Jay Rockefeller At Treasury Secretary Hearing: ‘Clean Coal Is Dirty’

During Wednesday’s Senate Finance Committee confirmation hearing of Timothy Geithner for Secretary of Treasury, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) delivered a rambling discourse on the importance of investing in technology to reduce the global warming emissions of coal power. Admitting the topic was “off the beaten path,” he advocated for more federal support for coal research while reiterating the unavoidable environmental and health problems of using coal:

Coal is dirty, “clean coal” is dirty.

Watch it:

Rockefeller’s understanding of “American electricity situation” seemed hazy. Despite his advocacy of spending “a lot of money” on coal research projects, he inaccurately summarized the state of such technology. He claimed that Dr. John Holdren, President Obama’s appointee to the Office of Science and Technology Policy, told him that “there are already at work in this country at least two power plants producing electricity from coal that come in at a carbon reduction rate which is right in the middle of where nuclear power is now.” This is not the case. There are no coal-fired power plants in the United States that store any significant carbon emissions using carbon capture and sequestration technology (CCS), let alone nearly all carbon emissions. Clean coal does not exist.

Rockefeller decries ethanol as “waste of time” and a “waste of money,” despite the fact that ethanol is used as a transportation fuel, not for electricity production. He also repeatedly says that nuclear energy is “considered clean,” which is true only if you ask nuclear industry lobbyists.

Finally, Rockefeller asked Geithner “why is that we are not talking” about putting CCS research in the economic recovery package. This question is odd, because the package allocates $2.4 billion to carbon capture and sequestration research — more than the $2 billion allocated to all other non-automotive energy efficiency and renewable energy research projects combined.


ROCKEFELLER: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Thank you, Mr. Geithner. I look forward to supporting your nomination.

I’m going to ask you something which is off the beaten path, but which has not been asked and therefore it needs to be asked, because we are talking about spending money and recovery and stimulus and the rest of it. If you have, if you look at the American electricity situation, you make obviously the first conclusion: If you don’t have electricity running, nothing works, including any of your computers. So, you look at where we are now. We have about 7% coming from so-called green production, all of which I favor. You have wind, solar, biofuels, so you know all of that, all of that, you add all that up. Seven, 8%. You add on nuclear, which has its own particular problems. Nuclear per se doesn’t bother me, but the concept of a Tomahawk right down the cooling tower bothers me greatly, in spite of how many steel rims you put around to protect it. That’s about 20%. That’s considered clean. That’s considered clean.

I spent some time talking to some people that have been appointed by our new president and he pointed out that — this one particular person, Office of Science and Technology Policy — that there are already at work in this country at least two power plants producing electricity from coal that come in at a carbon reduction rate which is right in the middle of where nuclear power is now — that nuclear power doesn’t produce carbon dioxide but in other words the emission rate, global warming rate is the same.

I then go on to the fact that, you know — I apologize to the ranking member but I’ve always considered ethanol a waste of time for 15, 20 years and a waste of money. And on its way out. And then I’m looking for the great new discoveries that will take the place of this 51% that is now done by what is obviously dirty, and that is coal.

Coal is dirty, clean coal is dirty.

There can be no discussion of the use of coal on a long-term basis unless it’s done, unless we bring in engineers from around the world and spend a lot of money to get them to be able to reduce it to wherever these two plants already are. Maybe we can just use their technology and then have to pay because of the spike of the price for those who have to pay that electricity bill and can’t afford to do so until competition begins to level things out.

There is no way to talk about a stimulus package, a healthy America, a functioning American economy where you have a 51% gap in the pie because we decide, as I think Congress may try to do — the president has not been friendly towards clean coal. He mentions it, whenever he does I put it in my mind so much that I forget that he hasn’t said it very often — and it isn’t a very friendly administration that way. One person who likes this idea incidentally is Larry Summers, but don’t try it on Carol Browner.

So, we have this situation where you cannot run a country unless you find a substitute for what is now currently not clean coal. Nobody has found it. We have a 400 year supply in this country of coal and it doesn’t make much sense to me not to try to use American ingenuity, international ingenuity to try to reduce the carbon emissions to approximately where nuclear power is, whatever that is. It’s considered clean, so therefore it’s got to be pretty good, five, 6%, whatever.

And so my question to you, sir, is why is it that we are not talking about putting this in the package? Spending the money to answer what to me is overwhelmingly the largest — solve all the bank problems you want, executives paid fairly, regulate properly — won’t make any difference if you don’t have electricity.

GEITHNER: Senator, I found you compelling on this in private and as compelling in public on this basic question and if confirmed I expect to be part of the team of people the president has brought in to help figure out a way to put in place an energy policy for the country that will meet not just the objectives you laid out, but the broader imperative of using energy more efficiently in a way that’s less damaging to the environment. I think you’re right that it’s going to be hard to do, complicated to do. The stimulus package now moving through the Congress has changed as it’s moved through. We are open to suggestions how to make that package most . . .

ROCKEFELLER: You just got one.

GEITHNER: . . . and I hear your suggestion, and I know you’ve made it to others, and I’ll try to make sure it gets a fair and considered hearing.


At West Virginia Blue, Clem Guttata notes Rockefeller’s claim of a 400-year supply of coal:

Talking about upping the ante. Not even the coal companies try to sell a 400 year pipe dream. Eighteen months ago a government report said we were down to 100 year supply, not the then often touted 250 year supply. Even then, the report was criticized as unrealistically assuming no growth in coal consumption. More likely, we are down to 20-40 years of coal reserves, if that.

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