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.

Sign up for the email edition

Stay up to date with everything happening at Washington University and beyond.