He's the author of Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America's Energy Future. His interview offers a primer on the U.S. and world's dependence on coal, the challenges in cleaning it up, and what we confront in developing clean, carbon-free energy for the future. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Nov. 6, 2007.
“If we build all these new coal plants, it doesn't matter if everybody in the world with an SUV switches to a skateboard -- we're going to cook the planet.”
- Some highlights from this interview
- The comeback of coal
- Reality is intruding on the vision of "clean coal"
- What hope is there we can meet our targets on CO2 reductions?
- The one thing nobody wants to talk about...
So I thought coal was the fuel of the past, out of date, passé, in decline. Wrong?
Yes, very wrong, because the world is growing, and we need energy, and there's a lot of coal left in the ground. So in a world that is demanding cheap energy, coal has it.
What are we doing with the coal? ... [O]ur electricity comes from coal?
Right. Half the electricity in America comes from coal. ... Every man, woman and child burns 20 pounds of coal a day.
One of the amazing things is that we all know that coal provided heat and power in the 19th century and was the engine of the industrial revolution. Back then we all saw it. ... [T]he coal cart came down the street; they dropped the coal down the chute; everyone saw the soot in the air. Coal was a fact of life, as it still is in China. It's very tangible. You can see it.
The interesting thing about the way we consume coal today is we essentially consume it by wire. We consume it from these giant coal plants that are built usually far off in the distance. Most Americans don't have any idea that we still burn coal. They think of it as something that went out with top hats and corsets.
And because they don't see it, because it's burned far away, ... we don't think about where that electricity comes from and what really goes on behind the light switch.
Let's go through the chain. So where does the coal come from? ...
Traditionally, the ancestral home of the coal industry is Appalachia -- West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Ohio. Those have been the largest sources of coal over the last 150 years or so. But today a lot of the coal mining is shifting to Wyoming.
And that's because of the Clean Air Act?
Partly because of the Clean Air Act, yes. The coal in Wyoming has a lower sulfur content, so the power plants can burn it without installing expensive scrubbers on the plants and still meet federal air requirements.
But another part of the reason is because they've been mining coal in Appalachia for 150 years now, and a lot of this sort of simple, easy-to-get coal is gone. So the coal there is increasingly deeply buried and increasingly difficult to get out and increasingly expensive.
The coal in Wyoming, in contrast, is buried in these 70- or 80-foot seams, very, very thick seams that are only a couple hundred feet below the surface. There's no people there, it's out in the prairie, and it's sort of nowhere. There's no real environmental issues associated with mining it. I mean, there are problems. Prairie dog homes get blown up and things, but there's no one living there. There's no problems of mountaintop removal mining, flooding, destruction of streams and things like that.
So it's very cheap to get it out of the ground in Wyoming. And the railroads have helped to develop this incredible network of railroads that bring the coal from Wyoming basically to the industrial East.
Somebody described it as the world's largest conveyor belt.
Right. It is.
I think it was you.
(Laughs.) It may have been.
When you went to Powder River Basin, what did you see?
I saw big coal mines, some of the biggest equipment in the world there. ... [Y]ou stand next to some of these haul trucks -- I'm 6 feet tall, and I wouldn't even go up to the hubcap on the tire. I mean, these are enormous machines, enormous draglines that are taking this coal out of the ground.
What I saw is an amazingly efficient operation at taking this coal out of the ground: minimal human beings, very few people there, all mechanized. The draglines are run with GPS. The haul trucks have GPS on them. The railroads are incredibly sophisticated technology. I rode on a Burlington Northern Santa Fe [BNSF] train from Gillette, Wyo., across Nebraska, heading east, and it was all controlled from central headquarters in Fort Worth, [Texas]. It's just like this enormous toy train project..., mile-and-a-half-long coal trains with basically just two people in them hauling this stuff out to the East Coast. ... Technologically, it's a really amazing operation.
... And then these trains go to power plants all over the country?
And mostly to those areas that are burning a lot of coal -- the Midwest, the South.
... How much coal is in process of moving every day? How much do we consume?
In America we consume over a billion tons a year. And I think that Powder River Basin is running around 400 million tons of coal out of the Powder River Basin a year, so --
Forty percent of all the coal that we're consuming is coming out of that one spot?
Absolutely. And it's being carried by these railroads. For the railroads, this has been a huge boon. This is something that is an enormously profitable operation for them. They make a lot of money doing this.
The railroads have been described to me as this sort of gorilla in the middle. The coal mining companies don't like them because if you try to negotiate too hard with the railroads, ... [the mining companies] think that they will slow the trains down, and the same thing on the power plant side.
So this whole infrastructure of burning coal in America is really dependent on keeping these trains running, because the power plant only has usually around 20 or 25 days' supply of coal sitting on the ground. So if these trains start missing deliveries and things like that, it can get depleted very quickly at the power plant, and that scares the power plant operators.
How much coal does it take to power up a power plant?
