“Keep it in the ground”: Protesters interrupted the US panel on fossil fuels at the UN’s climate conference

The US’s contribution to the UN climate conference was a fossil fuels panel.
The US’s contribution to the UN climate conference was a fossil fuels panel.
Image: AP Photo/Martin Meissner
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At the UN’s climate conference in Bonn, Germany, where nearly 200 countries were meeting to discuss Paris agreement goals, the US held a side event titled “The Role of Cleaner and More Efficient Fossil Fuels and Nuclear Power in Climate Mitigation.” Just weeks before, the American panel had a different name—”Action on Spurring Innovation and Deploying Advanced Technologies”—but the US delegation drew international press attention when it amended the name to include an explicit emphasis on fossil fuels.

Shortly after the event began, a demonstration by dozens of protesters brought it to a halt. It resumed after roughly seven minutes, according to the Washington Post.

“The idea that the world can meet ambitious mitigation goals, support development in poor countries (the way we should), and ensure energy access by only deploying solar and wind, is naive,” said the White House energy policy adviser George David Banks at the start of the presentations from other panel members. “The US is not alone in its acknowledgment that clean, more efficient fossil fuels have to play in climate mitigation.”

Moments after his remarks, protesters began singing an anti-coal mining version of Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA,” swapping the lyrics “And I gladly stand up next to you and defend her still today” for “I’ll gladly stand up until you keep it in the ground.”

New York Times reporter Lisa Friedman, who first broke the news that the US intended to present on the virtues of fossil fuels at the conference, live-tweeted the event.

Banks appeared amused, and suggested karaoke.

The protesters were eventually escorted out, and continued singing in the hall outside the panel room.

Next up was Barry Worthington, executive director of the US Energy Association, who ran through projections provided by the Energy Information Administration that showed the world will keep burning fossil fuels for decades to come. “These realities must not be ignored when expanding energy access in developing countries where electricity may be the top priority,” he said in his conclusion.

Holly Krutka, vice president of coal generation and emissions technology at Missouri-based Peabody Energy, the largest private-sector coal company in the world, argued that technologies, such as carbon capture and storage, should be employed to reduce emissions if we continue to burn coal.

“I probably would have been protesting a few years ago myself,” she said. “But instead I chose to contribute where I saw possible as a chemical engineer.”

Former New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg took the opportunity to criticize the federal government’s decision to hold the panel at all. “Promoting coal at a climate summit is like promoting tobacco at a cancer summit,” he said in a statement.

The panel was intended to promote coal, natural gas, and nuclear energy as a means for poorer nations to reduce emissions from generating electricity. However, it didn’t fully acknowledge that renewable-energy development is widely recognized as an option for alleviating poverty, both directly and indirectly, since climate change will disproportionately affect developing countries the most.

Amos Hocstein of Tellurian Inc and Lenka Kollar of NuScale Power spoke about the benefits of using nuclear power as a near-zero emissions source for electricity production. “I served for several years in the Obama administration. I disagree with many people on this panel,” Hocstein said. “But we can listen to somebody without disagreeing with them.”

The last question asked by Amy Goodman of Democracy Now was whether each panelist agreed with Donald Trump’s decision to pull the US out of the Paris climate agreement. Hocstein and Kollar said “no.” Worthington, of the US Energy Association, said “yes.” Krutka declined to comment on her personal views. Banks simply said, “I work for the president of the United States.”

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