IRA FLATOW, host:
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.
Last night, the Senate passed an energy bill. It sets tough standards for a fuel economy, but it failed to pass a tax on oil companies, money that would have paid for the development of solar, wind, and other renewable alternatives. The House is wrestling with its own energy bill. And so for the rest of the hour, we're going to talk about what each bill would do and about those provisions that did not make the cut. What happens to them? Maybe there's life for them later down, somewhere down the road.
Plus, coal, as you know, is a key issue in Congress and in our energy future. Lobbyists have been swarming Capitol Hill taking - talking up the benefits of making coal into a liquid fuel.
So this hour, we'll talk about the promise and the problems of coal to liquid power plants and whether those problems - most notably, the high levels of carbon emissions from the refining process - can be overcome to make coal to liquid a viable alternative to existing fossil fuels in terms of global warming.
The coal conversation comes just as a new report says there may not be as much coal left to be mined as we've been led to believe, and that mining what's there will get more difficult. We'll talk with the reports lead author about the research recommendations and how coal figures into our energy future.
Lots to talk about. Energy legislation, lots of energy legislations moving through Congress. And if it's on your mind, tell us about it. 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK.
Ben Geman is a senior reporter for Greenwire, Environment & Energy Daily in Washington. Ben Geman joins us today from our NPR studios in Washington. Welcome to our program, Ben.
Mr. BEN GEMAN (Senior Reporter, Greenwire, Environment & Energy Daily): Thanks for having me on the show.
FLATOW: Tell us about what your impressions about what's going on in the Hill up there, Ben?
Mr. GEMAN: Well, it's been very active, especially over on the Senate side. But really on both the House and Senate side. The most recent thing happened quite late last night, when the Senate approved - as you mentioned in the intro -legislation that would increase automobile fuel economy standards for the first time in a long time. It would also dramatically - I think by roughly fivefold -ramp up the use of ethanol and other biofuels. And it would also do a fair number of things to conserve electric power. Now, I think, as you mentioned, what was also quite notable about that legislation that passed yesterday was what was not in it, and that would include the tax provisions, as well as, provisions that would relate to the use of coal as a liquid transportation fuel.
FLATOW: Do the environmentalists see this as half a victory then or do they get pretty good results on this?
Mr. GEMAN: Well, I think it's - they were quite pleased at the absence of provisions that would look at coal as a liquid transportation fuel. And they were also very pleased with the increase in automobile fuel economy standards. There was one very major defeat that's worth noting for the environmental committee, though, which is that a lot Democrats and some Republicans had been pushing very hard for something called renewable electricity standard. And that would require utilities nationwide to provide 15 percent of their electric power from renewable sources like wind, solar, geothermal and such, by the year 2020. But that - there was fairly solid GOP opposition to that effort and so, they were never really able to get a vote on that, so that was locked on the cutting room floor.
FLATOW: How do you explain this issue with the carmakers in Detroit who are losing their shirts over loss? They're at their bleeding rating. They're far behind Toyota, who has the most energy efficient SUVs and hybrid cars. You would think they'd be looking for something new to sell. Why are they so resistant to change in the CAFE standards?
Mr. GEMAN: Well, that debate was quite interesting. And that - and it also broke down along regional as much or more than partisan lines. I think their main complaint with the issue was that they felt that the increase that was being proposed by, in the Senate bill, which ultimately did make it through, was not achievable, at least not in the time frame that was proposed with the technologies that they've got.
Now, that argument got a very strong push back, and ultimately didn't carry today. You had the proponents of the bill saying, look, the technology is easily there and this is really the way to go forward and it's time for Detroit to stop opposing this.
FLATOW: The energy bill also has a carbon capture section to it, which is looking for large-scale demonstrations of sequestering, I guess, carbon dioxide from coal-burning power plants, where you inject it into the ground. Correct?
Mr. GEMAN: That's correct.
FLATOW: What are the prospects for that actually working? It's never really been tested on a large scale, has it?
