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Coal debate heats up Graham Chapel

| Senior News Editor

Correction appended below

Matt Mitgang

Bruce Nilles, left, Director of the Beyond Coal Campaign for the Sierra Club debates Fred Palmer, right, Senior Vice President of Government Relations for Peabody Energy, in the Great Coal Debate on Tuesday in Graham Chapel. Nilles presented the negative aspects of coal and its impact on greenhouse gases, while Palmer discussed the prevalence of coal usage and green coal.

An old-time cowboy and a suave Washington lobbyist faced off in Graham Chapel Tuesday to discuss the future of coal.

The Great Coal Debate, hosted by Student Union and organized by the Washington University Climate Justice Alliance, brought two opposing men into the same debate. Fred Palmer, the senior vice president of government relations at Peabody Energy, sported black cowboy boots to go up against Bruce Nilles, the director of the Beyond Coal Campaign for the Sierra Club.

Brian Walsh, the writer of Time’s “Growing Green” column, moderated the debate.

Peabody Energy is the largest private-sector coal company in the world. It produces coal to fuel 10 percent of the United States’ electricity generation and 2 percent of electricity generation worldwide. The CEO of Peabody Energy serves on Wash. U.’s board of trustees, alongside the CEO of Arch Coal, a coal mining and processing company.

Palmer started off the debate, giving a presentation about the necessity of coal.

He noted that it cheaply fuels American homes and developed countries worldwide.

“Coal will now be our path to greater prosperity, industrialization, a clear environment and a source of low-carbon energy for both the United States and the world in what we call green coal,” Palmer said.

Palmer has great hopes for the concept of “green coal,” which produces no emissions. This coal has not yet been produced.

Palmer stressed that coal is what brings people electricity and civilization, repeating that coal leads to “more people, living longer, living better,” and showing a chart correlating use of coal in various countries with life expectancy and education.

“This is a reality in Africa,” Palmer said, showing a picture of Africans in the middle of a plain carrying presumably food or resources on their backs, in “abject poverty and living off the land.”

Palmer expects that coal use will increase significantly over the next 30 years, and so the goal should be to find a way to get coal’s emissions down to near zero.

Palmer also explained that people look at carbon dioxide wrongly and that they should look at it as a product and not a pollutant.

“We’re good at focusing on the negatives [of coal], not the positives,” Palmer said.

He also pointed out that coal is used globally and is not solely a resource in the United States. China’s and India’s coal use is rapidly growing, and Palmer promoted the idea of “green coal” again to fit the situation.

Nilles’ presentation differed in that it focused on the negatives of coal and the lack of progress made on so-called “clean” or “green coal.” He started off stating that 81 percent of all greenhouse emissions come from coal, even though it accounts for less than 50 percent of electricity.

“This promise of capturing carbon is simply a promise that hasn’t been realized,” Nilles said.

Not only have coal companies not lived up to their promises, but also, their facilities are not kept up to date. Nilles said that about 70 percent of coal-processing plants were built before or around 1980 and have not been changed to account for new pollution controls.

He also drew the audience’s attention to the problems of soot and smog around coal plants, touting $750 million in health care costs in St. Louis alone directly related to the three coal processing plants in the city.

Their pollution is rampant, and, in addition to hurting humans, hurts the environment as a whole.

“There is no industry that does a better job of creating regulatory loopholes,” Nilles said.

Nilles also thought that the economic benefits touted by coal companies is a farce and that more jobs could be created in new “green energy” (not coal) sectors.

After each speaker made his 20-minute presentation and the moderator asked one question, the floor was opened to questions.

When asked if he believed in global warming, Palmer responded that Peabody had agreed to the President’s proposal of an 80-percent reduction of emissions by 2050.

“We recognize the concerns people have regarding climate change,” Palmer said. “We do think there is too much emphasis on computer model projections in the future and not enough emphasis on people now and our lifestyles and our wealth and our health now and the health of our kids now.”

This article has been updated to reflect the following correction
An earlier version of this article mistakenly attributed a quote about global warming to Bruce Nilles; in fact, the quote (which begins “We recognize…”) was said by Fred Palmer. Student Life regrets the error.

  • Someone Who Breathes

    If CO2 is really so bad, why do we let people breathe? They emit CO2, and there are almost 7 billion people! It’s because there are trade-offs, and people would rather breathe.

    Yes coal is dirty, but it does a lot more good in this world than it does harm. Trust me, you do not want to all of a sudden go no coal. You liberal environmentalists wouldn’t be able to blog to the world because you wouldn’t have the electricity to power your computer. Eventually (when people stop being so scared of nuclear power) we will have a better alternative. Until then, work with what we’ve got.

  • Andy Olsen

    Thanks for the report and pointing out the so-called “green coal” does not exist.

    If Peabody thinks that CO2 is a product then they could always rename themselves as Peabody CO2. Just a thought. That’s where their coal goes, into our atmosphere as CO2.

  • physics-doc

    They don’t teach this in high school, or in college but coal is the reason we have a civilization. As a former envioronmental activist, I have sadly become skeptical about human based carbon emission affecting our climate. It seems big banks and Al Gore are making tons on their carbon trading. That debate aside coal for better or worse is the main source of electric power in the world, and whether we like it or not will be for years to come.
    Other than nuclear energy, there are no other viable renewable sources that can take the place of coal. Solar, wind and geothermal are endorsed by the Sierra Club, but they are far from being able to replace coal.
    Concentrating on reducing coal’s emission is a
    worthy cause.

  • The first paragraph of this article states, “An old-time cowboy and a suave Washington lobbyist faced off in Graham Chapel Tuesday to discuss the future of coal.”

    Bruce Nilles is not a Washington lobbyist, he is the director of Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, and leads the grassroots movement to shift our energy away from coal. It is Fred Palmer who is Peabody Energy’s “suave Washington lobbyist.”

  • I was one of the demonstrators at the People’s Settlement action on the steps of Peabody Energy, chanting “Peabody Energy, Criminal Identity” from a chant sheet, as we entertained passersby with a Die-In and a Green Gorilla. We seem to have attracted their attention.

    Please note, however, that the name of the company is Peabody ENERGY, not Peabody COAL. This suggests that, whatever they may say in public about “Clean Coal” or “Green Coal” or “Black is the New Green,” this company is positioning itself for a post-coal future.

    Perhaps we should have chanted, “Peabody Coal, Criminal Identity, Peabody ENERGY, POST-criminal identity.” That’s a bit complicated and it does not rhyme so well, but it may be closer to the truth.

    Lecturer Dr. Jerome Bauer
    –with at least 10,000 hours of experience on the WashU faculty, and at least as much right to a voice and some respect as any tenured professor or any Trustee with a bag of money
    –Acting Chair, Washington University Program in Religious Studies, 2002-2003
    (I may have been “point person” but I did the work of Acting Chair, and I still have letters addressing me as such).