It depends on the size of the plant. But in general, I would say one or two of these enormous trains a day need to make their delivery every day. So you can imagine this giant network of these trains basically feeding these power plants, which are feeding our electricity grid, which is powering our Internet and our television.
... [T]his whole electric infrastructure that we celebrate and that is so much a part of the new economy in America is really fired by these black rocks that are hauled by these old trains. And when I rode these trains, what was amazing to me was how wonderfully sophisticated it was on one level, the automated trains and being able to haul ... [this] amount of coal such great distances relatively cheaply, but also how primitive it was. Here I was riding this coal train out of Wyoming, carrying these rocks to Georgia in order for one-day or half-a-day or a few hours' supply of energy for the people of the Southeast. The idea that we're still using railroads to haul rocks to burn for energy was really striking to me as I was riding these trains.
So one or two trainloads a day just gets the power plant through a 24-hour spell, and then the train has to go all the way back. ... You've got a constantly moving loop.
Right, of hundreds of trains a day, just circling the United States back and forth and back and forth, feeding this voracious demand for power that we have.
And there's a fundamental disconnect between the sophistication of the things that we use daily, from the iPod, the computer, ... [and] this sort of black rock, this crude energy source.
That was what was first so striking to me. ... [G]rowing up in California, I never thought about where electricity comes from. I sort of had this vision that it flowed down from a golden bowl in the sky, you know? I'd been to hydroelectric dams and things, but I never really gave any thought to it until I went to West Virginia to start exploring this book, and I looked at some of these enormous coal mines and visited power plants. And all of a sudden, this whole sort of industrial underbelly of what it really takes to keep America going was opened up to me. And I think it's something that not many Americans think about or see.
Yeah, you make the point that people know what they pay for gasoline, but they have no idea what they pay for coal, for electricity.
They have no idea, yeah. Everywhere I go, I can talk to people at any dinner party; any conversation you have with someone, if you ask them the price of gas, they'll know usually within a 10th of a cent. I have very rarely in my experience, talking to thousands of people around America about electricity, found anyone who could tell me what they pay for a kilowatt of power, much less where that kilowatt of power came from, much less what the real costs were to generate that power, what the costs to the environment were. ... They have no idea where it comes from.
Partly because it's a triumph of progress. We've developed this incredibly sophisticated electric grid and delivery system which works very, very well. In a certain way, it's a miracle of engineering and technology. ... Power plant workers and grid workers should be celebrated for the incredible complexity and difficulty of keeping this thing going.
But on the other hand, it's also distanced ourselves from the source of this power. ... Now, one of the reasons [the power companies] stress reliability so much is not only because people like their power on, but also they don't want people asking questions about where does this really come from, what is it really costing us. They want mindless consumption. ...
Well, a couple things happened. One of the things that happened was, of course, Three Mile Island and the sort of meltdown of the great nuclear dream. ... The end of the building of nuclear power plants left a big hole, and you had to think about where we're going to get our power if we're not going to build nuclear plants.
But then that was basically replaced in the '70s by natural gas. That was seen as the fuel of the future, the fossil fuel of the future certainly. And that worked very well, and there was a big boom for a while. Natural gas is much cleaner. It was for a long time cheaper, more efficient.
Coal was really seen as something that was going to be fading from the landscape. But then this sort of natural gas bubble burst. We had Enron and the whole scandal there. We had rapid escalation of natural gas prices, and all of a sudden people started looking again at coal. It became a kind of default energy. We can't go to solar and wind completely yet. That has not been ramped up; the technology is not really ready for prime time, or at least it hasn't been until very recently. So in 1982 you weren't going to be powering Atlanta with wind turbines; you couldn't build a nuke plant; and gas was too expensive. So coal kind of became the default energy choice.
... So 52 percent of all the electricity in the United States comes from coal.
And that's growing?
Yeah. And it's projected to grow, and I'm sure that it will grow, because coal plants are being built all around the United States. The numbers vary, but right now there's about 150 or so new coal plants projected in the U.S. Some of these are running into trouble now. Some of these are being shelved. But there's no question that there's a big push for coal.
And we're also seeing a push for coal to be used as a liquid fuel, to make diesel out of. So I think in a world where we're seeing increasing energy scarcity as the demand for oil climbs and the reserves dwindle -- same with natural gas -- coal becomes very, very attractive.
How much coal do we have?
That's a subject of much debate. President Bush and other coal supporters often say we have 250 years of coal left at current consumption. But the problem with that is, first of all, coal reserves have not really been looked at with a hard, skeptical eye for about 40 years, so the coal-reserve studies are quite outdated.
And the second big problem is that this vast amount of coal that we have isn't sitting in one big shiny pile in Kansas somewhere where we can all just back our pickups up to it and shovel it away and go off. It's buried in deep places around the United States, in places that are inconvenient or very expensive to mine, under state parks, under towns, under forests, under places that we don't really want to disembowel.
I thought a lot of it was just sitting and available in Powder River Basin.