Mr. GEMAN: It has not been subjected to, sort of, verified large-scale long-term testing, and that's one of the biggest issues before Congress right now, is it seeks to grapple with global warming. I mean, look, coal is here. We have a huge amount of it. And it's going to be - right now, it provides over 50 percent of our electric power. And the question becomes how to have it, sort of, continue to play such a major role in providing energy for the country, while at the same time, doing something with all the carbon that comes from burning it. And so, what the Senate bill will do would be to, sort of, try and continue and attract increase Energy Department programs to test and to demonstrate large-scale carbon sequestration.
FLATOW: Let's move over to the other side of the Capitol for a moment. How is the House energy bill different from the Senate?
Mr. GEMAN: Well, what's happening on the House is that the House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is trying to get a package through that chamber some time during July. And a very interesting thing happened over the last couple of weeks, which is some lawmakers on the House Energy Committee were forced to essentially punt on a few provisions, which were getting a lot of push back.
Let's start with what's going to be in it. It does things on increasing appliance efficiency standards, things like washers and lighting and other product that suck up a lot of power. So we would sort of try and basically get DOE to move more quickly on what's been a somewhat sluggish program to increase those standards. And then, it would also do things to try and, you know, perhaps make the electric power transmission grid more efficient and a little bit smarter, so to speak.
And there's going to be other things in there largely aimed at energy efficiency and renewables. What was not in it was a provision that some members the Energy and Commerce Committee or what won't be in it is something that's the members of the Energy and Commerce Committee had been pushing, which would be some very major federal price supports for making - for coal-to-liquids plants. The chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee panel that deals with this the most, lawmaker named Rick Boucher of Virginia, was forced to sort of retreat on that and said that that's going to be sort of punted later in the year when the chamber tries to address a global warming bill.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. So stuff that might not happen now might come up later in that global warming bill?
Mr. GEMAN: It could. And that gets to one of the bigger fights that's happening on Capitol Hill right now. When you said that lobbyists were swarming the Capitol, I think that was the perfect way to put it, because a very major issue before lawmakers is whether or not coal is going to make the jump from being not only a source of electric power, but whether we could start to use it as fuel for airplanes and other transportation vehicles.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. We've heard talk about the Air Force - which buys a lot, I think the most of the diesel fuel, or most of the jet fuel in the country -talking about throwing its weight behind the energy picture and influencing the future of where energy might go.
Mr. GEMAN: That's absolutely right. I mean, the Air Force, you know, I think they bought on the order of two and a half, perhaps, three billion gallons of jet fuel last year. They are huge purchaser. And what's happening here, around this debate over coal-to-liquids is that it sits very much at the crossroads between efforts to reduce reliance on oil imports, which is a very large issue on Capitol Hill right now, and something that is equally large issue on Capitol Hill right now, which is doing something about global warming. And how the coal-to-liquids debate moves forward, very much sort of depends on how lawmakers can kind of straddle those two issues.
FLATOW: Yeah. They are two separate issues, right? One, you can view it as a patriotic issue as we want to get off foreign oil, so let's do stop this out keep the energy sources here at home. The other one is, well, but you may do that but it may not be good for the environment. If you can - if you want to go to coal and you can't, you know, find a way to take the CO2 out of it, you have one thing going but not the other.
Mr. GEMAN: Well, that's right. That's right. I think there's been some concern that rather than working in harmony is you point out with one another that the policy is on what people refer to as energy independence or energy security, and global warming would start to run a ground of one another. And with coal-to-liquids fuel in particular, a lot of that centers on the extent to which the carbon from those plants could be captured and stored, because - I mean, there's different studies on the issue, but if you don't have carbon capture and storage alongside coal-to-liquids production, the carbon emissions, excuse me, would be on the order as twice as much as regular conventional fuels.
Now, if you do some of the study showed that you could basically get it on par, perhaps a little better, perhaps a little bit worse. And so, a lot of these proposals on coal-to-liquids would seek to also make sure that the plants capture and store the carbon. And what the levels should be, how fusible it is - that's the stuff of the lobbying, and that's the stuff of the big fights right now.
FLATOW: Talking now with Ben Geman, senior reporter for Greenwire and the Environment & Energy Daily in Washington. Ben, do you think that with this emphasis on coal, we're going to see - or is coal going to eclipse the other renewable energy research or funding for it?
