Midlands Voices: Clean coal more hype than reality

The following editorial on Nebraska's central role in coal rail transportation appeared in the Monday July 12 Omaha World-Herald.  Signed by UNO Professor and Nebraska Report columnist Bruce Johansen, the op-ed was the creation of the newly formed "350.org -- Nebraska" coalition, of which Nebraskans for Peace is a charter member.  The article is republished with permission by the Omaha World-Herald.

Bruce E. Johansen

The writer is a professor in the School of Communication at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He is author of “The Encyclopedia of Global Warming Science and Technology.”

Internationally renowned global warming activist Bill McKibben was in Omaha June 17 for a protest at Union Pacific headquarters. McKibben — whose groundbreaking 1989 book, “The End of Nature,” sounded the alarm about the dangers of global warming — had hoped to meet with Warren Buffett during his whirlwind stop but could not arrange an appointment.

He wanted to talk with Buffett about coal — specifically, the rail transport of coal.

With Berkshire Hathaway’s recent acquisition of the Burlington Northern/Santa Fe Railroad, Omaha is now the nexus of coal trafficking in North America. BNSF and its Omaha-based competitor, Union Pacific, generate 20 percent of their revenues from hauling coal (mainly from the strip mines of Wyoming’s Powder River Basin).

And coal — as the whole world well knows — is the dirtiest of fossil fuels, emitting massive amounts of greenhouse gases when burned.

More even than oil, America is addicted to coal. Our country relies on coal for half of its electrical power generation, despite the dangers and destructiveness associated with coal mining, its use as fuel and its disposal (coal ash). Industry advocates stress that coal is domestic, plentiful and — most important — cheap.

If the coal industry were stripped of its government subsidies and held financially liable for its environmental degradation and harm to human health, the cost of this deadly energy source would shoot straight up the smokestack.

The coal industry has saturated the airwaves with advertising about “clean coal,” pitching technology to make coal more environmentally friendly. U.P. and BNSF, in fact, are members of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity.

This industry advocacy organization (comprised exclusively of mining companies, electricity producers and railroads) would have us believe the introduction of “clean coal” is just around the corner, right on the cusp of coming online.

Unfortunately, we’ve got a better chance of sighting Bigfoot in downtown Omaha than of living to see “clean coal” live up to its hype. “Clean coal” is a con job.

After years of research (and billions in public investment), not one single plant is anywhere near operational. Moreover, in the few places where technology has been attempted, the cost involved (in energy as well as money) made it economically infeasible.

BNSF’s rival, Union Pacific, has been resolutely undeterred by these facts. To protect the profits it earns from coal transportation, the nation’s largest carrier has spent millions of dollars over the past two years opposing climate legislation, including the current bills in Congress regarding cap-and-trade of carbon emissions (a policy incubated over a decade ago in free-market think tanks).

In this effort, U.P. has worked closely with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, whose president has sat on U.P.’s board of directors since 1998. U.P. is doing all it can to sustain our coal addiction, climate be damned.

Which is why the U.P. headquarters was the target of the June 17 protest that featured McKibben. The international group McKibben founded, 350.org, is committed to alerting the world to the need to bring carbon emissions down to a level of 350 parts per million (from the current 390 ppm) — a level safe enough for civilization to survive.

We can’t do that, though, if we practice business as usual and persist in burning coal as the dominant means of generating electric power.

Knowing of Buffett’s integrity, McKibben had hoped to talk with him personally about the danger that coal constitutes to our planet. With Buffett’s stature in the business community, he could help wean America off its addiction to coal and set us on a sounder economic path — one in which our railroads carry wind turbines, solar panels and, someday, even people. It’s time that America once again invests in its railroads.

McKibben is now back on the road. (He sandwiched his Omaha stop between talks in China and Austria.) His new book, “EAARTH: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet,” should be required reading by everyone concerned about the effects of global warming on our American way of life and, indeed, human life itself.

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