By Peter Montague of Rachel’s Democracy & Health News
I have not always been a fan of Al Gore. But that's changing.
Last week, former Vice-President Gore put the kibosh on any remaining dreams of "clean coal." "Clean coal" is the coal industry's wishful label for a technology that does not exist -- an effective, affordable filter to remove the global-warming gas, carbon dioxide (CO2), from burning coal, compress the CO2 into a liquid, and pump it a mile underground, hoping it will stay there forever.
Pound for pound, coal produces far more global-warming gas than any other fuel. As awareness of climate chaos grows, the coal industry is hearing a chorus of blame -- all of it well-deserved -- for wrecking the planet. "Clean coal" is their public relations response to the problem. If "clean coal" does not become workable on a large scale soon, the coal industry will be finished.
But let's get back to Al Gore.
Last week Vice-President Gore issued a profound challenge to the
nation: "Today I challenge our nation to commit to producing 100
percent of our electricity from renewable energy and truly clean
carbon-free sources within 10 years," he said.
In a 27-minute speech, Gore explained,
I don't remember a time in our country when so many things seemed to be going so wrong simultaneously. Our economy is in terrible shape and getting worse, gasoline prices are increasing dramatically, and so are electricity rates. Jobs are being outsourced. Home mortgages are in trouble. Banks, automobile companies and other institutions we depend upon are under growing pressure. Distinguished senior business leaders are telling us that this is just the beginning unless we find the courage to make some major changes quickly....
He summarized the root cause: We're borrowing money from China to buy oil from the Persian Gulf to burn it in ways that destroy the planet. Every bit of that's got to change....
And he said, In my search for genuinely effective answers to the
climate crisis, I have held a series of "solutions summits" with
engineers, scientists, and CEOs. In those discussions, one thing has become abundantly clear: when you connect the dots, it turns out that the real solutions to the climate crisis are the very same measures needed to renew our economy and escape the trap of ever-rising energy prices. Moreover, they are also the very same solutions we need to guarantee our national security without having to go to war in the Persian Gulf....
And he said,
I for one do not believe our country can withstand 10 more years of the status quo. Our families cannot stand 10 more years of gas price increases. Our workers cannot stand 10 more years of job losses and outsourcing of factories. Our economy cannot stand 10 more years of sending $2 billion every 24 hours to foreign countries for oil. And our soldiers and their families cannot take another 10 years of repeated troop deployments to dangerous regions that just happen to have large oil supplies.
You can listen to Gore's speech here and you can read his prepared remarks here. The speech was a real bell-ringer, and I urge you to watch and listen to it yourself. You won't be disappointed. The man has a vision -- an inspirational vision. He also has a real recognition of what's at stake:
The survival of the United States of America as we know it is at risk. And even more... the future of human civilization is at stake, he said.
In laying out his energy challenge, Gore did mention the coal
industry. He spoke of shutting it down:
For example, we must recognize those who have toiled in dangerous conditions to bring us our present energy supply. We should guarantee good jobs in the fresh air and sunshine for any coal miner displaced by impacts on the coal industry. Every single one of them.
In his speech, Gore did not mention "clean coal."
However, in an interview with Katie Couric on CBS the following day, he was asked about "clean coal" and he responded as follows:
Couric: Do you think clean coal is an oxymoron?
Gore: There's no such thing as clean coal. It's non-existent.
Theoretically, it might be possible, many years from now, to come up with a way to clean it as it's burnt. But there's not a single
demonstration project in the United States. They're not doing
anything... to put substance... to the slogan, "clean coal." Clean
coal doesn't exist.
Couric: Doesn't it take as much energy to produce it as it
would to burn coal? I mean, isn't that the argument against it, the whole process is, I mean, we're not gonna get into great detail here. But, is, that's my understanding, anyway.
Gore: One of the reasons they have been slow to install these
systems for capturing the CO2 when the coal is burnt is that it's
expensive. But with more work and some point in the future, after that work is done, it may be possible. But the burden should be on those who are burning it to show that it can be clean. It's not now. And just to say it's clean, that's deceptive." [Emphasis added.]
If your goal is 100% carbon-free electricity within 10 years, coal is not in the picture. The coal industry will have to be shut down, and new jobs created for its workers. This commitment to the combined workforce of the coal and the coal-based electric power industries must be real and backed with substantial sums of money and a detailed long-term plan. Otherwise, it will be a cruel hoax. We must never allow Al Gore to renege on his promise to the working men and women whose jobs his plan would eliminate.
