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Indiana Economic Digest | Indianapolis, IN

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6/25/2010 5:07:00 AM
Fired up: Indiana energy adviser argues the merits of coal in an anti-carbon climate

Maureen Hayden, New Albany Tribune CNHI Statehouse Bureau Chief

SOUTHERN INDIANA — It doesn’t take much for Indiana energy adviser Marty Irwin to spark a heated debate with advocates of climate-change legislation. All he has to do is say that coal is not a four-letter word.

At a time when the burning of fossil fuels is under attack as a major cause of global warming, Irwin argues the unpopular position that burning more coal may be good for the economy and the environment.

“People throw things at me when I say things like that,’’ said Irwin.

As the director of the state’s Center for Coal Technology Research, located at Purdue University, its Irwin’s job to advise state officials on how to allocate funds for coal research projects in Indiana. Among them are efforts to develop a commercially viable way to capture carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants and sequester them underground. Another is the development of a pipeline to carry carbon emissions to Texas, where it would be injected in liquid form into oil fields.

As center director, he’s also responsible for advising the Indiana Office of Energy Development on how to best use Indiana’s primary source of energy, which is coal, to accelerate the state’s economy.

Last year, the center issued the “Indiana Coal Report 2009” explaining the state’s strong dependence on low-cost coal for its industrial and commercial growth. It’s dense with technical analysis and economic forecasts, but its theme can be captured in simpler language employed by Irwin: “Indiana has 1,500 years of coal reserves. Why would we want to spend money on developing alternative sources of energy?”

Irwin raises the ire of some when he talks like that. The Hoosier Environmental Council, for example, is sharply critical of the fact that 94 percent of the electricity used in Indiana is generated by coal. On its website, the HEC cites federal reports that show that Indiana ranks high in the nation for greenhouse gas emissions per capita. The HEC argues: “Our state’s reliance on coal-fired power has created a literally toxic atmosphere.”

Irwin would disagree with that, just as he does with those who say manmade carbon emissions are responsible for global warming. “It’s a myth that people believe,” Irwin said.

Irwin is willing to back up his provocative statements with detailed scientific explanations, delivered patiently. In doing so, he cites as a hero Christopher Monckton, a policy adviser with the Science and Public Policy Institute, a British group devoted to debunking the notion of a climate crisis.

But Irwin’s real role may be to compel debate on difficult issues. The former college professor believes democracy depends on it.

“I’m the guy in the back of the room with his hand up, asking ‘What the hell are you talking about?’” Irwin said. “All I’m trying to do is to get people to think: ‘Maybe there’s more to this.’”

Irwin argues that energy and climates issues are complex, with a multitude of political, technical, and economic issues that have yet to be resolved. Among them is the impact on Indiana’s economy if the consumption of coal is curbed dramatically. His statements may go against the conventional wisdom on climate change, but he’s willing to keep the argument going. Said Irwin: “If everybody was saying what I was saying, nobody would listen to me.”

Related Stories:
Lugar's climate bill taps into his Hoosier roots

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