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Week of 4.10.09

Transcript: Can Coal be Earth-Friendly?

BRANCACCIO: What if you could take America's cheapest and most plentiful energy resource and make it safe for the environment? That's the premise behind "clean coal." You probably heard the phrase in last year's presidential campaign, and you may have seen some of the ads running about it on your TV. But what exactly are they talking about? Senior Correspondent Maria Hinojosa and Producer Fae Moore went to Wyoming for the story. Part of the PBS wide series on the nation's infrastructure that we call, Blueprint America.

HINOJOSA: Wyoming—famous for its cowboys, big skies. And roaming herds of bison.

But, Wyoming's dirty little secret is that its economy. Runs on something very different—the mining and burning of coal. Historically, coal has been an environmental nightmare. And scientists say the burning of coal is the absolute biggest contributor to global warming on the planet. So, can the industry clean up its act?

HILL: It's designed to run 24/7, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Because people use electricity 24/7.

HINOJOSA: This new power plant under construction near Gillette, Wyoming is being touted as part of the future infrastructure of clean coal. NOW's investigation of clean coal begins in plants like this, but leads right to your pocketbook—with likely big increases in the cost of electricity in years to come.

But, what exactly is clean coal? Is it possible to clean up this very dirty fuel, and is that the answer to America's energy problem?

HILL: And there's a lot of investment in the plant like this. Especially this plant now. You know, the—the price tag of this plant is $1.35 billion.

HINOJOSA: Darryl Hill a spokesman for Basin Electric says this plant called Dry Fork will be outfitted with the latest air pollution technology.

HILL: We'll have mercury controls, ash controls, sulfur dioxide controls. So this will be a very, very clean operating power plant.

HINOJOSA: But this brand new power plant will be emitting the greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, in the exact same way as coal plants that were built 40 years ago.

The United States has been called the "Saudi Arabia of coal". In fact, coal powers half of our electricity. Imagine if half the lights in all the cities of the U.S. ....were suddenly go out, then you have a sense of just how dependent we have become on coal.

Wyoming supplies 40% of the nation's coal. Last year alone, Wyoming produced more than 462 million tons of it. And, increasingly more and more coal pits crater the landscape of the Powder River Basin. Why is America so dependent on coal? Because it's cheap. Very cheap. Although coal may be a cheap source of energy, what price do we pay in pollution and global warming? What happens when we burn coal? According to scientists that greenhouse gas, CO2, is causing global warming, which leads to rising sea levels, loss of coastal lands, severe storms and droughts...and fully one-third of the planet's greenhouse gasses come from coal burning power plants.

GOODELL: The—the risk is to the planet. The risk is to the—entire—s—kind of operating system for civilized life. You know, we are pushing the climate—to dangerous extremes right now. And coal is the number one—sort of, engine that's pushing that.

HINOJOSA: Jeff Goodell spent four years investigating the coal industry for his book, Big Coal.

GOODELL: If the coal industry cannot figure out a way to make it so that you can burn coal and do something with the carbon dioxide, coal won't be burned. I mean, there's just no question about that. It will become the fuel of the past. And I think that—one of the reasons there's such a big fight right now is the industry knows that.

HINOJOSA: That's why the coal industry says it's found an answer and they call it "clean coal".

AD: I believe in the future.

AD: In the future....

HINOJOSA: If you've been watching TV lately, you may have seen these commercials selling the potential of clean coal.

AD: Clean coal, America's power.

HINOJOSA: And, clean coal has found powerful political support. In fact, during last year's presidential campaign, both candidates got behind the idea.

OBAMA: But, this is America and we figured out how to put a man on the moon in ten years, you can't tell me we can't figure out how to burn coal...

HINOJOSA: But how will Obama's promise play out in the business of producing electricity from coal? We looked for answers to our questions during our visit to Basin Electric's plant. What we found out was that, even when outfitted with the newest anti pollution controls, it will still release all of its CO2 directly into the air through its smokestacks....just like the roughly 600 coal plants that already exist nationwide. Producing clean coal will require additional technologies. The problem is that they're still on the drawing board or have never been tested on a commercial scale. The industry currently favors a proposal to separate and remove the CO2, and inject it into vast underground rock formations thousands of feet below the earth's surface, where—if all goes as planned—it will remain for eons.

FRIEDMANN: The state of Wyoming has actually—tasked their geological survey to start mapping this out in some detail.

