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'60 Minutes' video: America's coal dilemma

Coal generates nearly half the electricity in the United States. Making it safe for environment and for human health will come at an astronomical cost.

The future of our climate might be summed up in one question: what do we do about coal?

Coal generates nearly half the electricity in the United States and the world. But it's the dirtiest fuel of all when it comes to carbon dioxide, or CO2, the leading greenhouse gas.

Last week, the Obama administration declared, for the first time, that CO2 is a threat to human health and it plans to impose limits. But making coal safe will come at an astronomical cost.

After the economy, this could be the biggest debate in Washington. One of the most influential people in this is Jim Rogers. Coal has made Rogers and his company rich and that's why we were surprised to hear what this high-flying power baron has to say about what coal does to the environment.

Rogers wanted "60 Minutes" to see America's enormous dependency on coal, so he flew correspondent Scott Pelley out to see one of his 20 coal burning power plants.

"I remember the first time I took a helicopter and looked down on a power plant like this. I was 41 years old and I said, 'Oh my goodness, I'm responsible for that!'" Rogers told Pelley.

Rogers is the CEO of Duke Energy, the nation's third largest electric utility. His stacks pump 100 million tons of carbon dioxide every year, which makes what comes out of Rogers' mouth so surprising.

"Controlling carbon emissions in the near future is inevitable in your view. This is going to happen," Pelley remarked.

"It's inevitable in my judgment," Rogers agreed.

"You're one of the biggest polluters in the world when it comes to carbon emissions," Pelley pointed out.

"We're one of the largest emitters. And it tells you how daunting the challenge is that we have in front of us," Rogers replied.

"You know, there are a lot of people many of them in your industry may who you probably know who say that global warming is not a big problem," Pelley said.

"It's my judgment it is a problem," Rogers said. "We need to go to work on it now. And it's critical that we start to act in this country."

Acknowledging a problem
Like a reformed tobacco executive, Rogers says we can't survive the emissions his industry creates. He showed "60 Minutes" what he means at a North Carolina power station that can light up one and a half million homes.

Rogers told Pelley that particular plant burns roughly 19,000 tons of coal. "That's two train loads. And each train has about 100 cars," he explained.

The fact is, America runs on coal and here's one of the reasons why: the Powder River Basin that stretches across Wyoming and Montana may be the largest coal reserve on Earth. We've got 200 years worth of reserves--cheap, and right under our feet. No wonder coal generates half of our electricity.

But here's the brutal part: coal is twice as dirty as natural gas and puts more carbon dioxide in the air than all of our cars and trucks. In short, the U.S. is caught between a rock and a hot place.

"I notice all of this coming out of the stacks. What is that?" Pelley asked.

"That's good news," Rogers said. "When you see a plume comin' out of a stack of a power plant, that's vapor. And it basically says that the emissions have been cleaned."

The power industry spent billions in the 1990s cleaning up much of the sulfur and nitrogen oxides that cause acid rain. But those pollutants are mere drops in a stream of carbon dioxide. Rogers says getting rid of the carbon will require a new federal law to limit emissions and a new technology to clean up coal. At the same time, he says, Duke will transition to more wind, solar, and nuclear power.

"Our goal line is substantially to reduce our carbon footprint, to de-carbonize our business, by 2050," he explained.

"Four decades? That's a long time," Pelley remarked.

"Well, it took a hundred years to get to where we are. And we can't do this overnight," Rogers said.

Too late?
But Jim Hansen, NASA's top climate scientists, says 2050 is too late.

"We will have guaranteed disasters for our children, grandchildren, and the unborn," he said.

Hansen is credited with some of the earliest and most accurate projections of climate change. He thinks Roger's plan leaves the Earth in the oven decades too long.

"We are going to have to phase out emissions from coal within the next 20 years if we hope to prevent climate disasters," Hansen told Pelley.

"Are you saying we can't build any new coal fired power plants in this country?" Pelley asked.

"Absolutely, not only in this country, but in the world. This is not yet understood. We are going to have to have a moratorium on new coal-fired power plants within the next few years and phase out the existing ones over the next 20 years or so if we have to preserve the climate like the one that has existed the last several thousand years," Hansen said.

You know, Jim Rogers will hasten to tell you he does share your sense of urgency," Pelley remarked.

"Well, his plan doesn't match that," Hansen replied.

In fact, right now Rogers is building two new coal plants. "You're talking a great game, but you're building coal-fired power plants," Pelley pointed out.

"I am following through on what is job one for me, making sure my customers have affordable, reliable, clean electricity," Rogers said.

Asked what would happen if we abandoned coal at this point, Rogers said, "We can't abandon coal. We have to find a way to keep it and use it in the future. And that means the ability to clean it up."

To read the entire "60 Minutes" segment, click here.