"Is the Biden-Obama position on clean ‘clean coal’ a mistake?"
Today, my inbox is bombarded with emails from enviros and clean energy advocates, some of whom say that Biden’s (and Obama’s) support of clean coal is “abysmal, absolutely abysmal.” I could not disagree more.
I have this argument with enviros all the time. Tuesday, I argued the point with Ted Glick, the national coordinator of the US Climate Emergency Council on Earthbeat radio. You can listen to the audio here.
Yes, I think it is mistake to use the term “clean coal” — especially since it is only in the last few years that many people (but not all) have begun to use it as a synonym for coal with carbon capture and storage (CCS). Yes, you can’t make coal “clean” in any meaningful sense of the word, which is why I prefer using “coal with CCS.” And yes, I have spelled out my views in detail that coal with CCS is almost certainly not going to be a practical and affordable climate solution for the next two decades (see “Is coal with carbon capture and storage a core climate solution?“), which happens to be the same conclusion of a new McKinsey report.
That said, the nation and the world are in a very desperate situation. To avoid 5°C or more warming this century, to avoid ruining the health and well-being of the next 50 generations, we must replace most of the world’s energy system in the next few decades with carbon free technology while working with developing countries to ensure they build their economy primarily around carbon free technology — see “Is 450 ppm (or less) politically possible? Part 2: The Solution.” And then in the second half of the century, we’re going to have to replace all of the remaining dirty technology with carbon-free technology.
Indeed, if you believe the nation’s top climate scientist, James Hansen, who has arguably been right longer about the climate than anyone else, then our goal must be to get atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide back below current levels — and that means net global carbon emissions from humans (including deforestation) need to be near zero or below zero by 2100 (see “Hansen (et al) must read: Get back to 350 ppm or risk an ice-free planet“). If you want to get back below 350 ppm, the world would need to begin large-scale deployment of carbon-negative technology and energy systems that pull carbon out of the air and put it somewhere.
That’s why I believe it is utterly immoral not to aggressively pursue the development of any plausible low-carbon or zero-carbon technology that has the potential for large scale (several hundred gigawatt) deployment. And serious analysis, like McKinsey’s, says that coal with CCS could be economical by 2030. Moreover, a CCS power plant that runs on coal blended with cellulosic biomass is one of the most plausible carbon-negative forms of electricity you can imagine. So we must pursue the development of coal with CCS, which is what Obama and Biden and virtually every other energy/climate policymaker and analyst mean when they use the term.
Whether a given carbon-free technology should ultimately be the focus of large-scale deployment efforts depends mostly on its cost, and we simply don’t know whether clean coal will make the cut. All we know today is that it has a very large hurdle to jump, as I’ve argued. Certainly our focus for the next two decades needs to be on the massively scalable carbon-free technologies that are cost-effective now or are in the process of becoming so — efficiency, wind, solar PV, and solar baseload (see “Is 450 ppm possible? Part 5: Old coal’s out, can’t wait for new nukes, so what do we do NOW?“).
As Obama has said famously said, a president needs to be able to do more than one thing at a time. To solve the climate problem, we must massively deploy the current generation of clean tech while developing the next generation. And that is his energy policy (see “Breaking news — A real energy plan for America: Efficiency now, 10% renewables by 2012, and one million plug-in hybrids by 2015“).
So what precisely was so abysmal about what Biden said Thursday night. Let’s look at the transcript of everything he said on energy, climate and clean coal:
BIDEN: Well, I think it is manmade. I think it’s clearly manmade. And, look, this probably explains the biggest fundamental difference between John McCain and Barack Obama and Sarah Palin and Joe Biden — Gov. Palin and Joe Biden.
If you don’t understand what the cause is, it’s virtually impossible to come up with a solution. We know what the cause is. The cause is manmade. That’s the cause. That’s why the polar icecap is melting.
