Coal Becomes New Political Battleground - 8 News NOW

Jonathan Humbert, Reporter

Coal Becomes New Political Battleground

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Senator Harry Reid Senator Harry Reid

It powers the lights on your porch, the neon of the Strip and the cool air in your house every summer. But coal power has now become a political issue, and your pocketbook is caught in between.

Well, it's much more hidden than some would like. And from the power in your socket to the power in Washington D.C., coal is the new political battleground. And both parties have different ideas of what is right -- and what is realistic.

It is both essential and expendable, reliable and yet destructive. But the coal we use has more to it than we can see -- from the towers of steam and smoke to the columns and corridors of power in Washington.

Republican Senator John Ensign is a major supporter of coal power and making it as clean as they can. "We are the Saudi Arabia of coal -- that's the United States," he said.

But he considers himself a realist, batting away the hope for solar farms stretching from Carson City to Clark County.

"We are going to become the leader in solar power, there's no question about that. But solar power cannot meet all of our needs," said Ensign.

Simply put, supporters say coal is here, it's now and it's the cheapest way to go.

"The power companies are making a huge mistake," said Harry Reid.

Others like Senate Majority Leader Reid say the concept of clean coal is a myth. "There isn't any, it doesn't exist. There's cleaner coal technology. Some plants burn not as dirty as others, but they're all dirty."

But this ongoing fight is now split down party lines. Democrats think coal is antiquated and deadly. Republicans push cleaner technology, and are quick to point out the United States has plenty of coal for the future -- no need for foreign sources.

"I want to become less dependent on Venezuela, on Saudi Arabia, on Iraq, on Iran -- those countries who are not necessarily friendly to the United States," said Ensign.

But Senator Reid laughs that criticism off, saying that environmental protection goes beyond political parties.

"Why do you think the 'ultra liberal' states of Kansas and Oklahoma said no coal?" asked Reid.

And as the parties play politics, neither side has the solution on how to get the power without the problems.

The Senate continues to debate a major bill that reduces greenhouse gas emissions. That bill will come up for a vote in a matter of weeks in the same committee that heard the Yucca Mountain debate earlier this month.

Nevada Power continues to push for a new coal power plant in White Pine County about 250 miles from Las Vegas.

While science is always advancing, the story begins in the past, with a coal plant right in our own backyard.

Professor Robert Boehm is a leading advocate of solar power. But he also is a realist behind the center for energy research at UNLV. "Coal is laying out there by the gazillions of tons. There's lots of it. I would say we don't have 100-percent buy in on how big a problem CO2 really is."

And that problem is the key concern behind the scientific fight over coal power.

Roberto Denis of Nevada Power says the company is always caught in a multibillion dollar highwire act. "It is substantially cleaner than it was 30 years ago. We need to balance the cost to the consumer, the reliability and the environmental impacts."

But 45 minutes away from Las Vegas lies the Reid Gardner Power Plant -- considered a relic by environmentalists and essential by Nevada Power. But locked away inside the coal that runs the plant lies mercury, sulfur and potential for pollution.

Carbon dioxide -- Co2 -- is the major pollutant. But Denis says Reid Gardner and old coal are part of the past.

"As opposed to being hysterical about abandoning and what impact it has, we really should be looking for solutions," he said.

Denis says that comes in the form of cleaner coal that burns more efficiently. It also includes a new plant in White Pine County that would capture the Co2 and ship it elsewhere.

But water is another worry. The Interior Department says plants use thousands of gallons of water a minute. After it works its way through the plant, it becomes tough to use, packed with toxic chemicals.

The new plant in Ely is supposed to use less water by allowing cold air to cool the turbines. Both sides agree cleaner coal is an imperfect stepping stone along the path to cleaner air.

"We're really talking about trading in our 1970s Impala for a 2007 Prius," said Denis.

And Professor Boehm says that analogy applies, but even the best technology can only go so far. "Because there's still the issue of CO2 related to it. And the only way you can get around that one, is by sequestering it."

While Nevada won't be weaned off coal anytime soon, the controversial black rock could begin burning at a new plant -- clean or otherwise -- in just 48 months.

Email your comments to Reporter Jonathan Humbert.

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