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Democracy & Technology Blog Tom Friedman Gets Real

Tom Friedman of the New York Times has been on a moral crusade these past few years. An environmental crusade. A “geo-green” crusade to persuade you that you are destroying the planet with your cars and your electronic gadgets, which, respectively, consume oil and coal. These modern necessities emit carbon dioxide, as you do when you exhale. We are scorching, frying, boiling, cooking, broasting, and broiling the earth, he has told us, over and over. It is a moral imperative to conserve energy and to move quickly to alternative sources. Only alternative energy is acceptable — indeed, ethical. Anything less is immoral and even unpatriotic because the environment is now the key geopolitical issue.
But today all of Friedman’s moral posturing comes crashing down to meet reality. Coal is the answer, Friedman says. This “green lump” is now his favorite “‘green’ energy source.” To meet our constantly rising electricity consumption, we’ll need coal to do it. And we can use clean coal technologies — from smokestack scrubbers to CO2 sequestration — to reduce emissions. Welcome to the club, Mr. Friedman.
Everyone who really knows anything about energy science and economics has been saying this for years. Of course, our preferred source of future electricity is nuclear power — lots and lots of it. It’s the cleanest and cheapest of all. There are some 15 new U.S. nuclear plants at various stages of development and approval. But it will take years to build these new plants, and even then the currently planned nukes won’t be able to keep up with our electricity needs, especially as many of them will only be replacing old nukes that will be going out of service. So inevitably for the next few years and even decade or two, we will need lots of new coal plants. We’ve got some 500 billion tons of coal right in the U.S. (Illinois and Montana might both have more coal than Saudi Arabia has oil). And we’ve got the technologies to make coal more efficient and clean.
Mr. Friedman still reverts to his old uneconomic ways when he endorses a dangerous $40-per-barrel price floor for oil and other government intrusions. But given his endless villifications of fossil fuels and alternative hypes de jour, at least he has admitted that coal is crucial in the short to medium-term. The moralist is getting real.
-Bret Swanson

Bret Swanson

Bret Swanson is a Senior Fellow at Seattle's Discovery Institute, where he researches technology and economics and contributes to the Disco-Tech blog. He is currently writing a book on the abundance of the world economy, focusing on the Chinese boom and developing a new concept linking economics and information theory. Swanson writes frequently for the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal on topics ranging from broadband communications to monetary policy.