Two Cheers for Clean Coal

We need to invest in carbon sequestration not for our sake — but for India and China.

I think it’s terrific that the Coen Brothers are making funny, effective ads against relying on “clean coal” as part of the US energy program. But I worry that the clean energy community is really missing the boat here.

Clean coal research and development is absolutely crucial in fighting climate change not for us, but for India and China. India has the fourth largest reserves of coal in the world — most of it very dirty, with high ash content. It currently imports 70% of its oil, which will rise to 90% by 2020 (this according to Edward Luce’s fabulous book In Spite of the Gods.). China, meanwhile, is both the world’s largest producer and the largest consumer of coal power.

I want them to switch to solar and wind as much as anyone else. But I have yet to see any credible estimates that India or China can grow in the way that they want to — and justifiably expect to — purely through renewables. It’s going to be hard enough for the United States to do so, and we still rely heavily on oil.

It is thus in the US interest to push for clean coal development not for us, but for India and China. Without it, they will either continue to burn dirty coal, or start competing with the west for oil supplies. Isn’t the latter good? Don’t we want the price of oil to go up? Yes, but through a carbon tax, not through giving more money to the Saudis or the Iranians (and then borrowing from the Chinese to pay for it).

It is reasonable — and necessary — for the United States to get rid of dirty coal plants. But we can’t expect two poor countries to bear the cost of getting rid of dirty coal for a global public good like climate change mitigation. That means the United States needs to invest in carbon sequestration technology — and in a big way. It doesn’t mean that we should build more coal-fired plants, but as the MIT Future of Coal study noted, the federal government does need to substantially increase its R & D, and coordinate these efforts far better than it has done in the past.

India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has noted that “the quest for energy security is second only in our scheme of things to our quest for food security.” New Delhi (and presumably Beijing) will not stop burning coal just because we want them to do so. We need to help. Rejecting a sensible investment strategy here is going in exactly the wrong direction.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.