Greg Boyce, CEO of Peabody Energy, the world's largest privately held coal company, stepped to a podium Saturday afternoon at Washington University's Symposium on Global Energy Future and launched into a PowerPoint presentation that featured slides titled "fossil fuels are here to stay."
A few minutes later, roughly two dozen students and environmental activists rose to their feet and started taking off their clothes.
In groups of two or three they stripped off their sweatshirts and jackets revealing bright yellow t-shirts. They held up hand-painted signs with messages like "Coal does not solve poverty, it causes it," "Clean Coal is a dirty lie," and "Get off my board," the latter referencing Boyce's position on Wash U's Board of Trustees.
Boyce ignored the disruption and continued speaking for roughly twenty minutes. He emphasized the importance of decreasing the environmental impact of burning coal and of "eliminating energy povery" in the third world by supplying developing nations with coal-fueled electricity.
"No other energy source comes close to the power of coal," he said at one point, "It would take 1,800 times as many solar panels as we currently have, 2.5 million wind turbines, and 1,150 new nuclear plants [to produce an equivalent amount of energy as current coal production.]"
Boyce ended his speech with a plea for cooperation between environmental groups and business interests. "We've become paralyzed by divisions," he said. "We need to bridge our divides."
His speech was followed by a presentation by a representative from of the U.S. Department of Energy and a discussion session. Several of the protestors stepped to the microphone to ask questions, some of which were dismissed by the moderator, Pratim Biswas, the chair of Wash U's engineering department.
Arielle Klagsbrun, the co-president of Wash U's Green Action and one of the organizers of the protest, said that her goal was "to respectfully show that my generation will not let a coal CEO dictate our energy future." She said that after the speech she was "approached by Wash U's chief of police, who complimented our actions."
Asked what he thought of the students' criticism, Wash U Chancellor Mark Wrighton said that the University "is fortunate to be partners with Peabody, Arch Coal and AmerenUE," and that their funding "provides for the U.S. and other countries a chance for a better future."
As for the protest, Wrighton remarked: "It was fine with one exception -- they were obstructing the views of some members of the audience."
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