Powder River Basin has a lot of coal. But there's a lot of problems with escalating Powder River Basin coal to fill the demand for America. The railroads have to build a lot more railroads, and that's very expensive.
So you're saying they're running at capacity now?
Oh, they're running beyond capacity. I experienced this myself riding them. The trains sit on the tracks for hours because they're so congested. ... [I]f you're talking about really powering America off Powder River Basin coal, you're talking about billions of dollars of new infrastructure needed.
But isn't there enough there to make it worthwhile?
It depends on how you consider it. ... [E]ven in the Powder River Basin, we're seeing the kind of depletion problems or [increasing] difficulty with mining coal that we're seeing at Appalachia. ...
... [W]hen they started in there in the '70s, it was 60 or 70 feet underneath the ground, and you could basically dig it out with a spoon. Now it's 250 or 300 feet below the ground, and they have to worry about cave-ins and things like that. Within a few years, it's going to be so deeply buried they're going to have to go underground, which they've never done in the Powder River Basin, and it's going to be very expensive.
... [T]he problem with coal as a fuel for the future is that its costs could only go up. Part of the appeal now is a sort of 1970s appeal, that coal is cheap and plentiful, [but] if you really look at the economics of it, that's not really true for the future.
The plentifulness of it is disputable. We're already seeing, even with all of the pressure on coal development right now, declining production in many parts of Appalachia. Appalachia is nearly mined out. It is going to be mined out in the very near future. ...
And the idea that we're going to just simply fuel America from the Powder River Basin, that requires a kind of visionary thinking just to get the infrastructure in place to build the railroads, to come up with a new kind of underground mining and all the difficulties associated with that that is incredibly expensive, and, given the problems with carbon dioxide emissions, probably uneconomical.
I want to get to carbon dioxide in a minute. But first, take me through the process of burning coal and making electricity. How does coal make electricity?
It's actually quite a simple process. When the coal train arrives at the power plant, it's dumped into a big pile beside the power plant. There's a conveyor belt from the plant that brings the coal up into the power plant, where it is crushed into a very fine dust, like a powder.
There are nozzles in what is essentially a big open furnace that blow the coal dust into this furnace, and the coal dust ignites. ... It's essentially used to boil water.
When you look at a giant coal plant, when you go inside them, ... what really it is is just a big water kettle really. And then the steam comes up out of the boiled water and is compressed and funneled down into the generator, where it spins the turbine and then, of course, generates the power. But the coal is really just a way to boil water.
No. I mean, that's an idea kind of like fat-free doughnuts, that we would all like to believe that coal is clean. They've made improvements in the emissions from coal plants, especially if you look at it from a 1970s standard, the things that we cared about in the 1970s, with passage of the Clean Air Act and things.
So the pollutants that create smog have gotten much better from power plants. What they don't tell you about this is, first of all, that the coal industry fought all of these regulations that forced them to clean them up tooth and nail, complaining, basically, that it would destroy the American economy if they were forced to put in these scrubbers and things.
They did a good job, and they're cleaner today. But they're still dirty. I mean, just because you go from drinking 10 beers a week to four doesn't mean that you're clean and sober. And that's one of the things.
And the other thing about this clean coal is that it ignores what economists call the upstream impacts of mountaintop-removal mining, coal mining deaths and injuries, just the whole complexity and difficulty of getting the coal out of the ground and the damage that comes from that.
And then finally, the big problem with this idea of clean coal is it doesn't talk about the thing that is the big problem today, which is carbon dioxide. In fact, one of the problems with this vision of powering America from the Powder River Basin is that the coal there has lower sulfur content, so it burns cleaner from this 1970s point of view in that it basically emits less smog-emitting pollutants. But because it has a lower heat content, it emits more carbon dioxide. So if you think about it from a global warming point of view, this movement to Powder River Basin coal is, in fact, a step backward.
And how much of our total output of CO2 comes from the burning of coal to make electricity?
Just over a third of the manmade CO2 emissions of the United States come from burning coal, roughly equivalent to the amount that comes from driving vehicles.
And what can the coal business do? There is a lot of talk. We hear that they're going to make clean coal that has no emissions of CO2. Where are we on that score?
It's something that they're researching very diligently right now. There are a lot of people thinking about this. There's a lot of scientists looking into it. But really there's only one way in the foreseeable future for this to happen right now, and that is to build these new kinds of coal-fired power plants called IGCC [Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle], or coal gasification plants, that can essentially capture the carbon dioxide as it comes out of the power plant.
So tell me what [IGCC] is. You make a gas out of the coal rather than pulverize it into a powder, and by doing that, you can capture the carbon?
Right. You can capture the carbon dioxide as it comes out in a much simpler way. ... Because you're not burning the coal in the same way, it doesn't go up into the smokestacks the way it does in a simple combustion plant.
