The Dilemma Over Coal Generated Power

60 Minutes: Coal Power Plants Supply Power To Millions, But Cutting Carbon Dioxide Could Take A Long Time

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.

A few days ago, 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."

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, we're 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."