Mr. GEMAN: Oh, I don't think so. I mean, right now you've got, if you look at the leadership of both the House and Senate right now, there's a very strong interest, you know, despite from the setbacks on the Senate bill. I think there's very strong interest in researching both renewable sources of power as well as looking at ways - you know, this is just essential for the future of coal - as well as looking at ways to be able to continue to use coal, certainly as an electric power source, perhaps, other transportation fuel, in a way that doesn't have these major carbon emissions associated with it right now.
So at the very least, we're seeing efforts to ramp up, funding for efforts to sort of look at carbon capture and storage and ways to kind of to continue to use coal, certainly as an electric power source, perhaps as a transportation fuel, in a way that doesn't have these major carbon emissions associated with it right now. So at the very least, we are seeing efforts to ramp up funding for efforts to sort of look at carbon capture and storage and ways to kind of -at least, if not perfect that - at least get a lot better at it to the point where it will be viable.
FLATOW: One thing that was missing was something that the president was trying to promote this week and that is nuclear energy.
Mr. GEMAN: Yeah, that's right. That was not a part of the Senate package. I mean, I think that the - you know, nuclear has support in both parties in a lot of ways. But if you look at the major energy legislation of that the House, excuse me, that was passed into law in 2005, that had several incentives for construction of nuclear power plants and getting going on the licensing of those. So that was not an issue that they really took up in a big way in this bill.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. All right, Ben, stay with us. Our number, 1-800-989-8255. Let me bring on Corale Brierley, who is chair of the Committee on Coal Research, Technology and Resource Assessments to Inform Energy Policy at the National Research Council. She is the lead author of a new report from the National Research Council that says we don't have good estimates of how much coal is out there and what the quality of the coal is. She's also president of Brierley Consultations, or Consultancy in Highlands Ranch, Colorado. She joins us today from Colorado Public Radio in Centennial. Welcome to the program, Dr. Brierley.
Dr. CORALE BRIERLEY (President, Brierley Consultancy): Well, thank you very much, Ira, and thank you for inviting me to participate with you on this particular program.
FLATOW: How do you view there what's going on with coal on Capitol Hill?
Dr. BRIERLEY: Well, this particular study that was undertaken by the National Research Council, which is an arm of the National Academies, really focused on the upstream aspects of coal. And by upstream, what we mean is the mining, the processing, and the transport of that coal to market.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And what did you find? Give us a little nutshell of the findings of your committee.
Dr. BRIERLEY: Well, basically, despite the small size of the industry - and to put the coal industry into perspective - it's about one-tenth the size of Wal-Mart in terms of revenues, but it's an integral component of the U.S. economy. And as your previous speaker, Ben, pointed out, we provide - the coal industry provides about 23 percent or a quarter, if you will, of all the energy consumed in the United States, and 20 - and 50 percent, over 50 percent of all of the electrical power.
So - since you've what - we found on examination of the production and used forecasts - and these were examination of existing data principally from the Energy Information Administration - that coal is indeed going to provide a major portion of this country's energy requirements for at least the next several decades.
Dr. BRIERLEY: We also found that to fulfill this need, it's going to be imperative that we have accurate information describing the amount, location and quality of our nation's coal resources, and that we in fact extract our coal resources efficiently, safely and in an environmentally responsible manner. And to achieve this, our committee is recommending a renewed focus on federally supported research and development coordinated across agencies and with active participation of the states in the industrial sector.
FLATOW: This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.
Now, I like to get to some facts in your report.
Dr. BRIERLEY: All right.
FLATOW: Dr. Brierley, let's talk very nice policy statements. Let's talk the facts, ma'am, just the facts. Okay?
Dr. BRIERLEY: All right.
FLATOW: You found out, though, that there's not as much coal in Them Thar Hills as we thought there was.
Dr. BRIERLEY: Well, we certainly - it's very clear from our study that the U.S. has sufficient coal through the year 2030. And the U.S. probably has…
FLATOW: But we've heard that - we've heard that there's 250 years of coal - the Coal Institute keeps talking about it. You said there's a little less, and that's something like 100 maybe, 100 hundred years?
