Interview with Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

ROSS: So what's going on here then with these extensive campaigns and all the candidates in the presidential election last year endorsing this?

KENNEDY: The coal industry and the carbon industry in general are the largest contributors to the political process. So, you know, you have politicians who have essentially become indentured servants to these, and adopt the talking points of these industries. And that's really, it's not in the best interest of the American public certainly but it's one of the sad fallouts of having a lackadaisical campaign finance system in this country, which really compromises, ultimately American democracy. Because you don't have politicians representing the American public, but rather the people who finance their campaigns. And that's the coal industry and the oil industry, who are the primary funders.

ROSS: So when you watched last fall with all the candidates, including President Obama talking about clean coal, what were you thinking when you watched all that?

KENNEDY: Oh, not only was I dismayed to see that, but also, if you looked at the presidential debates, the networks were allowing the coal industry to sponsor the debates. So that every single one of the presidential debates was sponsored by clean coal. So it's not just that it's corrupted the political process, but it's corrupted essentially the American media as well.

ROSS: Have you seen the commercials they're running now with President Obama, "Yes, we can" talking about clean coal? What's your reaction to that?

KENNEDY: Well, again, I think it's sad when political leaders feel that they are so indebted to these industries that they, and so fearful of them, essentially, that they have to endorse conditions that clearly are wrong.

ROSS: And you say that about President Obama?

KENNEDY: Yeah. Anybody who looks at this understands that the term "clean coal" is a dirty lie. That coal is neither cheap nor clean. It's devastating to our country, it's bad for our economy, it's devastating towards our communities, and we have wonderful alternatives in this country if we'd only invest in them.

ROSS: And you see in the stimulus package that there's $3 billion plus for clean coal. When the White House went for that did you raise an objection or do you object now?

KENNEDY: Well, we raised the objection when they were trying to put $17 billion dollars worth of stimulus for so-called "clean coal". We, so at the end, by the time we got to $3.6 billion it was looking pretty good. But it's much less than they asked for at the beginning. And I think in truth that this country is going to be moving away from carbon, because carbon, coal simply cannot compete in the marketplace. This morning I cut the ribbon on a new plant by a company called Abound, which is producing solar thermal panels in Colorado. And it's the largest production of solar, thin filmed solar panels in Colorado. It's the largest solar panel production in the world today, and it opened today. And they are producing solar panels for people's roofs at grid parity. That means they are producing it cheaper than you can produce coal.

So even with all of the subsidies that are going to the coal industry, the coal industry receives almost a trillion dollars in subsidies every year from our country, and yet even with those huge subsidies that allow them to sell their energy at 6 cents a kilowatt or 11 cents a kilowatt, we can still beat them in the marketplace. Even though they have all these subsidies, these distorted advantages, we're still beating them in the marketplace. And so their time, I think, is limited.

ROSS: Do you think President Obama's been hoodwinked or has there been political pressure? What do you think accounts for his continued endorsement of clean coal?

KENNEDY: As I said, I think that it's a sad testament to the impact of campaign contributions in our system and the political clout of this industry that you have very sensible politicians, including great men like Barack Obama, who feel the need to parrot the talking points of this industry that is so destructive to our country, to the communities of Appalachia, to the millions of Americans who'd like to take their kids fishing.

You know, we're living today, truthfully, in a science fiction nightmare. Our country, where my children and the children of most Americans can no longer engage in the seminal primal activity of American youth, which is to go fishing with their father in the local fishing hole and then come home and safely eat the fish. Because somebody gave money to a politician and poisoned more than half of the fish in this country with mercury. And it's the coal industry, and they are privatizing a public trust resource, the fish of our country, which belong to us, they belong to the people. But now the coal industry owns them and the utilities. Because they poison them so much we can't use them anymore.

ROSS: But is it unusual for you? You're speaking out against the leader of your party, the President of the country. That's not going to help your chance of a job in this administration.

KENNEDY: My loyalties are to my country and not to any particular politician. And you know, I've been non-partisan. I've been 25 years as an environmental advocate, I've been non-partisan and bi-partisan. I don't believe in partisanship. If somebody does something wrong, I'm going to say it whether they're Democrat or Republican.

ROSS: And do you think President Obama should reverse his course on this?

KENNEDY: Absolutely. There's no such thing as clean coal, we're destroying the Appalachians. And I guarantee you if we could get President Obama to fly over the Cumberland, to fly over the Appalachian mountains and see the destruction that's occurring there, he would…

ROSS: And what do you think this $3.6 billion will mean to the clean coal push?

KENNEDY: What will $3.6 billion mean? I don't think it's really going to make a big difference in terms of a lot of coal plants being built. We've been able to shut down 40 proposals for coal plants over the past two and half years. People are understanding that nobody wants a coal plant in their community because they don't want the autism rates to climb because of the mercury contamination. They don't want to be getting sick. The University of Texas just published a study that shows that people who live in the plume downwind of a coal burning power plant have much greater, in their schools, they have much greater special education needs because of the damage it's doing to our children. So nobody wants one of these in their neighborhoods, so I think more and more people across our country are just saying no to coal. They're saying we want alternative forms of energy, we know they're out there.

We're building them today, the companies I'm involved with are building them and we don't have to be hookwinked by the coal industry anymore. And the politicians who are continuing to carry the industry water and to parrot the industry talking points ultimately should be ashamed of themselves.

ROSS: Including President Obama?

KENNEDY: Everybody.

ROSS: This must be one of the great propaganda campaigns of all time.

KENNEDY: Well, there's a lot of propaganda campaigns by big industry. Look at the tobacco industry which was able to for 50 years, while it was killing one out of every five of its customers that used its product as directed, was able to persuade the political process, the political structure that there was nothing wrong with tobacco. I remember seven years ago that seven heads of the tobacco companies swearing under oath before Congress that they did not believe that tobacco was bad for public health. Well, the tobacco industry is tiny compared to the coal industry. And you saw that the destruction, the lies, the creation of these phony scientists, these tobacco scientists, and the coal industry has its own tobacco scientists. We call them "biostitutes", and they keep them in these phony think tanks on Capitol Hill and they've got their slick PR firms and they've got their indentured servants in our political process who, and they've got their toadying corporate toadies on talk radio who are mouthing the talking points that there's such a thing as clean coal.

And they've got a huge advertising campaign, a propaganda campaign, and we know that propaganda works. You know, It actually works. And that's unfortunate, but it does, and they will succeed in persuading some members of the American public there's such a thing as clean coal. And they'll be able to provide cover for some of their indentured servants in our political process who feel that they need to mouth the talking points of the coal industry. But I think most Americans are not going to be fooled. Nobody wants a coal plant in their backyard, and everybody now I think understands that clean coal is a dirty lie.