Understandably, the coal industry and its friends are trying to spin
Gore's speech as an endorsement of so-called "clean coal." For
example, Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist, wrote July 20, "Mr. Gore proposed dramatically improving our national electricity grid and energy efficiency, while investing massively in clean solar, wind, geothermal and carbon-sequestered coal technologies that we know can work but just need to scale." [Emphasis added.]
No. In his speech, Gore did not say we know carbon-sequestered
coal technologies can work and just need to be scaled up. Speaking the next day to Katie Couric, he said clearly that "clean coal" does not exist and, he said, to claim it exists is "deceptive." Furthermore, he said it is up to the coal and electric power industries to prove that "clean coal" technologies can be invented and then operated safely. If carbon storage were to occur at all, it would occur "some time in the future," he said. "Clean coal" is not just a matter of scaling up something that already exists and "we know works," as Thomas Friedman falsely asserts.
Most importantly, something that might occur "some time in the future" is not going to be important in any plan to "produce 100 percent of our electricity from renewable energy and truly clean carbon-free sources within 10 years."
With his bold challenge, Al Gore has permanently altered the terms of the energy debate. In the past, the debate has always started with, "We're going to be using coal for the next 50 to 100 years, so even though it's the dirtest fuel imaginable, let's assume we can find a way to live with it."
This has been the position of the coal industry (understandably) and of all its environmentalist supporters (far less understandably): the Clean Air Task Force, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Environmental Defense Fund, the Union of Concerned Scientists (and see this), the Apollo Alliance, the Izaak Walton League, the National Wildlife Federation, the Nature Conservancy (both of which endorse the carbon storage plans of the Climate Action Partnership, which are discussed here),the World Resources Institute, the Pew Center on Climate Change, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, among others.
These groups are all thinking small and timid, just the way the coal and oil industries want them to think. Some of them -- most notably the Clean Air Task Force and Natural Resources Defense Council -- are even being paid large sums to try to persuade us all to think in that same small way. And they are running their timid-think campaigns partly with coal industry money lightly laundered through charitable foundations (Doris Duke Foundation and Joyce Foundation, in particular).
But Al Gore has given the lie to these propagandists for the coal
industry who say we are destined to rely on coal for the next 50 or 100 years: "Today I challenge our nation to commit to producing 100 percent of our electricity from renewable energy and truly clean carbon-free sources within 10 years," Gore said. Bold. Visionary. Inspiring. Transformative. All the things mainstream U.S. environmentalists no longer are.
Yes, Gore's plan would be expensive. It would cost $1.5 to $3 trillion dollars. In other words, it would cost almost as much as the Iraq war. It would cost almost as much as building all the coal plants and oil-drilling platforms that the coal and oil industries want us to believe we cannot live without (at least until the coal and oil are all gone). But after we make the initial large investment in solar, wind, and geothermal, the fuel is free. Which is precisely why the coal and oil industries oppose renewable energy and will do their best to derail Al Gore's bold challenge.
Al Gore has issued a grand invitation -- comparable to, but even more important than, President Kennedy's impossible challenge to the nation May 25, 1961, to put a human on the moon within a decade, which we accomplished just 8 years later on July 20, 1969.
No doubt the American people are up to meeting Gore's challenge. But are Congress and the nation's civil-sector "leaders" -- including the nation's mainstream environmentalists -- up to it? It's an open question.
 In 1993 I was arrested across from the White House and jailed
briefly with a group of activists chained to a school bus chanting,
"Al Gore - read your book" because Mr. Gore had clearly reneged on the principles he had espoused in Earth in the Balance. The issue at that moment was the massive - and massively corrupt and illegal - WTI hazardous waste incinerator in East Liverpool, Ohio, which Gore had promised would never get a license to operate if he and Bill Clinton were elected. But they were elected, and their EPA promptly licensed WTI to spew toxicants into a grammar school that was located on a bluff level with the top of the WTI smokestack and only 1100 feet downwind. The WTI fight still goes on today, led by the great activist Alonzo Spencer, his Ohio and West Virginia anti-incineration colleagues, and his friends at the Center for Health, Environment and Justice in Falls Church, Va. Read more about the WTI fight and Al Gore's apostasy here, here, here, and here.