Wash U. Students Want University to Come Clean on Coal Research

By contrast, coal accounts for more than 80 percent of Missouri's energy. - Image via
By contrast, coal accounts for more than 80 percent of Missouri's energy.
Image via
By contrast, coal accounts for more than 80 percent of Missouri's energy.
For many environmentalists, the phrase "clean coal" is a contradiction in terms on par with "military intelligence" and "jumbo shrimp." But to the Department of Energy, Environmental & Chemical Engineering at Washington University in St. Louis, clean coal is hardly an oxymoron. In fact, it's one of the focal points of their research.

Today, the school kicks off the Symposium on Global Energy Future. Top researchers from 25 universities around globe will be in town to discuss new and innovative eco-friendly technology. Wash U is using the occasion to unveil its Advanced Coal Research Facility and showcase the work of scientists and engineers in their Consortium for Clean Coal Utilization, a program funded in large part by Peabody Energy and Arch Coal, the nation's two largest coal companies.

Students and environmental groups are questioning the ties between the corporations and the school's research, particularly Wash U's willingness to embrace the term "Clean Coal."

"The research they're doing is good," says Peter Murrey, a senior majoring in environmental studies and philosophy. "We need to explore methods to make sure coal is as clean as possible, but call it what it is. It's like if you make a new kind of cigarette, don't call it healthy tobacco."

Pratim Biswas
, the chair of Wash U's engineering department, says the "clean coal" label is not meant to be misleading and that finding a way to minimize the environmental impact of burning the fossil fuel will be critical in the coming years as the energy needs of countries like China and India increase.

"Nobody is saying coal is clean, otherwise we'd be out of business," Biswas says. "Even if we switch to solar and wind we cannot do that today. We have very realistic projections that people are going to be using fossil fuels 50 years later. We need that time to convert to solar wind and other renewable methods, but in those 50 years, we cannot afford to be using coal in a non-environmentally humble manner."

But that logic doesn't sit well with groups like Wash U's Green Action, the Sierra Club and the Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment (MORE). Those groups are organizing a conference of their own -- the Climate Solutions Forum 2010 -- to rival Wash U's symposium. The event begins this afternoon at 3 p.m. at Bowles Plaza on the Wash U undergradute campus with a keynote speech by Whit Jones, field director of the Energy Action Coalition.

"We know dirty energy will not be a part of our future," says Green Action co-director Arielle Klagsbrun, a junior at Wash U. "The future is going to be wind and solar. Look at the schedule [for the Symposium] and you will not see wind. It's very obvious this thing is pushing an agenda and that is coal. Look at the funding and who is speaking. [Peabody's] Greg Boyce is giving a keynote address on the future of fossil fuels. There's no way the CEO of the world's largest coal company can give an unbiased opinion of what the future of fossils fuels can be."

The research being presented at the symposium is not limited to just coal. The school recently received more than $20 million in funding from the U.S. Department of Energy to study solar power, and several sessions will be devoted to solar energy. Additionally, Wash U is dedicating the recently erected Brauer Hall, a LEED-certified building located on the corner of Skinker Boulevard and Forest Park Parkway. The university is also taking steps to be as environmentally conscious as possible during the symposium -- to the point that attendees' name tags will be recyclable. 

But despite the University's best efforts, the students say they will not be satisfied until the school sheds the "clean coal" label once and for all.

"Is it all right to adopt a corporate marketing term for their research?" asks Murrey, who is also affiliated with Green Action. "Right now the university is serving as a billboard for Peabody and Arch. Until we can get honest and call it carbon capture and sequestration we're tarnished by this. It casts doubts in people minds of the legitimacy of the science, and there should be no doubt because these researchers are amazing."

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