Dr. BRIERLEY: That is correct. Yes, it's - there's probably sufficient coal for the next 100 years, but that's at current consumption rates, which is 1.1 billion tons a years. However, it was really not possible for the committee to confirm what you just stated, the off-corded assertion that the U.S. has sufficient coal for the next 250 years. But I'd like to clarify that. The committee is not saying that we don't have sufficient coal for 250 years. It was just not simply possible to confirm that supply because of the unreliability of the data.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And what is - and what did you find about how easy it is to get this coal out of the ground in environmentally safe way?
Dr. BRIERLEY: Well, this - it's - the fact is, is that it's going to become increasingly more challenged as we go forward to mine coal, and the reason for this is because the industry takes the easiest seams to mine first.
Dr. BRIERLEY: And so, as these easy seams become depleted, what happens is we're going to end up in more challenging mining conditions. And this has implications for health and safety of mine workers. It has implications on the environment, because you - as you mine deeper, you have to start taking perhaps more material that is going to have to be - that's not coal - that has to be removed.
So it has implications on processing, which means you have more waste products you have to dispose of. And it certainly has implications in terms of advanced technologies, because we are going to require - this nation is going to require advanced technologies for not only the mining, but the processing side.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. And there's very little money being put in to studying coal, isn't it?
Dr. BRIERLEY: Well, the committee that was convened did look at how much money there is. And this fits in with what Ben said earlier - there is about $538 million that was spent in fiscal year 2005. But in fact, over 90 percent of that money went toward the downstream aspects of coal, and that's coal use, principally…
Dr. BRIERLEY: …and carbon capture and storage that less than 10 percent of that $538 million was actually spent on the upstream aspects, which include health and safety, resource and reserve assessment, environment and reclamation and advance mining technologies.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. So, the new technologies - having really been researched - was sort of stuck there?
Dr. BRIERLEY: That's correct, and that is the reason this committee is recommending $144 million per year increase, in federal funding. And one of those - one of the provisions within $144 million was something Ben mentioned earlier, which is we believe that the, there should be additional identification of sites for CO2 sequestration.
FLATOW: All right.
Dr. BRIERLEY: And we are recommending that the U.S. Geological Survey coordinate and cooperate with the Department of Energy, which we all know has a very large program already in carbon capture and storage.
FLATOW: Well, that is a tough nut to crack, the sequestration - a riddle there.
(Soundbite of music)
FLATOW: We are going to have to take short break. Come back and talk lots more about coal. Our number, 1-800-989-8255, if you would like to talk to Corale Brierley or Ben Geman. Stay with us we will be right back with another guest, after this break.
(Soundbite of music)
FLATOW: I am Ira Flatow and this is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.
We're talking about the future of coal this hour with my guests Corale Brierley of the National Research Council, Ben Geman of Greenwire. Our number, 1-800-989-8255. Lots of people would like to talk about energy so let's go to the phones. Let's go to Eric in Halfway, Oregon. Hi, Eric.
ERIC (Caller): Hi.
FLATOW: Hi, there.
ERIC: Thanks for taking my call. I've been a longtime listener - the first time I've ever called in. And this is a little bit more, and probably, maybe more addressed to Ben to start with. But there is a process that I've been working with some folks at Los Alamos Labs to begin to study that might be both a solution to global warming and an energy source.
ERIC: And it starts from a very old process or a very old thing that in Brazil they call terra preta or Amazonian dark earth. And basically, what it all stems from is, they made charcoal and put it into the soil to make it much more productive. And some of that soil is - had carbon in it for 5,000 years. So we could improve our national soils on our farmlands.
And the benefit of that is that it keeps the fertility in the soil much longer and sequesters it so it can't be leeched out with water, but it's still available to plants. We could use all of our forest and farm residues that are organic and make that into charcoal. But also in the charcoal making process, there's potential to get extracts such as tar and different things come out that ConocoPhilips has funded a study at Iowa State to look at how that can be turned into biofuels.
And I was just wondering - we have a congressional aide who's working on, kind of trying to get some of that work into the, into the bill that may come out either this energy bill or this future global warming bill. And I wonder if you've heard anything about that or whether you've heard anything about this particular technology.
FLATOW: Ben Geman, have you heard anything about this?