One of the problems with carbon dioxide in the smokestack of a conventional coal plant is that it's a very diffuse gas, and it's very difficult to capture that carbon dioxide as it's going up the smokestack without essentially wrecking the efficiency of the power plant itself. So they have to come up with a new technology that allows them to simply do this in a relatively economic way. There's a lot of research going on about this. There's a lot of people who obviously would like to ... figure out a way to get this out of coal, to do this in a cheap and economical way.
But as yet, there isn't anything, and the best thing that we have is using these coal gasification plants, which then can capture the carbon dioxide, use pressure to create a kind of supercritical fluid that has the viscosity of oil, and then pump it down underground 2,000 or 3,000 feet into these deep saline aquifers. ...
So it sounds like a good solution. Why not do it?
It can be a good solution in certain places. ... The problem is that this is still quite a ways away.
There's only a few small-scale pilot projects going on around the world right now. There's many, many technological hurdles to overcome. We still don't know for sure that it can be locked away safely down there, how well it will stay. Underground geology at that depth is very complex. This carbon dioxide can move through cracks in the earth, leak out.
Carbon dioxide is an asphyxiant, so there's the problem of if the CO2 is buried 2,000 feet underground and there's some minor earthquake and it can leak up through a fissure and get into someone's basement, then you could be asphyxiated without knowing.
And it's odorless gas; there's no way to detect it. And then there's the issue of, is it actually staying there? Is it actually solving the problem? Or is it just sort of bubbling out somewhere where we're not watching? So it requires incredibly complex [regulation] and oversight to make sure that this works well.
The other problem is that it doesn't work everywhere. [In] certain parts of the world and of the United States, the geology is well suited to it. Wyoming, for example, the geology is well suited to it. Parts of Appalachia, it's well suited to it. But other parts -- New England, the Southeast -- it's not. So it's not a solution for those regions.
And then the last thing about it is the price. It gets expensive to do, depending on how it's done. And at a certain point, you have to ask, well, if [we're] going to go to all this expense, why not just do something else? Why not do a clean renewable power or something that is perhaps the same price or maybe a small percentage more expensive right now but vastly simpler and eliminates all of these technological problems?
Is there such a solution, in your view?
Sure, I think that there is. There's rapid progress being made in all kinds of renewable energy. We've seen the costs of wind come down exponentially in the last decade or so. There are what are now called large-scale solar thermal plants that essentially use solar energy to power a conventional turbine, which can --
Boil water with concentrated solar energy.
Sort of like a big magnifying glass basically.
I was in Tibet, and the monks all boil their water to make tea with a big parabolic mirror. Essentially the same phenomenon.
Right. Exactly the same thing. And there was just an announcement yesterday [that] PG&E [Pacific Gas and Electric], a big California utility, is building 300 megawatts in -- I think New Mexico and Arizona are doing it also. Obviously this only works in a region where you have a lot of sun, but you can use these large power plants.
And if you can develop transmission lines to send them to various places, that can be a solution. I mean, there's all kinds of creative solutions. The problem is that there's not one solution for everyone. You can't just say, "Oh, well, forget coal; let's just build nukes," or, "Let's just do wind." We can't just check the box. It's sort of a horses-for-courses solution. Every region has to figure out what's best for them, which is one reason why a lot of the movement toward new forms of generation are more regional, smaller scale, people thinking differently about how they get their power and wanting to establish more local control so that they can choose the best way for them.
So this is what I don't get. We know we've got a big problem with coal-fired power plants because of CO2 emissions. We know we need to look down the road and figure out solutions to it. But yet, everywhere I turn, I learn that we're building more coal plants. We're going to start building a new round of new plants, and we're going to be more dependent on coal than before, even though these solutions that you've just talked about exist.
Right. Well, you have a very big, very powerful industry that wants to keep doing things the old way. And global warming is still not something that people see the urgency to deal with yet -- I mean the ordinary people who are paying their electric bills and who ultimately have the power about how they think about this and what choices they make as consumers.
We can all talk about the science being settled, and The New York Times can write as many articles as they want, but it has still not penetrated down to the level in America where people are willing to make sacrifices. And coal is really about a kind of consumerist consumption model that is a legacy of the 20th century and I don't think will be part of the 21st century. But right now, we're at that tipping point.
But do we need to make sacrifices? Or do we need to just find new sources of energy?
I think we need to make sacrifices, and we need to find new sources of energy. Anyone who thinks that we're going to be able to continue on our merry way by just switching out coal for solar or nuclear or something like that hasn't understood the full complexity of what we're really facing here.
Well, that's not a solution in most people's view. A solution means that we continue to consume, economies continue to grow, we continue to sustain more people, but we do it without creating a climate crisis.
Well, I think ... our economy [can] continue to grow. I think that getting off coal would be a huge economic boom. I mean, I grew up in Silicon Valley; I'm very connected and spend a lot of time out there with venture capitalists and things. And the amount of money that can be made in essentially dismantling coal and doing other things -- whether they're giant solar thermal power plants that could literally replace a coal plant or small-scale things like net-metering home electricity gauges so people can be more aware of how much electricity they use --
I mean, the idea that your electricity consumption gauge or your dial is outside in the backyard or in the basement or something like that, that is so hilarious. No one knows how much they consume. If there were just some object on your refrigerator that showed you in real time how much electricity is flowing in and out of your house, it would make people much more conscious of this kind of thing, of how much they consume.
