President Bush recently acknowledged the need for action on “global climate change,” pledging $2 billion toward developing clean-coal technology over the next 10 years. But what would clean coal do to mitigate the effects of global warming? We sat down Prof. Tom O’Donnell, who teaches an Energy and the Environment class, to find out.

What exactly is clean coal and how is it different from regular coal?

It’s the same coal. There’s no difference. The idea is that new technology will be developed to clean up coal, to make it as clean to burn as natural gas and to make it rival alternative energy. That’s a pipe dream. I’m not saying it’s theoretically impossible, but even over a period of perhaps 20 years of research, you’re not going to get to that point.

How efficient do you think the clean-coal solution would be in terms of taxpayer dollars, environmental effects and lessening our dependence on foreign oil?

The first thing to be clear about is that generating electricity in general has nothing to do with oil. Overwhelmingly, electricity is generated by coal, natural gas, nuclear and by some renewables such as hydropower. Anything to do with generating electricity has nothing to do with oil security; that’s just hype one gets from the media or politicians connecting the question of “clean coal” with energy security or national security.

Do you think clean coal is accurately being represented in the media? Why do you think politicians are latching on to this particular idea right now?

A significant part of electricity is produced by natural gas. Natural gas doesn’t require the same investment in pollution control as a coal plant does, but natural gas was very cheap for a long time. The price of natural gas in the early 2000s went very high. Rather than natural gas or alternative energy, they want to use this very cheap coal, but coal is extremely dirty, so what do you do? You start a campaign calling it “clean coal.”

What role do you see the U.S. taking on in terms of clean coal and alternative energy? What role would you like to see us take?

The U.S. is the one major country in the world that has actively denied global warming and refuses to participate in the major international efforts to mitigate global warming and climate change. There’s a long way to go and it’s a fundamental political question that has to change.

Often, the terms global climate change and global warming are used interchangeably. Are they different factors or is one just a political way to mitigate fears about the actual intensity of global warming?

Apparently people who want to avoid facing up to the realities play games with these words back and forth, kind of like clean coal, but my perception is the climate is changing, it’s getting warmer, so it’s both. They try to obscure the fact that the U.S. is actually a major part of the problem and certainly hasn’t been part of the solution internationally on these questions.

What role do you think the University should take in promoting alternative energy?

There’s actually a new initiative located on North Campus, the Michigan Memorial Phoenix Energy Initiative. The idea is to not only bring together scientists and engineers but also to bring them together with social scientists. This is a very important direction if research into alternative energy is to be effective and actually become policy.

– As told to Rachel Wagner

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