HINOJOSA: Dr. Julio Friedmann heads the U.S. government's Carbon Management Program at Lawrence Livermore lab. He has been studying this technology for years. And he believes there are plenty of underground storage spots in the U.S.....especially in Wyoming

FRIEDMANN: And—based on everything that we know, there are lots of good formations in the state of Wyoming, ones that are highly likely to accept large volumes of CO2 for a very long time.

HINOJOSA: And, while Friedmann is convinced that the CO2 will stay where it is injected, no one knows for sure if these storage areas will be stable over the long run. Safe storage of CO2 is the final hurdle to overcome. But the problems begin with the high cost of separating out the CO2 in the first place. And then there is the amount of energy that is required to remove the CO2, and the environmental impact of generating that additional energy.

Basin Electric has started to work through some of these challenges in a plant it manages in North Dakota. It's not an electric power plant...but it does start with the raw material of coal, to make synthetic fuel. What spokesman Floyd Robb says is even more intriguing is what it does with the CO2 it captures from the fuel production.

ROBB: Basin Electric has the largest carbon capture and storage project in the world.

HINOJOSA: In the entire world?

ROBB: In the entire world. We have—we have sequestered over 14 million tons of carbon since the project started in 2000.

HINOJOSA: And when you say, "sequestered," where is this carbon—this CO2, where's it being sequestered to?

ROBB: It is being sent to Canada. And it is being used to—keep an oil field—producing that would have been shut down, by now.

HINOJOSA: That's right...a Canadian oil company is actually buying CO2, pumping it through a 200 mile pipeline and injecting it into the ground to force the last drops of oil out of a depleted field. The CO2 is supposed to remain contained in the underground areas. But what about the plan to find underground storage areas back in the U.S. for the huge amount of CO2 that's being produced and released into the air here? Well, for now, the best the industry can say about new plants like the one at Dry Fork is that they are "clean coal ready"—which pretty much means they have a big empty field waiting to someday try out new technology.

When—this power plant—it—it's up and running in 2011. And what you like to say is that it is clean coal-ready. It will be ready to be retrofitted for cleaner coal?

HILL: Specifically, if there would happen to be—when technology is developed for carbon capture, we have space on the plant site so that we can add that technology into the plant as well.

HAWKINS: If those power plants were capture ready, well, my driveway is Ferrari ready. It's—it's ready for a Ferrari anytime anybody wants to deliver one.

HINOJOSA: David Hawkins Director of Climate Programs at the Natural Resources Defense Council says the companies have used the high cost to develop and implement the carbon capture technology as a pretext to delay, delay, delay...

HAWKINS: Since no one has actually applied this technology to a power plant because it doesn't make economic sense to do so, the very industry then points to the fact that no one has applied this technology to a power plant to argue that it isn't ready. We don't think that's correct.

HINOJOSA: What the NRDC and many other environmental groups argue is that the government should ban any construction of new coal plants until they include carbon capture technology.

HAWKINS: We're fighting these new coal plant proposals—in—in every place we can. Because we don't think a coal plant should be built unless it actually captures its carbon. Not being ready, but actually capturing.

HINOJOSA: The Obama administration says it wants carbon capture as soon as possible. It has moved forward with its campaign promise to develop clean coal—3.4 billion dollars in the new stimulus bill, alone and by all accounts that is just the beginning. Which brings us back to the industry's ads for 'clean coal'

AD: We wish we could say "farewell" to our dependence on foreign energy. And we'd like to say "adios" to rising energy costs.

HINOJOSA: These ads are part of a $40 million dollar campaign by the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity...a trade association for coal companies, utilities and railroads. But if you listen closely to these ads, they're not saying clean coal is here just yet.

AD: But first we have to say "so long" to our outdated perceptions about coal. And we have to continue to advance new clean coal technologies to further....

HINOJOSA: Does clean coal really exist?

GOODELL: No. I mean, clean coal is a—an advertising slogan. It's something that—is cooked up as a sort of promotional—slogan to sell the idea that—coal can be burned in a clean way

HINOJOSA: It's an ad campaign that has put big coal in the spotlight. Joe Lucas is an industry spokesman.

When you hear the environmentalists jumping up and down and saying, "Don't lie to the American people. There is no such thing as clean coal technology. Coal is dirty."

LUCAS: Well I learned a long time that my mother—when my mother told me to go clean my room I thought I did a very good job of cleaning my room only to find out she had a different standard of clean. And I think that—and we see this is in our polling—the fact that most people clearly recognize how technology has driven the process to reduce traditional pollutant emissions—folks say, "That's a great first step. Now go do this next thing."