So I'm not suggesting that we have to go back to living in caves. But I think that solving this problem means more than just switching out coal for something else. It means changing the way we think about energy, and changing the way we consume our energy and realizing that energy is going to be more expensive, but that we can use less of it and get the same value. ...
You said we need to get over this idea that all we need to do is find a new way of generating more power so we can consume more. But what I'm hearing you say is that we don't necessarily have to sacrifice in our living standard in order to accomplish this.
It depends on what you consider sacrificing our living standard. I mean, if you live in a 15,000-square-foot McMansion that is heated to 80 degrees in the winter and cooled to 50 degrees in the summer, you may find that that's an unsustainable way of life in a future where there's higher energy prices and energy becomes a scarcer commodity. So if that's what you mean by changing our lives, I think that kind of thing will have to change.
But isn't that what we're all driving toward in one way or another?
More comfort, more convenience, more modern appliances.
Yes, I think so. And I'm a big believer in social progress and technological progress, so I think the iPod is a big improvement over the CD, you know? But I don't think that that necessarily equates with more energy consumption and more continuing on in the same way.
... [T]he era of cheap energy is over, and it is going to become more expensive, so we're going to have to become smarter about how we consume it, how we insulate our houses, how much power consumption our devices use, things like that.
And also, we have this big problem of global warming, and the idea that if we don't do something about reducing CO2 emissions, our children are going to be living on a different planet. This is something that we collectively need to address and think about when we think about this idea of quality of life. Quality of life in Miami isn't very good if you're 10 feet underwater.
True. So here's the problem I'm having in understanding this, is that we've got China and India coming online. They're going to consume more.
There's no getting around it. People are going to buy cars, and they're going to consume more electricity. The scientists are saying we need to get between 50 to 80 percent reductions in carbon emissions by 2050.
America is growing in its consumption. ... [C]arbon capture and storage would be a major improvement, but it's 20, 30 years off; we don't know.
[There are] various scenarios, and I think that we could meet those targets if we get serious about it now. I don't think we have 15 more years, 20 years to get serious about it. I think that if we really put ourselves to it now, those targets are meetable, reachable.
But I think the question is, even if we even meet those targets, is it really enough? And I don't know if it is. And climate scientists don't know if it is. But I think it's pretty clear that we're going to be living in a different climate in this century and that climate change is happening, and it's happening fast, and we're not doing a whole heck of a lot about it right now.
You say we have to start to address it now, but there's no sign from what you're saying that, say, on the coal front, which you know as well as anybody does, that we're really doing much. We're going to build new power plants that use coal.
Right. And if we build all these new power plants, it doesn't matter if everybody in the world who has an SUV switches to a skateboard -- we're going to cook the planet. This coal is really the central issue when it comes to taming CO2 emissions.
I don't see any big change on the horizon, and I don't know what will inspire that change. When I first started thinking about this a number of years ago, I had to talk to a lot of scientists who would say, "Well, we have some major climate-related disasters, or we see some real evidence of changing climate, [and] once this scientific debate is settled, then people will start to take it seriously."
Well, you know, we've now had a record run of hot years. We have major droughts in the Southeast, in the Southwest. We've had a major hurricane that wiped out New Orleans that most climate scientists believe was at least intensified by global warming. We've had record melts ... in the Greenland ice sheets. We [have] the possibility of an ice-free North Pole as early as 2030 or even sooner. ... [W]e're seeing a lot of ... policy wonks talking about this and a lot of papers being issued, but CO2 emissions are rising and rising and rising. ...
... What is it going to take for us to actually take the actions that you're talking about?
That's the big question. I don't know what it will take. I don't know if it will take some larger climate-related catastrophe. I don't know what will galvanize people.
One evolutionary biologist I talked to said that if global warming had a mustache, it wouldn't be in this predicament. In that he meant we are conditioned to fear the kind of person, the guy coming out of the jungle, over the fence to the fort and threatening our lives. And we react to those kinds of immediate dangers.
Global warming is not like that. This is a long-term danger that is very easy to put off and put off and to say, "I'll do something about it tomorrow." And he would argue that we're not evolutionarily disposed to deal with these kinds of threats.
And yet we're a sophisticated civilization. We do think about our long-term interests.... We think about long-term investments; we think about long term in medicine and things like that; but we seem incapable of grasping what's at stake here. And perhaps it's because so much is at stake. And addressing this really means changing the sort of essential economic engine of our lives, which is fossil fuels.
You know, from the time that Edison fired up the first ... coal-fired and [electricity-]generating plant, not far from here in lower Manhattan, until now, we've built up this incredible grid. It's an incredible engineering accomplishment. So that would argue that if we put our minds to it, we could build a better grid. ... The question is whether business as it is currently set up has the right incentives to actually move us in that direction?
