MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block. There's a new TV spot out today that takes on the idea of clean coal, a subject that came up in the presidential debates. The election is over, but this policy debate goes on. Our co-host Robert Siegel has been hearing the arguments for and against.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

The new commercial is against clean coal.

(Soundbite of television ad)

Unidentified Actor #1: So let's take a tour of this state-of-the-art clean coal facility. Amazing! The machinery's kind of loud, but that's the sound of clean coal technology.

SIEGEL: That actor is actually walking through a doorway to nowhere. In the middle of a desert, he's pointing to a wilderness. The idea is clean coal is the emperor's new clothes. The reality is it just doesn't exist. The commercial is paid for by the Alliance for Climate Protection, the group chaired by former Vice President Al Gore, who joins us from California. Welcome to the program.

Mr. AL GORE (Chairman, Alliance for Climate Protection): Thank you.

SIEGEL: The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, the group that advertises in favor of clean coal, says they've made a commitment to use coal cleanly, wisely, and they've shown great progress in achieving that goal. What's wrong with that statement?

Mr. GORE: Well, the question is not whether you're for it or against it. The question is whether or not it exists. It is a theoretical possibility. And if it could be brought into existence at some future date, at some unspecified cost, then it would be great. But it doesn't exist now. It's not anywhere close to being a reality. And we cannot continue to have the construction of all these incredibly dirty and dangerous polluting coal plants, which are the principal cause of global warming, proceed on the assumption that this technology is going to soon be available. If it can be created, if it can be paid for, if it works, then wonderful. But let's don't pretend that it exists now. It does not.

SIEGEL: The consulting firm McKinsey & Company studied CO2 capture and storage technologies in Europe, technologies by which you capture nearly all the carbon dioxide that's emitted by a coal-burning plant, and you store it. And they concluded that by the year 2030, this all could check out, at least in Europe. Does 2030 sound like a date that's worth working toward in starting to build pilot projects with?

Mr. GORE: Oh, I'm all for research and development and pilot projects. As of now, however, there is not a single large-scale demonstration project anywhere in the United States of America that is using this carbon capture and sequestration. Theoretically, it can play a significant role, but it's not realistic or sane to build all these incredibly dangerous facilities on the assumption that they can soon be retrofitted with a technology that doesn't yet exist.

SIEGEL: If indeed it's a couple of decades away, is that worth a big investment by the federal government in technologies to make it become feasible? Or should that be the business of the power industry?

Mr. GORE: No. I think it's responsible for the federal government to contribute funds to research and development for the exploration of whether or not this carbon capture and sequestration technology, as they call it, could make coal a responsible and safe energy option.

SIEGEL: What's the incentive to pretend that it's going to be available shortly - for the industry to pretend?

Mr. GORE: If the industry - and the industry has spent a quarter of a billion dollars this year alone in promoting this oxymoron, the phrase clean coal, as if it presently exists. But their incentive to pretend that it may soon be a reality is in order to stave off the regulation of CO2 and the imposition of measures that will sharply reduce the global-warming pollution that is the cause of the climate crisis.

SIEGEL: Former Vice President Al Gore, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. GORE: Thank you.

SIEGEL: The clean coal commercials that inspired Al Gore's group come from an industry group called the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, or ACCCE. Here's part of one of their ads that we recorded off of YouTube.

(Soundbite of ACCCE commercial)

Unidentified Actress: With new technologies, we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and keep energy costs affordable.

Unidentified Actor #2: We will do this.

SIEGEL: And on the screen at the end of that spot, it says "Clean Coal." Joe Lucas is vice president for communications for the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity. Welcome to the program.

Mr. JOE LUCAS (Vice President for Communications, American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity): Thanks so much.

SIEGEL: What do you think of the ad campaign that's now launched against you, saying in reality there's no such thing as clean coal?

Mr. LUCAS: Well, I don't agree with that at all. Clean coal is a term of art that's been around for over 30 years, and it's shorthand for clean coal technology. It is that whole suite of technologies that have been used to reduce the environmental footprint of using coal to generate electricity. We've made tremendous progress in reducing the environmental footprint of using coal to generate electricity.

SIEGEL: When McKinsey & Company, the big consultant firm, studied CO2 capture and storage technologies in Europe, they defined the aim of all of this as capturing around 90 percent of carbon dioxide emissions from a coal-burning plant. If that is what clean coal is, does it exist right now? Is there really an existing big, industrial-scale plant in which you can capture 90 percent of the CO2?

Mr. LUCAS: There is not that plant, but that is not what clean coal is today. Clean coal is an evolutionary term just like medical technology. Thirty years ago, when we didn't have MRI machines, we didn't say that we didn't have medical technology. But now we have medical technology that includes MRI machines, so our understanding of what is medical technology has evolved.

SIEGEL: Don't you think that the analogy between clean coal and medical technology is a bit imperfect here, that clean coal is a value judgment? It implies something good, successful that has happened. Medical technology implies no particular success. It's just a great enterprise. Clean coal seems to imply it's good, it's here.

Mr. LUCAS: I don't agree with you that it is a misnomer or a misuse of the term at all. It is, in fact, talking about this evolutionary progress that we have made over the years. And if you had the vice president and me sitting side by side here in the studio, we would agree that the ultimate goal is to reach that zero emissions portfolio. The answer is how do we get there, how fast and how much does it cost?

SIEGEL: But there is a difference between a process and a product. The process, you're saying, is the process of over the years making clean coal. Right now, the product, clean coal, meaning coal that's been - that emits hardly any carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, that's not here yet.

Mr. LUCAS: Well, somebody asked me that question over a year ago about clean coal. And I said, I learned a long time ago when my mother told me to go clean my room that people's value judgment of what was clean was different. I thought I did a very good job on cleaning my room only to find out that her definition was different. And the fact is...

SIEGEL: What about that McKinsey definition? They said 90 percent of the CO2 emitted from the burning of the - emitted from burning the coal would be captured and then you could store it somewhere.

Mr. LUCAS: That's what they described. When I look at what the majority of Americans say is clean coal is the fact that we're using technology today to reduce the emissions of hazardous air pollutants. And the fact that we will be able to, over the next ten years, begin to bring technologies into the marketplace to capture and store carbon, that's what the American people believe that clean coal is.

SIEGEL: But Mr. Lucas, you're also saying that you've influenced that opinion. I mean, that in part what people are saying clean coal is, is in part what you've gotten them to think it is from campaigning for the past eight years.

Mr. LUCAS: But I think that the American public looks at things. I mean, what you see over time is that today the reality is Americans believe in great measure the coal-based electricity sector has been able to deliver affordable, reliable energy using domestic energy resources where applicable, keep costs low, and continuous environmental improvement. That's what we've done up until this point, and that's what we'll do going forward.

SIEGEL: That's Joe Lucas who is vice president for communications with the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity. Earlier, we heard from former Vice President Al Gore who now chairs the Alliance for Climate Protection.

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