In addressing our nation this week, President Barack Obama called on us to "confront boldly the challenges we face, and take responsibility for our future once more."
Thousands of American citizens are taking the President at his word. Preparing to descend on Washington, DC., on Monday, March 2nd, to boldly confront our nation's dirty coal policy at a planned protest at the Capitol Power Plant, the broad alliance of citizens groups (capitolclimateaction.org) scored an extraordinary victory in advance today: Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid have just released a letter calling on the Acting Architect of the Capitol to end the use of coal at the Capitol Power Plant.
This unprecedented act by our Congressional leadership marks a symbolic step toward a new era of clean energy. This should be a great moment of celebration.
We still have a long way to go, of course.
While the Capitol buildings are heated by the Capitol Power Plant, a 100-year-old coal-fired dinosaur, the Capitol's electricity is actually generated from the Potomac River Plant, which operates on coal hauled from mountaintop removal strip mines that have left parts of Appalachia in ruin, and emits tons of carbon dioxide.
And President Obama himself, while mapping out a plan to double this nation's supply of renewable energy in the next three years, is still beholden to the chimera of "clean coal," its devastating extraction counterparts and dirty coal's underlining role in the silent tsunami of climate destabilization.
Besides the Capitol Power Plant switch over, here's the good news: The Obama administration is providing over $100 billion in loan guarantees and tax incentives for green energy initiatives in his stimulus package, and an annual investment of $15 billion in renewable energy technologies, and has called on Congress to send legislation for a "market-based cap on carbon pollution" to deal with climate change.
Here's the bad news: The Obama administration is shelling out billions of stimulus and budget dollars to the coal industry, at a time when extraction companies like Peabody Energy announced an eightfold increase in quarterly profits. This is not only pointless, but a frightening reminder that any positive steps by the Obama administration to curb carbon emissions could be derailed by the "clean coal" scams of the coal lobby, and seriously delay any efforts to pass effective climate legislation before the world climate change conference in Copenhagen in December.
By ending coal at the Capitol Power Plant, our nation is coming to grips with the reality that coal is not clean, and that coal is not cheap, if we consider the social and environmental costs. Here in Illinois, ever since a young Democratic Party activist by the name of Francis Peabody sunk his first coal mine in southern Illinois in 1895, we have witnessed the tragic journey of coal from its costly extraction, processing, transportation, burning and storage of ash with an element of truth and detail that somehow alludes those who live outside the coalfields. Our coal miners have paid the ultimate price of black lung and workplace accidents; our farms and forests have been strip-mined, wiping our families' heritage, and destroying our watersheds. Our relatives in the coalfields of Appalachia have borne the burden of coal for over 150 years; in the last couple of decades, over 470 mountains, 1,200 miles of streams and hundreds of historic mountain communities have literally been destroyed by the detonation of three million pounds of explosives a day, as part of the assault of mountaintop removal mining.
Coal mining has not created prosperity in the coalfields; it has kept out any diversified economy and led to the nation's highest poverty rates.
All Americans saw the images of the TVA coal ash leakages last December, and now know more than half of our nation's population and their water sources rest within a half hour drive of an unregulated coal ash pond and potential catastrophe. Over 24,000 Americans die annually from lung and heart diseases connected to coal-fired plants.
The worst consequence of coal is now its effect on climate change.
Setting aside mercury and other toxic emissions, over 40 percent of our carbon dioxide emissions spew from coal-fired plants today. As NASA climatologist James Hansen wrote in the Guardian last week: "Coal-fired power plants are factories of death."
Our President knows that all scientific studies indicate that carbon capture and storage technologies for coal-fired plants are at least a generation away from any feasible or safe implementation on a nationwide scale--and he knows we can't afford to wait that long.
"What we do in the next two to three years will determine our future," Rajendra Pachauri, Chairman of the UN's International Panel on Climate Change, has declared.
So, as we begin a new era of clean energy, we still need to push the President. American citizens still need to converge on the Capitol Power Plant on March 2nd, and urge our President and Congress to realize that "clean coal" rings like profanity in our kids' ears, and is an insult to those who have carried the burden of dirty coal.
Coal-fired plants still produce 50% of our electricity, so we cannot simply turn off the switch. But the quick change at the Capitol Power Plant is a fine start. The Obama administration can halt new coal-fired plants, and formulate a plan to phase out the ancient relics like Capitol Power--whether it's 5-10-25 years, whatever it takes.
And the President can end the ravages of mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia, which provides only 5-7 percent of our coal production, and commit to retraining and employing our coal mining workforce by launching the Green Recovery in the very regions that have shouldered the brunt of coal for 150 years.
Jeff Biggers is the author of The United States of Appalachia, and the forthcoming book, Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland (The Nation/Basic Books).