Right, because as of now, dumping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is free, and no businessman in their right mind is going to sacrifice short-term quarterly gains in order to deal with something that might be 50 years down the road in some hypothetical price on carbon or something like that. So, clearly, the first step obviously has to be making carbon dioxide no longer free to dump into the atmosphere, which means a real price on carbon with real certainty in the near term.
Everybody knows this, that we need to price carbon. But yet ... it doesn't look like [Congress is] going to have a bill out anytime soon. ... [But some businesses] want to see regulation so they have predictability, is the way they put it.
Right. Look, everybody, from a business point of view, in the fossil fuel industry, in the coal industry, electric power industry, automobile industry, they want to put this off as long as they can. This is a fundamental change in the way they do business. If we really get serious about carbon, about global warming, about changing our way of life, this is a big change. This is a sea change economically for these businesses. There are whole business models, especially electric power and coal industry, [that] are in jeopardy.
They want to put this off as long as possible. They want to delay, delay, delay because it means change, and change is something, especially in the electric power and coal industry, they have not embraced. ... We think of America as the land of dynamic capitalism, and [in] Silicon Valley and in many industries, it is, but not in the coal and electric power industry. This has been what was called in the beginning of the 20th century a natural monopoly, and for 100 years they've been shielded from the power of change, from the forces of change. So asking these companies and these industries to change now suddenly, quickly, is something not only do they not want to do, but something they are culturally not predisposed to doing. ...
I've talked to Mike Morris, [the CEO] at AEP [American Electric Power], and I've talked to the head of a major coal operation in China, Shenhua, second biggest coal company in the world. They both would say, "I'm ready to do this; I just need the technology, and the technology isn't here yet." So how do you answer them?
That's what they said in the 1970s when they wanted them to clean up the power plants. They said, "We would love to clean up the power plants and get rid of the pollution that's killing people, but I'm sorry, the scrubbers aren't here, and it's too expensive, and we don't know how to do it, and you'll destroy the American economy if you make us do this."
Well, Congress said: "Look, we know now that this pollution is killing people and that this is unacceptable and that there are solutions. So we are going to mandate that you do this. And if you don't, you're going to have to close down the plant or do something. We're not going to wait for you to decide when the technology is ready."
Today we have a problem. We have a planet that is being overheated rapidly. We don't have the luxury of saying to these power plants and to these coal companies, "Look, you just do your research, and when you come up with a solution, let us know, and then we'll put the regulations in." We need to deal with this now.
And if they can't come up with a way of doing this, then we'll have to go to somebody else who can. And I think that they will figure out ways of doing this. They will change if they are forced, but they are not going to do it without being pushed.
Is Congress going to push them?
That's a good question. I think that we'll have to see in the future. We're seeing some progress on some of these bills right now in Congress. How these will play out, what will happen when the next administration comes in, I don't know.
But I think that one of the things that we've learned about global warming and the changes that are coming is that the real risk is not an incremental warming of the planet; that it's going to get slowly, slowly warmer and we're all going to kind of adapt and it will be OK.
The real risk is what climate scientists talk about as nonlinear change. They know that the climate in the past has moved in these step functions, from a cooler to a warmer climate in a very short amount of time. And that's the real danger with global warming, is that things can change very quickly in our climate.
But I think the same thing is true with politics; ... that the politics of this are nonlinear and that something could change here very quickly. If this drought in the Southeast goes on for another year, what happens when Atlanta runs out of water? You have a city of what, 5 million people who are on the verge of running out of water now, and it's causing big fights between the governors in the Southeast right now.
Is that exactly related to global warming? Did it cause that? Well, no one could, of course, say that. But if you look at the broad pattern around the world in Mediterranean climates, you see droughts in Australia, Greece, the Southeast, the Southwest, and this is totally predicted in the climate models. So where this will go politically I think is very unclear. ...
Also because of Iraq, this whole notion of energy security/energy independence has become very central to the energy conversation right now. So what you see happening politically is you have two competing debates happening. One, you have the global warming side saying that you need to do something about CO2 emissions, and we need to move ahead with legislation on that front.
And then you also have the energy security/energy independence part of it, which is something that ... they talk about -- you know, Middle East oil and the war in Iraq, and we don't want to be beholden to Osama bin Laden anymore, so we need to develop independent energy sources. That is essentially political code for coal. And that means there's a lot more support right now for coal because of this whole energy independence rhetoric. And what's incredibly important and key to understanding this is that right now there is no overlap between oil and coal.
Right, we don't use oil to power up power stations that make electricity. ... Getting off oil won't have any effect.
Right. But politically it works, because Americans don't know where their energy comes from. We are ignorant about where our power comes from, where our sources of coal, fuel [are]. ... We are energy ignoramuses, so no one can parse this debate on that level.
