“There is a thing called clean coal. Coal will last for 1000 years in this country,” declared Donald Trump during the second presidential debate with Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton last night at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo.
Energy policy and, briefly, climate change took the stage near the end of the rancorous 1.5-hour debate when the candidates were asked by an audience member how they would meet energy needs in an environmentally friendly manner while minimizing job losses for fossil power plant workers. The moderators asked the Republican candidate to answer the question first.
Trump, who has called climate change a hoax, said he is “all for” alternative energy but that the country needs more than wind and solar. Trump added, “Now we have natural gas and so many other things because of technology. We have unbelievable—we have found over the last 7 years, we have found tremendous wealth right under our feet.”
Commenting on the debate, Michael Mann, professor of meteorology and director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University in University Park, Pa., said that a falsehood lay at the core of Trump’s statement that there is such a thing as “clean” with regard to coal. “There is not,” Mann told Eos shortly after the debate ended.
“At present there is no commercially viable, widely deployable technology to capture the CO2 [carbon dioxide] that is released into the atmosphere from the burning of coal—CO2 that we know is doing great damage to us and the planet through unprecedented rates of planetary warming and climate change,” Mann said.
The U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Fossil Energy, which funds clean coal research, predicts on its website that “the tools and technologies that can turn the concept of a virtually zero-emission—including carbon dioxide (CO2)—coal-based energy plant into a viable reality” will emerge “within the coming decade.”
Fossil Fuels Under Siege?
Trump also claimed that energy is “under siege” by the Obama administration. He argued that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) “is so restrictive that they are putting our energy companies out of business.”
“Hillary Clinton wants to put all the miners out of business,” he charged.
Emily Southard, campaign director for ClimateTruth.org, a nonprofit based in Oakland, Calif., challenged those remarks. “Donald Trump claimed the EPA is killing American jobs, but climate change is the real economic threat that we can’t afford,” she said.
Southard told Eos that her group submitted to the debate moderators a petition with more than 15,000 signatures calling for a debate question about climate change. “The lack of meaningful discussion on climate change in the debates has been outrageous, and it’s a disservice to the American people.”
Clean Energy Superpower
Clinton’s answer to the energy question countered Trump regarding miners, saying she has a plan to revitalize coal country. “I don’t want to walk away from them. So we’ve got to do something for them,” she said.
“I have a comprehensive energy policy, but it really does include fighting climate change, because I think that is a serious problem,” Clinton said. “And I support moving toward more clean, renewable energy as quickly as we can, because I think we can be the 21st century clean energy superpower and create millions of new jobs and businesses.”
Clinton said that producing natural gas “serves as a bridge to more renewable fuels. And I think that’s an important transition.”
Southard criticized Clinton’s stances as too limited and fossil-fuel dependent. “For her part, Secretary Clinton acknowledged the threat of global warming, but she didn’t go far enough. Natural gas isn’t part of the solution, it’s part of the problem. We need a rapid transition to renewable fuels now, and we need a meaningful debate about how to get there.”
A Stark Choice
Energy and climate experts expressed disappointment that energy and climate issues have not been discussed in depth at the debates, and they drew sharp distinctions between the candidates.
“I am disappointed we aren’t having a more robust discussion of the topic [of energy] thus far in the debates,” said Scott Segal, head of the government relations practice at Bracewell in Washington, D. C., a law and government relations firm serving the oil and gas, power, and other industries. “Energy questions are of extraordinary importance to the economy and national security,” Segal told Eos, noting that the first debate devoted 82 seconds to the topic and that the second debate relegated the issue to nearly the end.
Segal noted that Trump brought up regulatory reform in the context of energy, which Segal said seemed to refer to the candidate’s position on several climate-related administration proposals, including the EPA’s Clean Power Plan (CPP) to reduce carbon pollution from power plants. Trump has threatened to scrap CPP, whereas Clinton has vowed to defend it.
John Grunsfeld, former associate administrator for science for NASA, tweeted about the debate. “Finally at the end of the debate mention of Climate change-the biggest issue facing the world, our economy, health, and security,” he wrote.
“We have a stark choice before us in a few weeks,” said Mann. “We can decide to either move forward and embrace energy and climate progress, building on the successes of the current administration…or throw it all away.”
—Randy Showstack, Staff Writer
Showstack, R. (2016), Trump touts “clean coal” in second debate, Eos, 97, https://doi.org/10.1029/2016EO060819. Published on 10 October 2016.
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