by Lynne Blundell

6 May – There are some claims that you just shouldn’t bank on. Especially when it involves the coal industry, which in the US is every bit as dominant and influential as in Australia.

In the US Barack Obama has been criticised for falling for the “coal can be clean line” which others, including Robert F Kennedy Jr and former US vice president Al Gore, say is a “dirty big lie”.

President Obama has proposed $3.4 billion in stimulus legislation to fund continued research on clean coal projects.

“Clean coal is like healthy cigarettes, it does not exist,” says former vice president Al Gore in US media reports.

The US coal industry has used Obama’s words in their TV ads

Obama used in coal ads

The US coal industry has cashed in on Obama’s comments, using one of his campaign speeches in its multi-million dollar advertising campaign:

“You can’t tell me we can’t figure out a way to burn coal that we mine right here in the United States and make it work,” says Obama in the ad, which ends with on-screen words: Yes We Can.

In a recent interview with ABC News’ Brian Ross, Robert F Kennedy Jr described Obama’s support of the clean coal push:

“It is a sad testament to the impact of campaign contributions, our system and the political clout of this industry that you have very sensible politicians, including great men like Barack Obama, who feel the need to parrot the talking points of this industry that is so destructive to our country.”

The coal industry has been a major financial supporter of political parties in the US. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the industry contributed $15.6 million to all US federal campaigns in the last election cycle.

Rudd accused of giving in to coal industry

In Australia, the Rudd government’s proposed support of carbon capture and storage (CCS), essential to the clean coal approach, is highly contentious.

In April Kevin Rudd launched the Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute, a Canberra-based body charged with determining if the technology will be commercially viable.

CCS involves extracting the emissions from coal fired power stations, compressing them and burying them.

But progress with the technology has been slow and experts say it will be at least a decade before it can be applied commercially.

In a recent report by Paddy Manning in the Sydney Morning Herald a coal industry insider describes the clean coal concept as “nonsense” and “uneconomical”. (“Mining stalwart sees no future in carbon plan” SMH 25/04/09)

Graham Brown, a staunch unionist and former coal industry worker, says in the report that the only reason the coal industry is supporting CCS is to develop the drilling technology for its own benefit – to extract the gas from the coal in situ.

Most coal industry workers know CCS is “just not do-able” and are interested in being retrained to make the transition to a clean energy economy, says Brown.

Scientists are also calling for a stop to coal-fired power.

CSIRO scientist, Dr James Risbey, recently told the Senate committee on climate policy’s inquiry that coal burning must stop if we are to avoid dangerous climate change.

Dr Risbey told the inquiry no more coal-fired power plants should be built and all existing plants must close within 20 years to have any chance of avoiding dangerous levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

He was one of a group of CSIRO scientists who chose to speak personally to the Senate committee after the CSIRO decided not to make a submission.

Late last week a group of scientists, including three lead authors of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and a former director of the World Climate Research Program, sent a letter to the heads of Australia’s main coal companies and major coal users warning that coal-fired power stations are doomed and CCS is an expensive dead-end.

“The unfortunate reality is that genuine action on climate change will mean that coal-fired power stations cease to operate in the near future,” the letter says.

The Australian Coal Association declined to comment but says it intends to respond to the letter in writing.

lblundell@thefifthestate.com.au