In early April, the excellent investigative journalism show NOW on PBS ran an episode called “Can Coal be Earth-Friendly?

In conjunction with the episode, NOW hosted an online debate between me and Joe Lucas, spokesflack for the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE). We were given a series of five questions. We each answered the questions, and were each given an opportunity to rebut the other’s answers.

When I received Lucas’s answers, I responded to them. When he received mine, he … ran off like a pansy. I don’t think he likes arguing with people who know what they’re talking about and have more than a 30 second soundbite with which to respond.

The debate is reprinted below, with NOW’s kind permission.

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Is there such as thing as “clean coal”?

Joe Lucas: Of course there is. Our opponents like to claim that we invented the term, when in fact clean coal (which is short for clean coal technology) has been an accepted term-of-art for several decades now.

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The facts are simple. To date, we have used advanced emissions control technologies (i.e. clean coal technologies) to reduce emissions currently regulated under federal clean air act laws. Sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx) and other emissions have been dramatically reduced over the past several decades. This type of reduction didn’t just happen—especially given that our use of coal for generating electricity nearly tripled during this same period. It happened because of the use of technologies.

And like other technologies, clean coal technologies are truly evolutionary. Going forward, this same type of technological innovation will lead to reductions in carbon dioxide emissions.

David Roberts: No. When coal is mined, it destroys the land and surrounding communities. When coal is washed, it produces millions of tons a year of toxic, water-polluting slurry. When coal is burned, it produces millions of tons a year of toxic ash and periodic disasters like the December spill in Tennessee. Coal combustion produces mercury and particulate pollution that leads to some 24,000 premature deaths a year and billions in healthcare costs, with pregnant mothers and young children particularly at risk.

All these problems would go unaddressed by so-called “clean coal,” which would reduce just one pollutant, carbon dioxide. And even that promise is a phantom: Not a single commercial coal power plant in America captures or otherwise prevents CO2 emissions.

“Clean coal” is a PR gimmick.

David Roberts’ Rebuttal: Mr. Lucas is right about one thing: reductions in conventional air pollutants from coal plants “didn’t just happen.” They were forced on the industry by federal law. The industry fought those laws tooth and nail for years and has been fined and sued hundreds of times for breaking them. Hardly something to boast about.

Incidentally, those air pollutants scrubbed out of smoke stacks? They end up in toxic coal ash waste—the kind that flooded Kingston, Tennessee last December. Now the industry’s fighting efforts to regulate waste ash. And fighting off efforts to clean up its Appalachia-destroying mining operations.

For a “clean” industry, Big Coal sure does seem averse to getting cleaner.

Joe Lucas’ Rebuttal: Joe Lucas declined to write a rebuttal.
Coal-fired plants provide America with half of its electricity. Are we too reliant on coal?

Joe Lucas: Coal is a fuel that is uniquely positioned to meet the needs for base load (constant, steady, on-demand) power. It is domestically abundant—we have more energy in the form of coal than the Middle East has oil. It is an affordable fuel and is getting cleaner everyday.

We support the use of all domestic fuels to meet America’s growing energy needs. However, energy sources are more likely to be compliments to one another than competitors. Take wind and solar for example. They do not displace coal or other base load fuels because wind and solar are intermittent power sources – only producing electricity under certain optimum environmental conditions. To add these intermittent energy resources to the transmission grid, they have to be backed-up with a non-intermittent resource—like coal. What’s more, it would take a one-mile band of windmills spanning across the entire equator (around 25,000 miles) just to generate enough power to meet 20% of America’s electricity needs.

David Roberts: Yes. Putting aside the health and environmental effects above, coal is increasingly uneconomic. For one thing, a whole array of new studies suggests that U.S. coal reserves could begin declining within 20 years (not quite the “300 year supply” the industry touts).

As this fact and the inevitability of greenhouse-pollution restrictions become more widely understood, new coal plants are being exposed as risky and unsound investments, which is why nearly 100 proposed plants have been canceled in the past two years. States dependent on coal are already seeing their electrical rates skyrocket, and coal utilities are requesting further rate hikes.

Despite coal industry claims, U.S. coal power is neither “abundant” nor “cheap.” It’s a sinking ship.

David Roberts’ Rebuttal: Here’s a detailed plan to meet America’s energy needs without new coal plants, using a combination of efficiency and clean renewable power. Here’s another, another, another, another, and more. Just last week the Department of Interior released a study showing that offshore wind alone could satisfy U.S. electricity needs.

The pressure to build new coal plants is political—a result of the $40 million PR campaign Mr. Lucas is running—not technological.

The message that there’s “no alternative” to coal’s enormous health and environmental costs is fear mongering. It’s a vote against American ingenuity and resourcefulness.

Joe Lucas’ Rebuttal: Joe Lucas declined to write a rebuttal.
Such plants are America’s biggest source of greenhouse-gas emissions linked to global warming, according to NRDC. What should be done to contain this?

Joe Lucas: We support a mandatory federal carbon management program. In order for such a program to achieve its goals, it must 1) achieve emissions reductions, 2) promote greater energy independence by maintaining fuel diversity, and 3) ensure that businesses and families are not paying higher than necessary energy costs.

