SEAC sponsors climate change forum week before UN summit

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December 4, 2009

3:37 AM

The newly proposed coal-fired power plant in Surry, Va. dominated the discussion between College of William and Mary students and various panelists yesterday at the SEAC-sponsored “Focus the Nation” environmental talk.

Three discussions were held nationwide; the other two were in Mary, Louisiana and Washington, D.C. Focus the Nation is a non-profit group based in Portland, Ore., which strives to promote climate change awareness through civic engagement, according to their website.

Panelists included former Virginia House of Delegates member Brian Moran, Chelsea Harnish, regional coordinator for the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, Al Weed, executive director of Public Policy and Board of Trustees member on Gov. Timothy M. Kaine’s Virginia Land Conservation Foundation, and Dr. Alaric Sample, CEO of the Pinchot Institute for Conservation.

The forum began with a presentation from each panelist about their strategies for educating people on the negative effects of a coal-fired power plant.

Harnish, who was instrumental in creating wind farms off the coast of Cape Cod, Mass., discussed the economic and environmental negative effects of a coal-power plant.

“Burning coal not only contributes to global warming, but the production and transportation of coal is destroying the lives, the culture and the homes of our friends in the Appalachian Mountains,” she said.

Harnish also cited several news clips which reported that the price of coal — and, consequently, the price of coal-powered electricity — had risen by a large amount in the past few years.

“We’re talking about public policy, and public policy is always a matter of choices,” she said.

Weed addressed possible solutions to the problem.

Forty percent of all coal burned in Virginia was also mined in Virginia, but the mining industry only produces about 4,000 jobs per year.

“We’re actually a pretty lousy coal-producing state,” he said.

Weed also said that “Clean Coal,” a process to sequester carbon dioxide out of coal to make it burn cleaner, is also not feasible with current technology.

“I am becoming increasingly convinced that if we don’t really do something about conservation and efficiency, all that we do in alternative energy is marginal,” he said.

He also proposed biomass power plants, which generate power based on biological materials such as wood, waste and alcohol fuels, as a better alternative for the state.

Sample spoke about the establishment of several environmentally based policy groups within the state and U.S. government. He addressed Gov. Kaine’s ongoing efforts to sign international environmental treaties, due to a lack of national coherence in relation to environmental policy.

Moran discussed the public policy aspect of the coal plant. He said that the lack of a market for alternative energy is a large impetus behind companies like Dominion Virginia Power not adopting renewable energy. He said that offshore wind power could easily be taken advantage of as opposed to offshore oil drilling, which is currently the main focus off Virginia’s coastlines.

“If we can successfully construct [a wind farm] off of Cape Cod, we can certainly do it for Virginia Beach,” he said.

Moran also cited several obstacles for proponents of renewable energy. The lifestyle that coal plays in southwest Virginia, where generations of people have mined coal, was one of the hurdles he mentioned.

“[Coal] has become a part of [southwest Virginia’s] culture and traditions,” he said, referring to the act of mining and the industry itself.

In the end, Weed said that promoting environmental conservation inherently lies in the power to change people’s minds and behavior about renewable energy.

“What they don’t know is how to change their own behavior,” Weed said. “Until electricity becomes much more expensive and until we benefit from reducing energy use, we are pushing against a flood — we are not going to get there.”

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