And it also has provided a big political opening for these proposals to build coal-to-liquid plants, where there is a technology developed by the Nazis in the 1930s that can transform coal into diesel fuel -- not gasoline, but diesel fuel. And that is getting a lot of political support right now by companies like Peabody and other big mining companies.
For energy security purposes?
For energy security purposes.
What does it do for global warming?
It's a disaster for global warming. From a global warming point of view, there's twice the CO2 emissions from refining coal into diesel fuel than from refining oil. It's a major step backward. And China's doing this also because they're concerned about energy security, and they're even in worse shape, I would argue, on some of this stuff than we are.
They have less domestic oil supplies.
Right. And they actually have less domestic coal, too. But they want to use coal as a bridge. ... I was just up in Alaska a few weeks ago, and they are looking into opening up a big export business out of Alaska, because Alaska has a lot of coal that has not been exploited yet. So they're looking at coal to replace oil.
And for the coal industry, this is manna from heaven, because they would really love to get into America's gas tanks. They would really love to say, "Oh, don't worry about the Middle East," and, "I'll just fill your car up with coal." Politically this is a good sell. And for good reason, there's a lot of sentimental feeling for coal in America. Coal is the rock that built America. It was the engine of the industrial revolution. We should all be very grateful for all the miracles of modern life that coal has brought to us.
So there's a lot of sentimental feeling for this. Many of the advertisements from the coal industry have the American flag in it. They're very patriotic in [their] sort of domestic feeling, and this political rhetoric plays right into that.
So what's more important to us, energy security or clean and non-CO2-emitting energy sources? ... Isn't that the choice that's being laid out to people?
It is, but it's a false choice. If you really want to use coal to power vehicles, if that's what your real goal is, and you really want to do it in a way that works and it doesn't cook the climate at the same time, you could do that. You could use gasification coal plants that can sequester the CO2 underground, right, as we mentioned earlier, and then use plug-in hybrids, electrification of cars, use coal-fired electricity to power vehicles.
And not by putting it in the tank.
Not by putting it in the tank. Putting it into the tank is just a way of tapping into this voracious demand for oil that Americans have and the coal industry would really like to try to get a piece of. It's not a smart energy policy. It's an aggressive way for coal to expand their markets.
What about ethanol? Good solution?
Ethanol done right could potentially be a good solution in the long term. ... [W]e have a lot of corn, and most of the ethanol now is being made from corn, which has all kinds of problems. It's essentially a way of recycling natural gas.
When you burn ethanol fuel, you're still getting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, are you not?
Right, right. And a lot of fossil fuel is used in the creation and growing of corn that is used to create this ethanol. ... I don't think it's a silver bullet at all.
If it's done right, I think it could help. ... [Take,] for example, sugarcane. Ethanol from Brazil [has] much better energy density than ethanol from corn, like we have in America. But we have tariffs to keep that out because we want to support the corn growers.... It's, again, this energy security thing.
Well, right. Ethanol came on the scene not because it was a solution to CO2 emissions but because it was an energy security issue. So there's this confusion in people's minds about energy security, CO2 [and] climate change, and ethanol is all sort of mixed up in that. But you say that even if we go to production of even better forms, it's marginal improvement on the CO2 front.
Right. But there's a lot of debate about that. We don't know how far various engineering can take us on biofuels. There's a lot of interesting work being done on this. It's certainly something that's in the distance. It's not in the near term.
But this stuff called cellulosic ethanol that can be made from all kinds of different plant matter has a lot of potential if they can make it commercial and make it cheap enough, and there's a lot of money being put into that now by venture capitalists and others. So I think that there's real promise in this.
I think the problem is that it's not a solution. It's not a simple solution. It's not like, "Oh, we can just continue doing things as we're doing, and then we'll wait for cellulosic ethanol to come along in 20 years, and that will solve everything." It's not that simple.
... Are you saying that these guys that resisted so much to get the SOx [sulfur oxides] and NOx [nitrogen oxides] out of their coal, if they just pushed harder, could come up with some kind of carbon capture and sequestration plan much sooner?
Yes, I absolutely think that it could happen much sooner than it's happening. But I also think that more important than that is if there were a real significant price, and I don't mean just a $10-a-ton kind of symbolic gesture, but I mean a real aggressive thing that says, "Look, this is serious business; this is where this is going."
... It could come up, it would force the coal guys to come up with making carbon capture and storage work. It would begin to level the playing field so that other forms of power and other ways of thinking about power could compete competitively.
Right now, coal has a huge advantage because it's dumping all of this stuff into the atmosphere at no cost, and that is tilting the playing field, because we know that this is a big problem, this carbon dioxide. We know that it's going to cost future generations enormously in the price of an overheated planet. But they're not paying for that right now. And once they do begin to pay for that, then the economics change. ...
How much more are we as consumers going to have to pay for our electricity to speed that day along?
