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Coal's global goal

THE DIRTY big secret about US energy production is that coal is about to play an even larger role. Already more than 50 percent of US electricity comes from plants burning coal, the fossil fuel that emits the greatest amount of the most common greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide. Coal's share in the power picture is projected to spike upward in coming years as utilities turn to coal as an alternative to increasingly scarce natural gas.

The more than 100 new coal plants that, according to a New York Times survey, are up for approval nationwide will be expected to meet up-to-date federal requirements on such pollutants as nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide. But unless Congress passes the bipartisan bill sponsored by Senators John McCain and Joseph Lieberman that curbs global warming by regulating carbon emissions, there is nothing in federal law to force the power companies to limit the carbon dioxide they will pump into the atmosphere.

Lamentably, the United States is further isolating itself on this issue from the rest of the world. With Russia's recent ratification of the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, the treaty will go into effect in less than three months. Nations will begin taking steps to cut back greenhouse gas emissions and trading credits for doing so while the United States goes on a spree of new coal plant production. In the past year, US companies have planned more new coal plants than they did in the previous 12 years.

One organization that is leading a campaign to rally support for the McCain-Lieberman bill -- whose limits on carbon emissions are much milder than Kyoto's -- is Environmental Defense. Its director, Peter Goldmark, spoke convincingly to leaders of Boston's business and investment community last Monday on the scientific consensus behind global warming and the role that carbon dioxide is playing in it. Just one of the effects he cited is reduced grain production in three of the world's breadbasket areas, including the North American plains region.

Goldmark said that if he were speaking anywhere except the United States he would not have to explain the science behind climate change, so universal is acceptance elsewhere of the role of man-made gases. But there continue to be skeptics in the United States, especially in the Bush administration, who believe that action to curb carbon emissions is either unnecessary or unaffordable.

There are also more than 50 global-warming ostriches in the Senate. The last time that body voted on McCain-Lieberman, just 43 senators backed it. Environmental Defense and other backers of carbon limits have their work cut out for them. If they fail and 100 coal plants bloom, the planet's attempt to stop its uncontrolled experiment in climate change will suffer a severe setback. 

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