Mr. GAMEN: This is the first time. It actually sounds very interesting. I'd like to learn more about it. I mean, I think, in part, what that demonstrates is that, you know, in a lot ways, the future's kind of wide open as to which types of technologies are ultimately going to sort of, you know, make their way into the mainstream and perhaps, carry the day on this sort of suite of efforts to address carbon. But it, look, as far as what he was mentioning, I'd like to learn more because that is the first I've heard of it.
FLATOW: Doctor Brierley?
Dr. BRIERLEY: I'm afraid I don't - I can't add much more than what Ben's already added to that. I'm not familiar with that study.
FLATOW: Sometimes our listeners are just too far ahead on the curve.
ERIC: Well, there's certainly - I would be happy to communicate with anybody. There's been work done by organic gardeners using some of these work. But we're trying to get funding, a joint forest service, a Los Alamos project to test using forest residues that we are currently trying to burn up in the woods, basically producing carbon to feed - to be made into charcoals so that we don't have the carbon production and reduce those forest fuels that are producing forest fires and make energy and improve our farmlands with it.
FLATOW: Wow. And you say there was - there was somebody working on the bill in Congress on it then?
ERIC: Yeah. We have a contact trying to get it in into this - into either one of these energy bills or whatever, who is a personal acquaintance of mine.
FLATOW: Well, some folks - a lot of folks in Washington listen to this show, so maybe it will get some movement on it. Thanks for calling, Eric. Good luck to you.
ERIC: Very good. You bet. Bye.
FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. I'd like to bring out my next guest. Richard Bajura is director of the National Research Center for Coal and Energy at West Virginia University in Morgantown. He joins us today by phone from Washington, Pennsylvania, where he stepped out of an energy meeting to talk with us. Thank you for taking that time Dr. Bajura.
Dr. RICHARD BAJURA (Director, National Research Center for Coal and Energy, West Virginia University): My pleasure. Thanks for inviting me.
FLATOW: West Virginia is a coal state. I understand that your governor, Joe Mansion, is a supporter of building coal-to-liquid plants in the state.
Dr. BAJURA: Yes. Our governor looks at coal as being a major part of our economy. And he is one of about 10 other governors who believes that we need to look at coal as a source of liquid fuels for energy independence.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. What do you say about the problem that turning coal into liquid is polluting even more so than current technologies unless there's a way to capture the carbon?
Dr. BAJURA: Well, there's an issue that I think we have to understand - if we look at coal with one carbon and one hydrogen, if we want to make a liquid out of it, we have to add another hydrogen to get that. It comes from water. We need to put energy into it. That requires carbon dioxide emissions if we're using fossil fuels. So that's the price of the game.
But I believe if we can use technology such as an indirect liquefaction where we could capture this carbon easily, we can continue to use coal as a source of liquid fuels.
FLATOW: But isn't that the issue that's basically holding back support for the - these bills in Congress?
Dr. BAJURA: Yes, I understand that that's some of the current discussion. We have to balance energy independence considerations with the global climate change considerations, but I believe technology exists where we can capture the carbon that would be produced by, let's say, a gasification process and then sequestered.
FLATOW: Dr. Brierley, would you - do you agree with that?
Dr. BRIERLEY: Well, I agree with that in a sense that we're certainly going to need to look at CO2 sequestration. Our studies certainly found that the future of coal is inextricably linked with carbon emissions, and one of the major components of that is our ability to capture and sequester that safely. And -so I agree with what your other speakers are saying.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Is that something that scientists are working on, Richard Bajura?
Dr. BAJURA: Yes. So there is major program in the federal government in carbon capture and storage. If you are following the House Appropriations process, they're advocating - allocating $130 million to carbon capture and storage technologies and perhaps, even more if you look at other parts of the budget. I think the technology is there. I think we have to show that it can be deployed successfully and then go about doing it.
FLATOW: I understand that your group at West Virginia University is working with the Chinese.
Dr. BAJURA: Yes. China, as your word, does not have a large source of petroleum and they're looking at ways to have energy independence themselves. In the Shenhua Province in Western China, the Shenhua Coal Company is - excuse me, Shaanxi Province - the Shenhua Coal Company is looking at putting in place a direct coal liquefaction plant that would produce up to 20,000 barrels per day of liquid fuels from coal.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Ben Geman, are there U.S. coal companies that have plans in the works?
