The coal question

Green City: So-called clean technology a myth?
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GREEN CITY Over the past few years, a growing number of environmentalists have called for greatly curtailing the burning of coal, a practice that threatens the health of people and the planet. On Nov. 14-15, Rainforest Action Network (RAN) held protests in San Francisco and more than 50 other cities against Bank of America and Citibank, two of the largest financial backers of coal projects.

RAN cites data showing that coal is responsible for nearly 40 percent of US global warming emissions, and claims in a press release that Citibank has provided financial support to "45 companies that have proposed new coal power plants."

According to RAN, Bank of America is "involved with eight of the US's top mountain top removal coal-mining operators, which collectively produce more than 250 million tons of coal each year."

Mountain top removal is a process in which explosives are used to gain access to underlying coal, devastating ecosystems and polluting watersheds to extract an energy source that emits far more climate-altering carbon than even other fossil fuels. RAN's Joshua Kahn Russell cited Bank of America's $175 million financing of Massey Energy, a coal producer that was sued in 2006 by the US Environmental Protection Agency for more than 4,500 violations of the Clean Water Act. Early this year, Massey agreed to a $20 million settlement rather than pay potential fines of $2.4 billion.

RAN has named Bank of America CEO Kenneth Lewis the "Fossil Fool of the Year" for his company's role in coal. But on the bank's Web site, Lewis disputes the characterization, citing the company's promotion of hybrid vehicles and its other efforts to combat global warming, which won an award this year from the Natural Resources Defense Council.

"Our environment initiatives reflect our commitment to addressing climate change, conserving natural resources and building a sustainable economy — for today, and generations to come," Lewis says on the Web site. Similarly, Citibank officials tout what they say is a $50 billion initiative over the next 10 years to promote renewable energy sources.

As the US limps toward an energy policy that relies less on fossil fuels, coal is the big target for environmentalists. But getting off of it won't be easy, considering it supplies about a quarter of the nation's energy and helps fuel the faltering economy.

President-elect Barack Obama has made mixed statements about coal. In an election-season interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, he favored a cap-and-trade program that would limit the use of coal and charge new plants "a huge sum for all that greenhouse gas that's being emitted."

Yet he has also repeatedly voiced support for a so-called clean coal technology known as carbon capturing and sequestration (CCS) that could theoretically prevent coal emissions from entering the atmosphere but that many environmentalists believe to be a myth.

Russell said CCS, which involves capturing carbon emissions from the air and placing them deep underground, is still theoretical and may not be as cost-efficient as switching to cleaner energies. If CCS is a viable alternative, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has said that coal plants with CCS could reduce carbon emissions by 80-90 percent.

RAN organizer Scott Parkin pointed out that even if clean-coal technology works, the "coal still has to come from somewhere," and the process of extracting it has inherent environmental problems. But coal advocates say we need to be realistic about meeting the nation's energy needs.

Bank of America spokesperson Britney Sheehan told us, "As a nation, 50 percent of electricity comes from coal." Even in California, 32 percent of electricity is derived from coal, according to the California Independent System Operator.

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