Now, let’s look at the facts. We have 3 percent of the world’s oil reserves. We consume 25 percent of the oil in the world. John McCain has voted 20 times in the last decade-and-a-half against funding alternative energy sources, clean energy sources, wind, solar, biofuels.
The way in which we can stop the greenhouse gases from emitting. We believe — Barack Obama believes by investing in clean coal and safe nuclear, we can not only create jobs in wind and solar here in the United States, we can export it.
China is building one to three new coal-fired plants burning dirty coal per week. It’s polluting not only the atmosphere but the West Coast of the United States. We should export the technology by investing in clean coal technology.
We should be creating jobs. John McCain has voted 20 times against funding alternative energy sources and thinks, I guess, the only answer is drill, drill, drill. Drill we must, but it will take 10 years for one drop of oil to come out of any of the wells that are going to begun to be drilled.
In the meantime, we’re all going to be in real trouble.
IFILL: Let me clear something up, Sen. McCain has said he supports caps on carbon emissions. Sen. Obama has said he supports clean coal technology, which I don’t believe you’ve always supported.
BIDEN: I have always supported it. That’s a fact….
IFILL: OK. And on the clean coal issue?
BIDEN: Absolutely. Absolutely we do. We call for setting hard targets, number one…
IFILL: Clean coal.
BIDEN: Oh, I’m sorry.
IFILL: On clean coal.
BIDEN: Oh, on clean coal. My record, just take a look at the record. My record for 25 years has supported clean coal technology. A comment made in a rope line was taken out of context. I was talking about exporting that technology to China so when they burn their dirty coal, it won’t be as dirty, it will be clean.
But here’s the bottom line, Gwen: How do we deal with global warming with continued addition to carbon emissions? And if the only answer you have is oil, and John — and the governor says John is for everything.
Well, why did John vote 20 times? Maybe he’s for everything as long as it’s not helped forward by the government. Maybe he’s for everything if the free market takes care of it. I don’t know. But he voted 20 times against funding alternative energy sources.
Not only don’t I find anything troubling whatsoever about his remarks, I think they are dead on. He is absolutely correct about China. More important, he and Obama “call for setting hard targets” on carbon, including an 80% emissions cut by 2050, which is what ensures that any clean coal that gets deployed does in fact contribute to reducing carbon emissions (see “Obama’s excellent energy and climate plan“).
What precisely does Obama’s energy plan say about what kind of investment he and Biden would make in clean coal? Here is every mention in his energy plan:
Invest In A Clean Energy Economy and Help Create 5 Million New Green Jobs. Barack Obama and Joe Biden will strategically invest $150 billion over 10 years to accelerate the commercialization of plug”in hybrids, promote development of commercial scale renewable energy, encourage energy efficiency, invest in low emissions coal plants, advance the next generation of biofuels and fuel infrastructure, and begin transition to a new digital electricity grid. The plan will also invest in America’s highly”skilled manufacturing workforce and manufacturing centers to ensure that American workers have the skills and tools they need to pioneer the green technologies that will be in high demand throughout the world. All together these investments will help the private sector create 5 million new green jobs, good jobs that cannot be outsourced….
Develop and Deploy Clean Coal Technology. Carbon capture and storage technologies hold enormous potential to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions as we power our economy with domestically produced and secure energy. As a U.S. Senator, Obama has worked tirelessly to ensure that clean coal technology becomes commercialized. An Obama administration will provide incentives to accelerate private sector investment in commercial scale zero”carbon coal facilities. In order to maximize the speed with which we advance this critical technology, Barack Obama and Joe Biden will instruct DOE to enter into public private partnerships to develop 5 “first”of”a”kind” commercial scale coal”fired plants with carbon capture and sequestration.
That’s it. He has committed to pursue R&D and then have 5 commercial scale pilot plants. Almost everything else in this detailed 8-page plan focuses on renewables and energy efficiency. And his climate plan is equally detailed about his commitment to sharp reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.
Those who obsess over statements by Obama and Biden on clean coal are missing the forest for
the trees the bark.