... If you look at carbon capture and storage, the estimates are 30 to 40 percent more for capturing and storing carbon from a gasification coal plant, which really translates into something like 15 or 20 percent to the consumer, because the transmission costs stay the same ... -- which, if you're on a fixed income, that can sound like a lot. But ... there are many ways of mitigating this by giving tax breaks to low-income people and things like that, and also by reducing demand. One of the things about electricity is that it's a very flexible commodity. You can reduce your demand relatively easily by turning things off, unplugging things, changing subtly without having to rethink everything about your life. ...
A 15 to 20 percent change in price, given what's at stake for the planet, is not too high of a price to pay. And I think this case needs to be made. There's no free lunch here. We're not going to solve this with waving some magic technological wand, and the solution coming and everybody being able to go on in their merry way. We have to change. And one of the things we're going to have to do is think about how we consume electricity differently. If we have to pay a little bit more, maybe we'll use a little less. ...
I talked to a manufacturer in India of SUVs. They're building out a highway system in both countries, India and China, and they're going to put SUVs on them, just as we have.
Right. And he'll make a lot of money. And, you know, he's a guy who sells SUVs, so of course that's his vision. But you asked from a climate point of view and from a planet point of view. I think it's obvious that if China and India and the developing world [do] what we did, there's no chance. The really crucial thing is, ... can they go to a different kind of development?
There's this thing called the Kuznets Curve -- the economists talk about it -- about how as countries get richer, they become cleaner and more concerned about environmental and public health issues and things like that. The question is, how quickly can these developing nations get up this curve? Can they leapfrog? Instead of building a coal plant a week in China for the next 20 years, can they leapfrog to some other way of generating power? Can they get solar, wind? Can they think differently about this, or do they just sort of march on in the same way that we've been going?
There seems to be no sign that they're doing anything different than emulating our lifestyle.
Well, I would disagree. Obviously on one level, true. I've been there; I've seen the coal plants; I know they're going up everywhere. But I also think that they're conscious, at least in my experience, that they need to think about things differently and that they need to get off this as soon as they can. ... [T]hey have made a lot of their fuel-economy standards. There's a lot of things that they've done that are better than what we have done. And I think that putting all of this burden on them is unfair. We're the ones who have loaded up the atmosphere -- "we" meaning the West -- with carbon dioxide.
We're the richest nation in the world, who has all the technological sophistication to really deal with this. The fact that we're not doing it -- how can we look at the Chinese or India and say they need to be doing this? We're the ones who carry the burden right now, and we're the ones where the real responsibility is, not the developing world.
... The seventh richest man in China is a solar entrepreneur, a company called Suntech. From my experience in talking to these people, they understand the economic opportunity. ... [T]hey understand, as many people are beginning to understand in America, what an enormous financial and economic boom there is to be had in essentially replacing our energy infrastructure with something else. Whatever that will be, no one knows yet. No one knows how it will play out.
But it's clear that the old fossil fuel, ... burn-as-much-as-you-can model that we followed through the 20th century is not going to work in the 21st century. What will replace that is not clear yet. But whatever it is, someone's going to make a lot of money out of it. And that's what is, I think, driving the people I talked to in China.
... Can the capitalist model that requires growth quarter after quarter after quarter survive on less consumption?
I think if you're the head of a coal company, it can't. I think it depends on which part of it you're looking at. We've seen in the history of technology a lot of what they call creative destruction. ... If you were running ocean liners at the moment when airliners became commercially feasible to fly across the Atlantic, you went out of business. ... I think that that's the danger with fossil fuels, the coal guys, is they could be on the wrong side of the change. ...
[W]e're talking about reinventing the infrastructure of modern life. We are talking about reinventing the fossil fuel industry. The fossil fuels are what powered what we think of as modern life. It would not have happened without it. They are going away, or getting so expensive, prohibitive, from a climate point of view, that we have to think about another way of doing this. ...
If we continue with our head in the sand and in a kind of denial about this, in thinking that we can just muddle our way through and that we can just continue consuming and consuming and consuming, we're going to end up basically in the situation like Atlanta is in today, which is like, "Oh, my God, we're going to run out of water in 60 days. We have 5 million people here. What are we going to do?" The whole planet could be in that essential kind of a position, and that's not somewhere we want to be.
I just spent a couple of weeks with Jim Lovelock, who's a ... very eminent scientist who first understood the problems with the ozone hole and things like that. He also believes that there will be maybe a billion more people on the planet in 2100, and that the population is the key issue, and that, as he puts it, "Nature has a way of dealing with overpopulation" --
That's something nobody really wants to talk about, population.
They don't want to talk about it. It's interesting, because it comes up all the time now. Even more than just two years ago, people are really starting to understand how central this is to all these problems that we're talking about.
In other words, there are limits.
Right. Because clearly, if there were a billion people on the planet, it wouldn't matter if we all had 15,000-foot places in Atlanta and drove SUVs and burned all the coal. It wouldn't matter. But we don't. We have almost 7 billion, and we're heading to 9 billion. So as the population grows, all of these issues become much more consequential. ...