Executives split on carbon caps, climate science

A trio of executives from the world's largest coal companies told Congress yesterday their industry is providing the fuel of the future, but the officials remained divided on several key policy questions.

Under scrutiny from Chairman Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and other Democrats on the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, -- and under fire from protesters who briefly disrupted the hearing -- top executives from Peabody Energy Corp., Arch Coal Inc. and Rio Tinto PLC all called coal an irreplaceable source of energy in the United States and abroad. They stood united on the need for federal support for carbon capture and storage technology that would prevent emissions from coal-fired power plants from entering the atmosphere.

"In the developed world, we often hear that carbon capture and storage technology will be necessary in order for coal to continue to be used," said Arch Chairman and CEO Steven Leer. "Nothing could be further from reality. The facts are that the world will continue to use coal, period -- massively and in rapidly growing volumes. The question is not whether global coal use will continue and grow, but rather, whether emissions from coal will grow."

To move carbon capture technology forward, the federal government should assume responsibility for carbon storage and fund emissions reductions research, said Peabody CEO Greg Boyce.

The technology could be ready for commercial-scale use sometime in the 2020s, Boyce said.


But the consensus broke down over carbon regulation.

Boyce blasted the House-passed energy and climate bill (H.R. 2454) that would put a price on carbon emissions. Congress should wait until carbon capture and storage technology is ready before it regulates carbon, Boyce said.

Other companies took a more conciliatory stance on the bill.

Rio Tinto is a founding member of the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, a coalition of businesses and environmental organizations that supports action to cut carbon emissions. The coalition was largely supportive of H.R. 2454.

"We will either participate in the shaping of policy or we will have the policy thrust upon us," Rio Tinto executive Preston Chiaro told his colleagues and lawmakers. "Our own experience as a company has been that constructive participation in the policy process can yield positive outcomes on the issues which are most important to us."

Markey, a principal author of H.R. 2454, defended his bill as a "lifeline" for coal, noting it provided $60 billion dollars to help make carbon capture and storage a reality.

A schism over science

Markey also pushed the executives on whether they believe human activities are responsible for global warming.

Rio Tinto has recognized that human carbon emissions are causing global warming since the mid-1990s, Chiaro said.

But Boyce, whose company is pushing U.S. EPA to revisit its determination that carbon emissions pose a danger to human health, would not make a similar declaration. Boyce said carbon levels in the atmosphere have raised social concern and so the company is exploring carbon storage technology, but he declined to say that human actions are causing global warming.

A war on whom?

Committee Republicans and Ohio Coal Association spokesman Michael Carey said the carbon proposals, in concert with tighter water quality rules for Appalachian surface mining, amounted to a "war on coal" being waged by the Obama administration.

"The coal industry knows what Congress and the administration is doing," Carey said. "These workers and communities won't soon forget the increased taxes and restrictions forced upon us."

The accusations outraged Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.), who asked how the industry could accuse Democrats of attacking them when the climate bill contained $60 billion in industry support.

"Emissions from your industry are destroying significant parts of this one and only little planet we've got and that is a scientific fact," Inslee said.

After the hearing, Inslee said he thought the coal industry's opposition to the Waxman-Markey climate bill had dulled slightly. "There at least seems to be a recognition that legislation is coming," he said.

Carey saw it differently.

"The coal industry will continue to oppose misguided climate change legislation and costly regulations that hurt not just our own nation, but the rest of the world as well," Carey said. "We stand by our principals ... as we always have and as we always will."

Meanwhile, five protesters clad in surgical masks disrupted the hearing by throwing lumps of coal in front of the coal executives. "Coal is dirty. Coal will always be dirty," shouted one of the protesters, who were organized by Campus Progress, the youth wing of the Center for American Progress. The protestors left the room before Capitol Police officers arrived (E&ENews PM, April 14).

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