AD: So let's take a tour of the state of the art clean coal facility...

HINOJOSA: Opponents have used that logic to ridicule the idea of clean coal in their own ad campaign.

AD: Clean coal harnesses the awesome power of the word "clean".

HINOJOSA: This one was produced by an alliance of organizations that calls itself "The Reality Coalition".

AD: Clean coal is supported by the coal industry, the most trusted name in coal.

FREUDENTHAL: I've watched those ads where they say there's no such thing as clean coal. And then, I watch the coal industry say, "Oh, no. There is clean coal." It seems to me that, that is an argument of public relations firms. And it isn't a policy argument.

HINOJOSA: Back in Wyoming, the governor, Dave Freudenthal, is looking to spend less time debating and more time finding a practical solution that all sides can buy into.

How confident are you about this technology for carbon sequestration? For carbon sequestration.

FREUDENTHAL: Actually, that's part of the problem. Is—that for eight to ten years, we've been completely unable to get the federal government to make the investments to see if it works.

HINOJOSA: A Democrat, Freudenthal is frustrated that Wyoming has spent years and millions of state dollars to develop clean coal with no federal assistance. He's been a vocal critic of the past Bush administrations' policy towards clean coal.

FREUDENTHAL: We've passed the first legislation to facilitate—carbon sequestration in the country—recognizing that—coal is gonna be part of the energy mix in America goin' forward and in the world. But we need to figure out a way to turn it into a low-carbon fuel.

HINOJOSA: Even some in the industry agree that what's needed to make real progress is a healthy push in the form of new federal regulations. Regulations like "cap and trade," for instance... which would put a price tag on C02 emissions, forcing companies to pay for their pollution. The trading scheme would allow dirty coal plants to continue to operate by buying pollution credits from cleaner plants.

Congressional committees are considering a new bill right now that would use cap and trade to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases like CO2 by twenty percent over the next decade.

When you look at the federal regulations that are going to be coming into existence—what kinds of threats do they pose and what kind of opportunities do they pose to a company like yours?

ROBB: I wouldn't necessarily look at them as threats. We would like regulatory certainty. In other words, tell us what the rules are. And tell us what they're going to be for a specific period of time. Because if you look at a facility like this, we're financing a facility that's probably gonna be around for 50 years.

HINOJOSA: Why is it that you're hearing now about—some coal—companies that are saying, "Go ahead and put Federal regulations on us. We want them."

GOODELL: Well, because they know it's coming. And they wanna be involved with shaping them. So, that's a good thing. But—but it's also, you know—dangerous, because—they are going to be sitting at the table doing all they can to insert as many loopholes and—and you know, other—clauses to make it as coal friendly as possible. And that is going to be the big debate. And the—it's going to be a really important and really complex debate.

HINOJOSA: While the coal industry may be talking a good game now, historically, it has been resistant to change.

AD: Los Angeles suffers the worst blanket of smog in its history...

HINOJOSA: Not so long ago coal fired power plants spit massive amounts of untreated mercury, sulfur dioxide and other contaminants straight into the air, creating major pollution and health hazards. That changed when intense public pressure led to the signing of the Clean Air Act by President Nixon in 1970. Only then, did coal plants begin to clean up their act.

GOODELL: They're doing a better job for example on conventional air pollutants, the things that cause smog. But they're not doing it because—you know, they're deeply concerned about the effects of burning coal. They're doing it because of the Clean Air Act.

And because of laws that were passed by Congress which they fought kicking and screaming. And now they've put scrubbers on a lot of the coal plants. And so, conventional pollutants are in decline if you look at the larger planetary impacts of the carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, that's going into the atmosphere, new coal plants today are no better than they were 30 years ago.

HINOJOSA: For years the coal industry was among the loudest in denying the reality of global warming. In fact, the American Coalition for Clean Coal electricity counts as a member the group that founded "the greening earth society." The society created a campaign that attempted to convince the public that more CO2 was good for the earth

FEMALE NARRATOR: Well, scientific research shows that enriched levels of CO2 have a positive effect on just about every important food crop around the world.

HINOJOSA: Back in 1998, the group produced this documentary.

FEMALE NARRATOR: The reality here is that it's very difficult to find any relationship between carbon dioxide and dramatic global warming. What we know for sure is that the climate change we can reliably expect is both modest and benign.

HINOJOSA: With the election of George Bush in 2000, the coal industry found a staunch ally.

BUSH: No one can say with any certainty what constitutes a dangerous level of warming.