In that regard, technology is the key. Recently, more and more policy makers have adopted the notion that a federal climate policy necessitates developing and deploying carbon capture and storage technologies as the foundation for such a policy. President Obama has talked about this as a part of his strategy. Other distinguished academic, governmental, and non-governmental organizations have indicated that CCS (carbon capture and storage) technology is essential to meeting the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions on a global scale.

David Roberts: Asked whether human greenhouse gas emissions are driving climate change, coal pitchman Joe Lucas famously said, “I don’t know. I’m not a scientist.” Happily, non-scientists can use Google to find out what scientists think, and they overwhelmingly agree: climate change is urgent and potentially catastrophic. In the face of this kind of problem, “containing” coal’s emissions—which equal those of the entire transportation sector—is unambitious at best. Those emissions need to be phased out, as quickly as possible.

It’s simple: the industry should be forbidden from building new coal plants unless they meet stringent CO2 emissions standards. And over time, all existing coal plants should be required to meet those standards as well, or shut down. If coal can compete in a carbon-constrained world, good. If not, it should move out of the way for solutions that can.

David Roberts’ Rebuttal: Big Coal sure has a funny way of “supporting” a plan to reduce climate pollution. It has sponsored, with its allies in Big Oil, a decades-long effort to confuse and deceive the public about global warming. It is still funding groups and politicians that work to block mandatory pollution reductions. Mr. Lucas even linked to such a politician in his response!

With public pressure building, the industry has shifted from battling to co-opting energy/climate legislation, attempting to transform it into a corporate welfare slush fund. An easy tip for spotting subsidy seekers: they repeat the word “technology” a lot! (As Mr. Lucas does several times.)

Joe Lucas’ Rebuttal: Joe Lucas declined to write a rebuttal.
Do you think the idea of carbon capture and storage (CCS) is the way forward for the coal industry?
Joe Lucas: Absolutely. Not only a way forward for the coal industry, but, as I stated above—essential to meeting the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions on a global scale.

David Roberts: Put it this way: there is no other way forward for the U.S. coal industry. Coal is effectively made of carbon, so there’s no way to use it without producing millions of tons of CO2. The best case scenario for the industry, then, is to be able to capture the stuff and bury it back underground.

But despite the misleading PR from industry, experts agree that CCS is at least 10-15 years out and will be extremely expensive when it finally arrives. Sequestration is arguably important for the developing world, and worth researching for that reason, but it’s unlikely to save the U.S. coal industry.

David Roberts’ Rebuttal: CCS may well be needed for meeting global carbon reduction targets, though there is considerable debate on that point. (It’s a genuine dilemma what to do about the spread of dirty coal in China and India.) But it is crystal clear that America can meet its carbon-reduction goals without CCS.

More to the point: Mr. Lucas’s group is fronting an effort to smuggle dirty coal plants into the U.S. under the 10-15-years-off promise of CCS. The industry calls such plants “CCS-ready,” much like my driveway is Ferrari-ready.

Watch for the shell game.

Joe Lucas’ Rebuttal: Joe Lucas declined to write a rebuttal.
President Obama has said he supports “clean coal.” How do you think that will shape his environmental policies?

Joe Lucas: Recently, the President said that if the cost of a federal carbon management program were too high, people wouldn’t do it. Similarly, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair said that if you make a country choose between growing their economy or reducing emissions—they’ll choose their economy every time. So we need to find a solution that allows us to have both—and President Obama and other policy makers realize that.

By deploying CCS technology we can preserve access to affordable energy. This protects and hopefully creates jobs in the manufacturing sector and helps families balance household budgets. Additionally, a study done with several of the nation’s leading industrial unions showed that deploying CCS technologies will create over one million job years—and as one of the union representatives said in describing these jobs, these are jobs that pay enough so that you can afford to raise a family.

So investing in clean coal technologies for carbon capture and storage is clearly a part of the President’s energy goals. Doing so meets his three primary objectives of 1) creating jobs, 2) promoting greater energy independence, and 3) increasing environmental protection.

David Roberts: Obama supports “clean coal” for a simple reason: coal-state legislators wield a great deal of power in Congress. No national politician can afford to directly confront the network of industry lobby groups and legislators that defends coal’s interests.

Obama will direct considerable federal money toward research and deployment for CCS; it’s part of the price he has to pay to bring coal-state legislators on board for serious climate change legislation.

The key issue is whether Obama will allow the coal industry to build new dirty coal plants—plants without CCS. He said on the campaign trail that he will not. We’ll see if he keeps that promise.

David Roberts’ Rebuttal: Mr. Lucas’s first paragraph is absolutely correct, but the second is a head-smacking non sequitur. If we want the transition to a clean, green economy to produce jobs and prosperity, why would we focus on the most costly path forward?

International consulting firm McKinsey & Co. has produced the definitive cost curve comparing various emission reduction strategies. CCS is at the far right—among the two or three most expensive out of dozens of alternatives. The smart strategy is to focus on those at the left, the ones that save rather than cost money. (They also generate more jobs.) That’s Economics 101!

Joe Lucas’ Rebuttal: Joe Lucas declined to write a rebuttal.