Coal debates light up town meetings

A wind turbine stands behind a mound of coal outside a factory in Buettel, Germany.

TEXT OF STORY

Lisa Napoli: Coal is becoming a political hot potato. If you turn on a light switch in the U.S., there's a 50 percent chance you can trace the power back to coal.

New coal-fired plants in at least a half dozen states have been either scrapped or scaled down because of climate change politics and local groups who don't want them. Marketplace Sustainability reporter Sarah Gardner tells us the issue is drawing big crowds in small towns across America.


Sarah Gardner: Don Shatzer of Waterloo, Iowa says he used to spend his free time golfing and wintering in Florida. But plans to build a new coal-fired power plant on the outskirts of town changed all that.

Now, this Midwestern retiree is organizing a protest campaign and jostling for a seat at public hearings. One dragged on for five hours.

Don Shatzer: We had over 300 people in attendance. Quite a few people standing outside, because the fire marshall was there and wouldn't let everybody in.

Communities all over the country are weighing proposals for new coal-fired power plants. And they're generating vigorous small-town debates, not unlike those inspired by nuclear power plants in the 80's.

Shatzer worries a new coal plant would hurt air quality and increase global warming.

Shatzer: I look at this as an issue for our children's future. And going back to 19th century technology building coal plants that can't sequester carbon is really the wrong way to be going with our energy future.

But these coal hearings draw passionate supporters, too. They're often unions, banking on new jobs. Or they're business leaders.

Take a recent forum in tiny Forest City, North Carolina. Hundreds turned out to sound off on a proposed coal-burning unit nearby. Most of the crowd wanted it, like the county's Chamber of Commerce head, Bill Hall.

Bill Hall: The building of that new plant operation down at Cliffside is gonna provide about 3,000 jobs.

But environmentalist John Thompson, at the Clean Air Task Force, believes growing opposition will persuade more utilities to stop building coal-fired plants. Instead, he believes, some will turn to natural gas, which emits less CO2. Others, he predicts, will start gasifying coal -- which is cleaner, but more expensive.

John Thompson: The reality is that we've got to change the way coal is used, because we can't bet the planet that coal is simply going to disappear over the next 30, 40 years.

Thompson says he knows of at least five utilities that may announce plans for coal gasification facilities by year's end.

I'm Sarah Gardner for Marketplace.

About the author

Sarah Gardner is a reporter on the Marketplace sustainability desk.

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