Mr. GEMAN: There are. There are several actually. And that's one of the reasons why we're seeing so much activity on Capitol Hill. I mean, the basic issue is that building these plants would be - even though we have a lot of coal, as the guests have been discussing, building these plants would be very, very expensive to make a big coal-to-liquids refinery. It would be billions of dollars actually.
And the big issue right now, which is why, you know, we've - seems like we won't see large-scale production absent in major, sort of, federal jumpstart for it, is that it looks like Wall Street investors just aren't willing to commit the major capital to this in part because of fears that it, you know, that the technology can be undercut by falling oil prices.
And so if you look at various different pieces of legislation that have been kicking around and been proposed, they all have some permutation of some type of either federal loans or also long-term contracting authority for the military to provide sort of a guaranteed market for these fuels. So the big sort of basically kick-start this industry because, I mean, a lot of the reporting I've done suggests that even though there's great interest in doing this, as far as, you know, actually committing capital to these multi-billion dollar plants, we're unlikely to see that at least in the near term on a big scale absence, a lot of federal support.
FLATOW: Richard Bajura, where are you looking for leadership, government leadership here?
Dr. BAJURA: We're looking for leadership from the government in terms of advancing some funding for the basic research where we could show that we can develop new technologies or advances over the older technologies. The Fischer-Tropsch process, the direct liquefaction process, which we use for coal liquids right now is an old technology, but there are ways that we can improve it.
And as we stated, if we can remove the risk from putting these plants in place and show that coal-to-liquids can be produced at a low dollar cost per barrel so that we don't have to worry about being undercut, I think this technology could be deployed.
FLATOW: I want to thank you for taking time to be with us today. I know you're busy. I know you have a meeting you're attending. Thank you very much.
Dr. BAJURA: My pleasure.
FLATOW: Richard Bajura is director of the National Research Center for Coal and Energy at Western Virginia University in Morgantown, West Virginia.
Our number, 1-800-989-8255.
Let me ask you, Dr. Brierley, what do you think the odds are that this is going to move forward?
Dr. BRIERLEY: Well, I think - I'm - we're, of course, very optimistic. We had meetings earlier this week on Capitol Hill and discussed our findings. And I believe that because coal and the committee believes that because coal is in fact going to play an important role, irregardless of future coal production, whether this increases or not, that the issues that we've addressed in our study are going to have to be taken up.
Because as I indicated, things - it's going to become more challenging, which despite whether coal production is greatly increased - say, doubling - we're still going to have the same issues even if we continue on with the production that we have.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And, Ben, let me get back to an issue we tackled earlier in the hour, and that is something that did not make this energy bill, and that was a requirement about that 15 percent of what power plants generate come from renewable energy sources. A heavy lobbying against that?
Mr. GEMAN: There was. What basically happened was that even though this - what these things would be called. It would be - what would be called a national renewable electricity standard or renewable portfolio standard. And such standards at varying levels and percentages already exist in over 20 states. But there's been a big push to have a sort of national market - renewables market created. And the push back came largely from lawmakers in southeastern states in particular.
And what the fear that they put forward was and the concern was that because some of those states have access to fewer wind resources, in particular, that their utilities would have a very difficult time meeting the standard and consequently would be financially penalized, either because they would need to purchase credits or because they would have to make this alternative compliance payments to the federal government.
Now, there is a lot of counter arguments on the other side saying look, that fear is unfounded. If nothing else, there's a large amount of biomass resources in the Southeast that utilities can make use of in order to meet that 15 percent standard. One thing I think is probably worth mentioning is, I think this issue is going come back.
Mr. GEMAN: There's a lot support for this and it didn't come up for a vote. On the Senate side - just go around. But, you know, I'd look for this to come back in the near future.
FLATOW: One more call. Glen in Washington, D.C. Welcome.
GLEN (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking the call. I was calling because I think, you know, it's sort of ridiculous to be talking about adding additional federal subsidies for coal when the liquid coal industry itself basically admitted during the debate that their promises to reduce carbon dioxide emissions are bogus.
