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Thursday, Sept. 30, 2010 04:25 pm

RFK Jr. outlines energy vision

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During a lecture at Millikin University last week, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. told an audience of students, faculty and community members that wind is Illinois’ energy future.
PHOTOS BY PATRICK YEAGLE

Speaking just 30 minutes away from where developers plan a major “clean” coal project, one of the nation’s leading environmental lawyers last week bashed the coal industry as dirty, expensive and dying.

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., the son of assassinated 1968 presidential candidate Bobby Kennedy and a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, was the guest speaker for the 2010 Thomas W. Ewing Lectureship at Millikin University in Decatur. Ewing, a Millikin alum and now a Washington, D.C., lawyer, served in both the Illinois and U.S. House of Representatives.

Comparing coal power to slavery, Kennedy says in both instances powerful corporate interests used their clout to guide public policy to support “immoral” industries. Propped up by enormous subsidies, coal’s prominence in the U.S. energy sector is due only to a system of “corporate cronysim capitalism,” he says.

A true free market system would recognize costs that coal companies now externalize, Kennedy says. Among those costs that are now ignored, he lists damaged human health due to harmful emissions, wasted land due to destructive mining practices and beefed-up roads and rails paid for by the public so private companies can transport coal.

He calls “clean” coal projects “lies” and says that even with carbon capture, stripping the land of its natural resources is to “treat the planet as if it were in business liquidation.” Not naming specific “clean” coal projects, he added that mercury and sulfur emissions would still pose a problem. A proposed coal-to-gas carbon sequestration project planned for Taylorville would capture emissions and sell mercury and sulfur as byproducts [See “The dirty business of ‘clean’ coal,” Aug. 19].

Kennedy’s thoughts on nuclear power aren’t quite as harsh. He says that it could be a viable solution if its waste didn’t pose such a threat, but he adds that waiting for nuclear technology to improve before shifting away from fossil fuels would be too late for the environment. “The tools and the technology are here right now,” he says, listing solar, wind and geothermal power. “It’s just sitting here waiting for us to use it.”

He says wind is Illinois’ greatest energy asset. “It’s ultimately going to be one of the biggest export products of this state,” he predicted. But for renewable energy to truly succeed, the federal government needs to work on building a national transmission grid capable of transporting electricity across greater distances than the current collection of old regional grid systems is capable of doing.

Once the infrastructure is in place, he says, renewable energy – created with less waste and only mechanical maintenance as the recurring costs – will seem practically free. “The market drivers are so compelling. The question is ‘How fast?’” Kennedy says.

He likens a future grid that can better utilize renewable energy to highway, rail and Internet projects. “It’s an investment we have to make to ensure the economic vitality of our generation and future generations.”

Without that investment, the U.S. will continue to rely on other countries for energy supplies, whether oil or renewable resources, he says, naming China as a leader in developing wind and solar energy. “They see this as the arms race of this century.” If the U.S. government doesn’t start making significant progress, Chinese solar panels and wind farms will become the new Saudi oil, Kennedy says. “Eventually we’re going to catch on and realize that’s not in our best interest.”

Asked by an audience member what individuals can do in the meantime, Kennedy, who has never sought public office but hails from a political family and has worked on several Democratic presidential campaigns, says, “Get into politics … It’s much more important to change your politician than your light bulb.”

Contact Rachel Wells at rwells@illinoistimes.com.

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