Chu on Coal & China & Green Peas

I’m a little late to this Wired profile on Energy Secretary Steven Chu, since I just started reading the May issue last night.  For hardcore Chu watchers, probably not much is new, but the piece by Daniel Roth is still worth a read, if only to be reminded that the battle against global warming is being fought on many levels, some of which are not openly discussed much.

For example, the theme of the profile is Chu’s pragmatism, so here’s a meaty, revealing passage on his approach to both China and coal:

Chu’s philosophy can, of course, irritate environmentalists. One of the topics they clash over most is coal: a dark, nasty substance that is utterly crucial to the energy supplies of both the US and China but that, per unit of energy, releases roughly 40 percent more carbon dioxide than gasoline does.

Chu has called coal his “worst nightmare.” But the energy secretary also knows the big countries won’t abandon it. So he has turned his attention to what’s called clean coal. The theory: After the rocks are heated, the CO2 would be pumped deep underground instead of into the atmosphere.

For now, clean coal is hypothetical. But because Chu wants us to figure out a way to make it happen, he announced in spring 2009 that the DOE would channel $1 billion into FutureGen, a carbon-capturing power plant planned for Illinois. And not surprisingly, one of his next priorities has been getting China and the US to commit to clean coal projects together.

But even thinking about clean coal infuriates environmental hard-liners. Jeff Biggers is a prominent author who writes about Appalachia, a region ravaged by coal mining. “This is where Chu is a failure,” Biggers says. “He can’t look anyone straight in the face and say that within 10 years we’ll be able to capture carbon emissions.”

Chu can, however, say that he has no time for chasing all-or-nothing proposals, or ones that nobody is going to buy into. He sees the need to act now and to act fast. And most important, to act in a way that will bring China along. According to Chu, the old way to solve environmental problems was to say “Eat your peas, they’re good for you.” The new way is to invent clean energy technology and say “If you do this, you’re going to be richer, you’re going to be happier. And it turns out that it creates jobs, and oh, by the way, you have to do it anyway.”

A side note: this fine profile is part of Climate Desk, a multi-magazine venture, defined as

a journalistic collaboration dedicated to exploring the impact””human, environmental, economic, political””of a changing climate. The partners are The Atlantic, Center for Investigative Reporting, Grist, Mother Jones, Slate, Wired, and PBS’s new public-affairs show Need To Know.

It’s a great idea, and I’m rooting for it to have a big journalistic impact. But why, oh why, did they launch this thing without an accompanying blog to trumpet the stories? This is what I don’t get about my print magazine colleagues: they produce excellent content and yet all too often let it disappear into a black hole. For pete’s sake, put up a blog at Climate Desk, so these pieces have a forum where they can be chewed on and discussed (and distributed) more widely than they will be on a static website.

11 Responses to “Chu on Coal & China & Green Peas”

  1. Brian Smith says:

    I can really sympathize with Secretary Chu.  The ideologues on both sides of the coal issue can only agree on one thing – the lights had better never go off.  Outside of that singular point, they will howl no matter who is running the Energy Department.  Coal fired plants are a reality and will be with us for a very long time.  Until our society as a whole adopts an approach to energy that recognizes its true costs, engages in conservation and build the infrastructure to handle a multi-source energy future, we are going to be going in circles.  Secretary Chu is in a good place and is a good person to help change our current trajectory.

  2. Chu is indulging in some wishful thinking in carbon capture and storage (clean coal). It looks to be decades away in a practical form. Worse it has served as cover for many to do absolutely nothing about reducing emissions or improving efficiency.  Chu advocates both but where is all the money going?

  3. Steve Bloom says:

    I think Chu (with Holdren and Lubchenco) understands that large-scale CCS is a non-starter.  It’s politically difficult to abandon it quickly given the degree to which so many in Congress are invested in it. 

    On the plus side, continued hopes for CCS make it possible to begin to squeeze the coal industry while placing the onus on them to argue that it won’t work (which they’re not going to do after spending years talking up prospects for it).  With no hope of CCS, the industry’s supporters in Congress would fight any increase in the price of carbon tooth and nail, and it seems clear that for now they would have a majority for such a position.

    I’d love to know what Chu’s long-term plan is. 

  4. Forgot to include my example of CCS as “cover”. Canada is putting $1.6 billion into CCS for its tar sands but doing nothing else:

  5. Steve Bloom says:

    What about C-311?

  6. Canada’s Climate Change Accountability Act (c-311) doesn’t have any clout since the ruling Conservatives don’t support it (many think it all a hoax) and they’re in charge.

    UN Sec-Gen begged Prime Minister Harper to put CC high on the G8-G20 agenda next month and Harper told him to piss off yesterday.

  7. Keith Kloor says:

    Stephen & Steve:

    It seems you both ignored what Brian Smith (1) said about coal being with us for the foreseeable future. I don’t think anyone argues this basic fact, right?

    Moreover, Stephen, do you really believe Chu would try and advance clean coal if he thought it was a mere cover to do nothing about climate change? After all, he’s quite a smart guy and quite concerned about AGW. So I’m having a hard time understanding why enviros give him grief about his multi-pronged approach.

  8. Keith:

    I didn’t say Chu was using CCS as cover, but a great many others are. It was one of the things we need to do but many other things ought to be done first. CCS is expensive, high risk and ought to be low on our emergency to do list.

    Sure coal’s going to be around for another 25 years – I agree with everything Brian said.

  9. Steve Bloom says:

    On the one hand I’ll be happy enough if the last bit of coal gets burned in 25 years since it could be much worse than that, but on the other hand that 25 years means we’re still going to get pretty badly hammered.

    Keith, you have Chu completely reversed:  CCS funding is a carrot to get the coal industry and its supporters to acquiesce to the larger package.  I don’t imagine he likes that, but it’s a political necessity.  

  10. Brian Smith says:

    CCS is not so much cover as it will be leverage.  Keep CCS on the table and you can continue to the discussion about limiting emissions through credits.  It may not be the silver bullet, but if it can reduce or control enough carbon emissions that it is meaningful under the credit trading regime it will have generated some value.  Besides, it is the kind of high risk research with an expensive price tag that industry won’t come near without a body of work paid for by the government.  I think that Secretary Chu and Dr. Holdren understand the risk element and that they can not bet the farm on the engineering as it now stands.

    I agree with Steve in 9 that if we are going to kick the coal habit, we are going to get pretty badly hammered.  There is also no guarantee that the other major coal burning economies are going to follow suit in any meaningful fashion.  If the coal market in the US goes to hell, who else may be looking to buy our supplies?

    PS:  Steve Leahy, I don’t know you, but I think I will frame your second paragraph in 8.  First beer is on me.

  11. Brian (10):

    I’ll be happy to take you up on that beer sometime. I’ll be in Nairobi next couple of weeks covering biodiversity meet and then in Oslo in June at the IPY science wrap-up conference – any of those work for you?

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