During the COP23 United Nations Climate Change Conference held in Bonn this week, the United States delegation gave a special pitch promoting the use of coal as a “clean fossil fuel”. If you’re reading this with your mouth hanging open in shock, you are not alone. No one else could believe it either.
Under the direction of President Donald Trump, the U.S. has made the decision this year to roll back emissions control guidelines throughout all of industry, to increase oil, gas and coal usage in the country, and to delegate authority to the states to explore for oil and gas on formerly protected national lands. There are plans being put in place to allow drilling again in the previously sacrosanct Arctic wildlife refuge. The U.S. also has become the only nation in the world to have pulled out of the Paris Climate Change accords.
All those steps were done as favors to the U.S. fossil fuel industry. The public logic behind it all was that the U.S. government believes climate change is not real, and that for some reason the country needs more fossil fuels produced to stay an energy-independent nation.
None of that is true, of course, but it plays to Trump’s base and feeds the greed of the fossil fuel industry. Until now, however, no one seriously thought Trump’s team would be dumb enough to take that ‘show on the road’ and try to sell it to the rest of the world.
In a special side event at this week’s COP23 event, that is exactly what happened. Even stranger, it was being positioned as an event to drive foreign demand for U.S. coal overseas.
During the event, White House energy aide George David Banks offered up the official American position on this, that in their opinion solar and wind were not broadly available enough worldwide to provide enough power for developing countries. Coal and natural gas, he said, were critical to keep those countries’ economic growth going forward.
Others speaking at the event on behalf of the U.S. position were Amos Hochstein, senior vice president of Tellurian, a liquefied natural gas company; Holly Krutka, Peabody Energy’s VP of coal generation and emissions technologies, and Lenka Kollar, the nuclear energy producer NuScale Power’s director of business strategy. All echoed the statements that conventional power solutions such as coal and natural gas, and even nuclear energy, were critical to maintaining jobs and electrical power supply.
This further supports a current position offered at the U.S. Department of Energy, under current Energy Secretary Rick Perry. Perry, the former governor of Texas and with no background whatever in energy policy, has gone on public record that coal, natural gas and nuclear power are needed not just to provide a total of enough power in the world, but also because they are inherently more dependable supplies of that power. The logic he offers that goes with this is that because solar and wind cannot deliver continuous power from their raw sources, they cannot be depended on as much as the fossil fuel and nuclear energy alternatives.
None of the U.S. participants addressed the critical need to keep fossil fuel emissions down while preaching about coal to the masses. They did recognize their position would be controversial, however, with White House energy aide George David Banks saying there that, “This panel is only controversial if we choose to bury our heads in the sand and ignore the realities of the global energy system”.
Most observing the event instead felt the U.S. contingent was the actual group actively spending their time with their heads in the sand.
As protesters yelled out that “Clean coal is bull—” and “Liars, you are a bunch of liars”, others were statelier but equally more forceful in their condemnation of the U.S. position. Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, president for the main COP23 meeting, said on November 12 that coal is the dirtiest fossil fuel and very bad for the environment. He told reporters that, “we all know what coal does and we all know the effects of coal mining and of coal. There is really no need to talk about coal because we all know what coal does with regard to climate change.” The German Secretary of State, Jochen Flasbarth, spoke that his country was moving rapidly away from coal and nuclear power, and that yes it was possible to do so, despite what the U.S. might say. Tuaoi Uepa, a delegate from the Marshall Islands, referred to the U.S. event and position as, “Ridiculous.” He said, “There’s no such thing as clean fossil fuels. We can’t move to the future like that.”
The U.S., meanwhile, continued their sales pitch in the background, saying that technology development for carbon capture in the coal industry was grossly underfunded, and that this would pave the way to even cleaner use of coal in the future. For that reason, the delegates said, using coal really was a solution to keeping greenhouse gas emissions down, even though no one other than the U.S. seemed to really accept the idea.
The American delegation also made a high-level commitment to help pay for building coal-powered plants in developing countries around the world, to help create new demand for U.S. coal as a primary objective. There was no support offered whatever for solar, wind, tidal and other approaches seen by most of the world as the true wave of the future.