear power, doesn't it?

Jeff Goodell: It probably does. And I've said earlier in this chat, I'm not anti-nuke. But I do resist the idea that we can just build a bunch of nuclear plants and continue with business as usual.

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Jeff Goodell: Okay, I guess our time is up! Thanks for participating and for all your excellent questions.

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