HINOJOSA: And remember Joe Lucas, spokesman for the rebranded clean coal industry? He still won't concede CO2 contributes to global warming.

CLIP: Can you just answer that, "yes" or "no" if you believe that burning coal causes global warming.

LUCAS: I don't know, I'm not a scientist.

HINOJOSA: While the debate rages, mining for coal in Wyoming continues to be big business.

Some coal trains are over a mile long. Every day, about 81 trains leave the state, each carrying an average of 13,000 tons of coal to power plants across the nation.

This has meant more jobs, but a lot of pain for people like Wyoming rancher L.J. Turner.

TURNER: They've cut our pastures down and shut off access. We've lost about ¾ of our summer pasture has been eaten up by coal mines....virtually everything on the left is now owned by the coal companies.

HINOJOSA: L.J. used to run his cattle on open ranges he leased from the government but increasingly these public lands are being turned over to the coal industry.

TURNER: It's federal land so there's no reimbursement to us. It's tough luck, you're out of there.

HINOJOSA: On top of losing the open range, L.J. is also losing some of his own land. A few years ago Basin Electric showed up to inform him that some of his private land would be condemned for transmission lines.

TURNER: This is the projected path that we have for our power lines, this is where we are going to go, and generally they will also tell you that it is not negotiable. That what they have decided in their office and on their maps, they have decided to draw this line through, that's where it's coming. And if it goes over your house, well sorry about that.

HINOJOSA: L.J. sued to block the construction. But the state court decided that the public's need for another coal fired electricity plant outweighed L.J.'s private interest in his land.

TURNER: It's kind of difficult to tussle with those people. At this point in Wyoming's history it's not a winnable fight.

HINOJOSA: Coal industry's power extends beyond Wyoming, all the way to Washington. Not only has President Obama thrown his weight behind clean coal research, but the industry has powerful bipartisan allies in Congress.

There is the gang of 16. A group of Democratic senators from big coal and rust belt states. To win elections in these states the Democrats need to keep big coal happy. It's a reality Wyoming's Democratic governor lives every day.

So governor, I had never been to your state. There is a—an image that people have of Wyoming, blue skies, wide open spaces. But yesterday we ended up in the Powder River Basin area.

FREUDENTHAL: Sure. You know, the—the tourists want all these good roads to come visit Yellowstone Park. But they don't wanna see any trucks haulin' gravel. We have kids that wanna go to school. We just don't wanna run motels for you guys from New York to come visit. We wanna raise our kids and put 'em through college and hope they do well.

HINOJOSA: The governor says it's the energy industry that will continue to be his state's biggest generator of jobs.

How much of a future—does this state have based on coal?

FREUDENTHAL: Quite a bit. But I think that you have to expand that. What this state has is a future as an energy producer.

HINOJOSA: Along with coal reserves, Wyoming is also rich in natural gas, it is blessed with lots of sunshine and lots of wind. Governor Freudenthal has been spearheading the development of giant wind farms. But exporting wind power to faraway urban centers requires construction of massive new power lines.

FREUDENTHAL: We've got all those energy resources.

Particularly on the wind powered side...what we need are transmission lines.

HINOJOSA: Nationwide scaling up wind and solar will require huge investments in the power grid -they currently supply less than 2% of America's power.

FRIEDMANN: The renewables cost more money. Clean coal with zero emissions costs more money. Nuclear power costs more money. These things all cost more money. We're gonna need really aggressive pursuit of energy efficiency. We're gonna need dramatic conservation efforts. But we're gonna need all of these technologies. It's not either-or. It's all of them in a huge scale up.

HINOJOSA: Whether it is clean coal, wind or solar, creating a greener energy future will require billions in crucial infrastructure investments and likely raise the cost of electricity. Many worry that decisions about how to invest will be swayed by hardball lobbying.

GOODELL: I think it's going to be a real test of democracy. I mean, I think that's what—is really at stake here. How well can our leaders, from Barack Obama to on down—navigate this and do what is in the public interest, rather than in the interest of the industry? Because the question is not how do we keep coal going. The question is how to we solve our problem with global warming? How do we—how do we build a new clean energy infrastructure in America?

BRANCACCIO: Let me tell you, the coal fired debate over our energy future does not end there. Read some other energetic arguments on whether coal can be rehabilitated with our latest "issue clash"—that's NOW online's interactive debate. You get to play the moderator. You can find it on our website with the help of pbs.org

And that's it for NOW. From New York, I'm David Brancaccio. We'll see you next week.

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