Thursday, April 23, 2009


Clean Coal is a Dirty Lie

It would go a great way to caution and direct people in their use of the world, that they were better studied in the creation of it. For how could [they]find the confidence to abuse it, while they should see the Great Creator stare them in the face, in all and every part thereof?
- William Penn, 1693

With climate change from excess burning of carbon hovering like a sword of Damocles over our heads, the way we produce electricity, and how much we use, has become critical. Since it produces CO2 previously locked away from the active carbon cycle, burning fossil fuels is the most damaging way to get our power. The power we use in NC comes chiefly from coal, and most of that coal comes from dynamiting mountaintops in neighboring states. This is a matter of grave injustice.

Though there are promising new technologies available which will gradually close the gap, we are going to still be burning coal for at least a generation, with nuclear and hydropower being the other chief sources of baseload power (available 24 hours a day). But any additional capacity built needs to be as close to carbon-neutral as possible, and building more coal- fired plants is simply suicidal. A study commissioned by the state legislature in 2006 showed that with conservation, efficiency, and a modest growth in renewable energy, we would not need any added capacity in NC for ten years. Despite this finding, Duke Energy is building a mammoth coal-fired plant at Cliffside, near Shelby. Construction at Cliffside had been temporarily halted by federal court order, citing in particular the mercury pollution it would produce, but Duke got around this by simply reclassifying this 800 megawatt plant as a “minor” source of pollution, without changing the plant design. The NC Utility Commission and Governor Perdue went along with this bald-faced lie. The truth is, there is no clean coal, and we must stop building new plants.

On April 20, I joined 350 folks in a well-organized march in Charlotte to protest the Cliffside plant, carrying a Call to Conscience which was read in front of Governor Perdue’s office and outside Duke Energy headquarters, urging Duke CEO Jim Rogers to cancel the project. Rogers has built a reputation as a “green” power executive, speaking articulately about the need to reduce CO2 in power production. Indeed, while we were reading the citizen’s injunction and Call to Conscience outside his headquarters, Rogers was on the West Coast addressing a conference on renewable energy. On many occasions he has touted the “grandchild test,” saying we must steward a world in which our grandchildren have as much chance for a healthy life as we have enjoyed. On Monday I carried a sign reading, “Jim Rogers, you flunked the grandchild test.”

I was among 42 citizens who committed trespass and were arrested at Duke headquarters last Monday. I felt it an honor to be in the Mecklenburg County Jail with grandmothers in their 80’s, students from Appalachian State missing class to be in Charlotte, environmental leaders and clergy, and most of all, victims of mountaintop removal, the most “efficient” but devastating way to mine coal. After being unsuccessful at hearings and having court injunctions circumvented by procedural lies, it’s now in the hands of citizens to proclaim the truth, even if we risk arrest and jail time in the process.

Who is this being built for? Not for us, because if we follow the recommendations of the study mandated by our legislature and the fresh thinking in the executive branch of the federal government, we don’t need Cliffside. Duke is an international corporation, not a public utility answerable to the citizens of this state, and this additional capacity is being built to sell for profit elsewhere. But the truth I went to Duke headquarters to witness was not simply to expose an external enemy. Our own behavior as consumers is the key to reducing demand. Power companies are producing a useful product; they’re just pushed to produce too much of it, and in the absence of legislation capping carbon emissions and fair public utility regulations, in the wrong ways.

This is a justice issue, justice for the poorest among us who are already most impacted by global climate change, and justice for the rest of creation, which we put at risk by our arrogance and foolishness. It is a stewardship issue, not just of Creation put into our care by a loving Creator, but stewardship of our own species. For if we don’t’ radically dampen the accelerating CO2 curve, we are virtually assuring our own extinction, along with countless other species . As far as we know, we are the only beings in the universe where the creature can look within and find the Creator staring back. This is a sacred trust indeed.

So let’s continue to pressure Duke to stop Cliffside and other new coal plants. Urge your congressfolk to support strong legislation to cap carbon emissions. And become aware of your own habits around power use. We could immediately reduce demand by a third simply by conservation and installing more efficient appliances and compact fluorescents. I’m not the only one on trial here.

Robert McGahey, South Toe
(Editorial for Yancey Common Times April 29)

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