Obama and Coal

Future Hope column, January 19, 2009

By Ted Glick

“We must halt all new coal plants now, and we must begin shutting down existing ones as soon as possible. Otherwise we should face up to the truth—as a world, we are driving off the edge of a cliff with the accelerator pressed to the floor. Power Past Coal is the wake-up call we need to put on the brakes.” -James Hansen, NASA climate scientist

“President-elect Obama’s goal of reducing emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 falls short of the response needed by world leaders to meet the challenge of reducing emissions to levels that will actually spare us the worst effects of climate change.”
-Rajendra Pachauri, Chair, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

Yesterday morning, in my email inbox, I discovered “Barack’s Personal Message,” a YouTube video. It was an interesting message. In it he announced his plans to set up “Organizing for America,” a new group to “continue building the movement” that coalesced around his Presidential candidacy. He called upon people—“volunteers, grassroots leaders and ordinary citizens”–to “fight for change in your communities.” He listed four issues as priorities: the economic crisis, “ending the war in Iraq,” “affordable health care for all,” and “new sources of energy to power our economy and protect our environment.”

This is a good thing, no question about it. I just hope that many of those who are active in this effort don’t just support whatever become Obama’s specific policy positions but, instead, critically determine what they believe are the best ways to achieve the commonly-shared, general objectives. History is full of examples of the serious problems that usually emerge when a political organization is controlled and dominated by one individual, even, or maybe especially, someone as charismatic, intelligent and articulate as Barack Obama.

I’ll be attending an inauguration party tomorrow, and I’m glad we’ve got Obama rather than McCain, for sure. I hope that Obama really does make a serious effort to follow through on his commitment to “change Washington,” although many of his cabinet appointments make me skeptical. There’s no question but that the only way Washington will ever change, under Obama or someone else in the future, is through the emergence of a well-organized grassroots movement with enough power and political independence to take on the banking establishment and the military-industrial-fossil fuel complex.

We’ve already seen some of the Obama policy weaknesses. His virtual silence on the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza caused by Israel’s wildly disproportionate response to Hamas missiles is one of them. And at the confirmation hearings in D.C. for Energy Secretary-designate Steven Chu and EPA-head Lisa Jackson, there were problematic comments made by both about dirty and destructive coal, an energy source that has no place in a clean energy future. Here’s what they said:

Chu: “I am optimistic we can figure out how to use those resources in a clean way. I’m very hopeful that this will occur and I think that we will be using that great natural resource.”

Jackson: “Coal is a vital resource in this country. It is right now the source of generation of about 50 percent of our power. And I think that it is also important for us to say in the same sentence that it is — the emissions from coal-fired power plants are — the largest contributor to global warming emissions. So we have to face square-shouldered the future and the issues of coal and then move American ingenuity towards addressing them.”

Unfortunately, when Jackson talks about “American ingenuity,” she means the process of capturing carbon and putting it under the ground. It’s unfortunate because this carbon capture and sequestration process is nowhere near being commercially viable for many years, and it’s very unlikely it ever will be. There are huge questions about if it is safe to put so much liquefied CO2 in the ground. There is no question, none at all, that a rapid shift to serious efficiency and renewables is a much, much better plan.

We should be clear: the support for coal from politicians who are otherwise liberal- or progressive-minded is primarily a political response. It’s because they’re afraid of being targeted by the coal lobby, or because they don’t want to look like they’re unconcerned about the relatively small number of coal mining jobs—approximately 83,000, according to the Energy Information Administration—that would be threatened by a shift to renewables and efficiency.
83,000! A well-conceived plan for a just transition away from coal would create several times this many jobs in the affected coal-mining areas, and it would mean an end to mountaintop removal, coal ash spills like the one which just devastated vast areas of Tennessee and all of the other negative impacts of the coal cycle.

Fortunately, there are already “volunteers, grassroots leaders and ordinary citizens” in those coal-mining areas who have been at work for years to power past coal to a genuinely clean energy future. A number of them have joined together to form the Alliance for Appalachia , a collaboration of thirteen organizations in Central Appalachia working to bring an end to the devastating coal mining technique known as mountaintop removal, to promote a just and sustainable economy and to advance toward a clean, renewable energy future in the region.

A week after the November elections, the Alliance organized a meeting in Charleston, WV attended by 25 organizations, state, regional and national, to figure out how to advance this agenda. It was a very positive meeting, out of which emerged a plan to launch a campaign, 100 Days to Power Past Coal, on January 21st, the day after the inauguration. Throughout the first 100 days of the Obama administration, on as many of those days as possible, hopefully all of them, people and groups around the country are urged to join or initiate an action which highlights the power past coal message.

There are already a score of actions scheduled on the Power Past Coal website, http://www.powerpastcoal.org. The campaign will kick off with a national call-in day to the White House—202-456-1111—this Wednesday, January 21st, urging Obama to support a moratorium on any new coal plants. A major action in the middle of the 100 days will take place on March 2nd when several thousand people surround a coal plant in downtown Washington, D.C. that provides power to the U.S. Capitol in an act of nonviolent civil disobedience.

It is critical, absolutely critical, that the climate movement hit the ground running on January 21st. We already know from statements Obama made during his campaign and statements made by his nominees for Energy Secretary and EPA director that he’s not where he needs to be on the huge issue of dirty coal. There are far too many Senators and Congresspeople, Republicans and Democrats, who don’t get it either. Let’s use the Power Past Coal campaign to send a powerful, building message that they can’t ignore.

Ted Glick is the Policy Director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network (http://www.chesapeakeclimate.org). Past Future Hope columns can be accessed at http://www.tedglick.com.