‘Clean’ Coal on Hold?

In a reversal of a December Bush-administration memo, the Washington Post reports today that the EPA “said it would reopen the possibility of regulating carbon-dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants.” With the ongoing debate about the reality behind the claims of clean coal proponents, the Obama administration opted to position themselves to reconsider the decision laid out in Stephen Johnson’s memo without directly opposing it. The New York Times predicted as much back in December, saying that Johnson’s memo left enough room for Lisa Jackson, the new Administrator of the EPA, to go through a rulemaking process to make final determinations on the issue.

Colorado Coal Miner. Photo courtesy of NIOSH - National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health

Colorado Coal Miner. Photo courtesy of NIOSH - National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health

While the Sierra Club heralds the rulemaking and subsequent public comment as a victory, this new position comes only days after a coal industry victory in Appalachia supporting the Army Corps of Engineers’ issuing of permits for mountaintop mining, and only weeks after AWEA reports that wind power employment had reached 85,000 in 2008, prompting some blog chatter about whether or not the wind jobs outnumber coal mining jobs.

Considering the developments in the few weeks since Obama has taken office, I am waiting to see just exactly how his administration’s commitment to “develop and deploy clean coal technology” is going to play out.


The promise of a “Green Collar Economy” vs. the availability of Green Jobs

Renew Energy – the “biofuels industry leader for innovation and efficiency” boasting the largest ethanol plant in Wisconsin – has just filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Their struggle, along with the eminent demise of other leading ethanol producers and distributors, begs the question: How can we have a Green Collar Economy with a shrinking, besieged green sector? Perhaps more critical: Are we depending on the right resources and jobs to create a Green Collar Economy?

With over $100 billion dollars allocated to “green projects” in the proposed economic stimulus package, green jobs have the potential to replace jobs in declining sectors such as manufacturing and other occupations that are being shipped overseas.

Let’s look at ethanol. Ethanol (ethyl alcohol) can be manufactured and used as a biofuel alternative to gasoline, mostly for use in cars. It is conventionally referred to as a renewable resource that is easy to manufacture and process because it can be made from common crops like corn (although it doesn’t come without it’s fair share of criticism and risk – namely the food vs. fuel argument.). Less than two months ago, The Renewable Fuels Association, at the request of President Obama, submitted a statement highlighting how the ethanol industry provides green jobs. The RFA stated that more than 238,000 green jobs were created last year because of the ethanol industry. This boded especially well for parts of the country like Wisconsin, where rural communities are struggling under the weight of the economic crisis and jobs are in short supply and high demand.

For now, the ethanol-producing industry is failing in Wisconsin and the other Midwestern states who lead the country in ethanol production. But with the rising price of gasoline – and the finite availability of that resource coupled with the desire for energy independence and a healthier environment- will biofuel production find its way back into the green jobs sector? Should we keep pouring resources into the biofuel industry or focus more intently on other energy producing sources?

General Biodiesel here in Seattle offers a promising alternative that doesn’t come with the risks associated with ethanol biofuels. Instead of using raw materials, like corn, they utilize waste cooking oil and animal fat as sources for fuel: sources that are renewable and sustainable, or a “waste to energy” model. Although wind turbines currently account for only one percent of energy production in the United States, Washington ranks fifth in the country and is poised to create thousands of new jobs as the sector expands.

Maybe when we put our time, money and energy into resources that are truly renewable and sustainable, we can create the green economy we envision.

-Elise Roberts