SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The Trump administration is committed to making fossil fuels cleaner rather than imposing "draconian" regulations on oil, gas and coal, U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry said Thursday.
Perry made his remarks at an energy conference in Salt Lake City that was briefly interrupted when protesters took the stage to criticize the administration's fixation on fossil fuels as a misguided approach that ignores climate change. The demonstrators were escorted out by police.
The former Texas governor said the government has proven it can make traditional energy sources cleaner.
"Instead of punishing fuels that produce emissions through regulation, we're seeking to reduce those emissions by innovation," Perry said. "We have proved that we can make our energy cleaner without surrendering one, single fuel, one bit of growth, one iota of opportunity."
Perry told reporters that efforts are already underway to reduce emissions by using liquefied natural gas and shuttering old, inefficient coal plants.
Perry previously said the Trump administration wants to spend a half-billion dollars next year on fossil fuel research and development as demand plummets for coal and surges for natural gas.
Lindsay Beebe of the Sierra Club in Utah said trying to make fossil fuels cleaner is misspent energy.
"I don't know that it's possible right now, but what is ready right now are renewables. Wind, solar and geothermal are commercially viable and at scale," Beebe said.
Perry also touted the importance of increasing nuclear energy and geothermal energy.
A report released Thursday by the Department of Energy suggests geothermal electricity generation could increase 26-fold by 2050, Perry said.
He also highlighted a $140 million project funded by his department to support a University of Utah research laboratory studying manmade geothermal energy.
The protesters interrupted a panel discussion and stood on stage in front of the seated Perry, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert and Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon as they talked about energy policy.
The group of about 15 people sang and held signs that read "Invest in our future, not climate chaos" and "Your time is up. Climate Action Now."
The group later said the protesters were students who wanted to make the point that society must transition to renewable energy to "prevent climate catastrophe."
After several minutes, conference organizers put on loud music as they waited for police to come and escort the protesters out.
After they left, Herbert, who sponsored the event, said he and other leaders appreciate the "youthful enthusiasm" of the protesters and their voices should be heard and respected. But, he said the call to immediately discard fossil fuels and shift entirely to renewable energy isn't realistic.
"They would like us to quit by Friday and not take anything out of the ground," Herbert said. "That obviously doesn't work from a practical standpoint."
Perry argued that people who say fossil fuels should be kept in the ground don't understand that the U.S. has a "moral responsibility" to help provide energy to other parts of the world.
"What does that mean to a young woman in a village in Africa that doesn't have so much as a light bulb on which to read," Perry said.
Gordon, a Republican, said Americans need to better appreciate the value of fossil fuels and understand they need to be part of the energy mix.
"Fossil fuels have generated more wealth than anything else for our country, for our people," Gordon said. "Moving our energy postures forward doesn't mean we have to crush somebody else."
This story has been corrected to say there were 15 protesters inside the summit, not 25.