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Washington University students in St. Louis know their stuff when it comes to dirty energy, but they are especially agitated about what’s going on right under their noses. Peabody Energy and Arch Coal, two of the largest coal companies in the U.S., are both headquartered in St. Louis.

When they each donated $5 million (along with Ameren UE’s $2 million) to set up the Consortium for Clean Coal Utilization on the Wash U campus, students saw the reality behind the smog mask.

Last November, the Student Union passed a resolution urging the University to change the name of the consortium because “clean coal” is a lie.  Good for them !  When the University sponsored a theatrical “symposium” presenting the benefits of “green coal,” (no, that’s not a typo) the students answered with a counter rally of their own.

Yesterday, the Wash U Student Union sponsored a debate between Bruce Nilles, leader of Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, and Fred Palmer,  Senior VP of Government Relations at Peabody Energy.  Prior to yesterday’s event, Bruce Nilles had an op-ed in the student newspaper presenting the case against coal in a nutshell.

When the two debaters came out on stage at Graham Chapel, I kind of felt sorry for Fred Palmer.  But the old geezer held up his end of the bargain pretty well considering the audience was filled with anti-coal people.  Mr. Palmer is originally from Phoenix and showed off his cowboy boots.  He let it slip that he feels trapped here in “the middle of the country.”  Poor guy.  But he spends lots of time in D.C. and China selling his smokescreen of carnival tricks too.

According to Mr. Palmer, coal is responsible for all the wonderful things humans enjoy.  Instead of carrying bundles of twigs on our backs to heat our homes, we can just turn on the furnace and VOILA, the magic of electricity warms us, keeps the lights on, powers our computers and makes life better for people everywhere.  I kid you not.  He actually said that caring for people is Peabody’s first priority.  

Comparing modern power plants to bundles of twigs is one of those “the hand is quicker than the eye” carnival illusions lobbyists are so good at.  Keep the rubes distracted while you dazzle them with nonsense.

Keep in mind that Missouri gets 83.5% of its energy from those black rocks loaded with carbon, making it one of the brownest states in the nation.  Keep in mind that coal ash is full of deadly stuff that contaminates the air we breathe and the water we drink.

Bruce Nilles reminded us that the only reason coal is the cheapest source of energy is because the true cost is externalized to the general population.  E.g., the three coal plants in the St. Louis area create $750 million each year in health care and clean up costs.  As student leader Kady McFadden asked in the introduction to the debate, “Is cheap energy worth the cost?”

In response to Palmer’s claim that coal energy is good for America, Nilles asked, if so, why isn’t West Virginia one of the richest states in the union instead of one of the poorest?

If audience members expected the Peabody spokesman to be embarrassed about the damage done by mountain top mining or the explosion that killed 29 Americans in West Virginia recently, no need to hold our breath.  Palmer defused that awkward topic right away by saying Peabody hasn’t mined in West VA in three years and he felt really bad about those poor guys who died in a Massey mine.  His chart showing Peabody’s safety record made my heart leap with pride, and I think I heard strains of “America, the Beautiful” wafting throught the open windows.

When asked about progress being made with alternative forms of energy, Nilles pointed to Ontario, Los Angeles and Wisconsin.  Because Canadians all pay for health care from one big pool of money, they see the direct impact of pollution on their medical bills.  They are phasing out all of their coal-fired plants.  There are no coal plants in California, but LA has been buying its power from out-of-state plants. They’ve recently decided to bring that economic piece of the pie back to their own city.  Wisconsin state buildings had been using coal from Wyoming but are switching to wind and solar in order to create jobs for their own people.

Climate legislation is “on life support” in Washington, according to Nilles, because the dirty energy companies are putting the screws to Congress. The EPA is supposedly considering a move to label coal ash “hazardous” which would be a real game changer.  Sen. McCaskill is on record as being opposed to the new designation.  We don’t even have to wonder where Sen. Bond stands on this, do we?  Call Sen. McCaskill.  Who knows?  Maybe a ton people calling her might outweigh a ton of coal money. Check out EarthJustice’s web page on coal ash with link to EPA.

 Watch the Great Coal Debate here and be prepared for future actions by Wash U students. On May 21st, US Energy Secretary Steven Chu will address the graduating class.  Fred Palmer claims that Chu is “on board” with the new “green coal” technology.  We’ll see.