Senator Jon Tester offered an amendment that would have conditioned federal subsidies on reduction - actually achieving these reductions in green house gas emissions. And the coal-to-liquids people turned around really fast and came out and actually opposed having substantive condition on that types of green house gas emissions that they themselves had testified that it'd be able to achieve.
And then what you had on top of that, you know, the fact that 30,000 people die every year from poison from coal-powered plants, or, you know, the mountaintop mining effects et cetera, et cetera, I think you're seeing a lot of good money go after bad when you - there's a lot more potential for the bigger eco-bang for buck by investing in things like wind energy, and solar energy which are still in their technological infancy and can benefit a lot more from federal support.
FLATOW: Dr. Brierley, any comment?
Dr. BRIERLEY: Well, I do, in fact, I have a comment on that. Our study really focused on the forecast that are already out there - as I mentioned the Energy Information Administration and others. And all of these projections point to the fact that coal is going to play a role in the energy mix in this country for at least the next two decades. And, we can do some things now to mitigate some of the problems through research and development that our listener, Glen, is speaking about, particularly, environmental issues. There's legacy issues out there that the funding that we are recommending that Congress put forth are going to mitigate some of these effects as well as address some of this new issues that we know we're going to come up.
FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.
Thanks for calling, Glen.
GLEN: Thank you.
FLATOW: And if we go to more coal - if we find way to sequester the CO2 and then mine more coal, we're going to be mining more coal and we're going to have more of these environmental and health issues. And no one has talked about the mercury problem here and how that might be magnified.
Mr. GEMAN: (Unintelligible)
FLATOW: The mercury that's in the coal. Yeah, go ahead, Ben.
Mr. GEMAN: Oh, I'm sorry. Yeah, I mean that's been a aspect of the debate which is that, looking at the - well, you mentioned a couple of things, but you've got environmental groups pushing very hard against coal-to-liquids. And a lot of the discussion of the legislation gets to - all of the legislation or, most of it would require some level of carbon capture and sequestration and some level of reduction and green house gas emissions from the fuels.
And the question is, you know, what precisely those levels would be? Would they have to be 20 percent below conventional gasoline? Is that too difficult to achieve? Which is what the industry has said. So, a lot of the debate turns on that.
But also, what environmental groups have been fighting very hard against coal-to-liquids - a big point that they've been making - is that, yes, there are other emissions associated with coal but they've been looking to say, look, the upstream impacts, so to speak, the environmental effects of mining coal - that on it's phase, in their view, should make coal-to-liquids a nonstarter.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And you say that a lot of the stuff which was - didn't make into this bill might be re-examined in a green house gas bill later on.
Mr. GEMAN: That's right.
FLATOW: Are we going to see one? Are we going to see a legislation now? Is the Congress and the Senate feeling emboldened now they have sort of a victory here, to go after carbon tax something like that later in the year.
Mr. GEMAN: Well, sure. I mean, look, Democratic leaders in both chambers want to do something on creating what would be the first. You know, first ever in the U.S., mandatory controls on green house gas emissions. Now, how they skin that cat is of course the largest debate we're going to have in a long time on any environmental issue that's already going full force.
The House - the energy legislation the House wants to take up this summer is not going to address that issue. They do want to address that later on in the year, and they do want to sort of try and put a place on type of economy-wide control.
And I think the Senate is trying to follow suit. You got Senator Barbara Boxer of California, who heads the Senate Environmental Committee, who's working very hard on this. Now, what can be achieved and certainly what could get by the president, that's of course a big question, and there's a lot of doubt there.
FLATOW: I want to thank you both for taking time to be with us, and have a great weekend.
Mr. GEMAN: Thank you.
Dr. BRIERLEY: Thank you.
FLATOW: You're welcome. Corale Brierley, who's chair of the Committee on Coal Research, Technology and Resource Assessments to Inform Energy Policy at the National Research Council, which is part of the National Academies of Science, and president of Brierley Consultancy in Highlands Ranch, Colorado. And also with us is Ben Geman, who's a senior reporter for Greenwire, and Environment & Energy Daily in Washington, D.C.