Clean Coal – A Contradiction In Terms

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Both major U.S. political parties have made clean coal central to their election platforms. The newly-reelected Canadian government says that clean coal technology will ensure that Canada meeets its  greenhouse gas emission targets. Fact: There is no such thing as clean coal.

By Michael Brune
San Francisco Chronicle, October 15, 2008

If you are a politician running for national office – or a coal or utility executive – the notion of “clean coal” is alluring, much like pledging to lower taxes without cutting services. Like other campaign promises, however, citizens are well advised to seek the truth before committing.

During their recent debates, neither the presidential nor the vice presidential candidates dared admit the truth: There is no such thing as clean coal. Despite years of research and billions in government subsidies, not a single commercial coal plant in the United States can capture and store its greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover, many scientists and even coal utility executives say the technology is at least a decade away. For policymakers and others concerned about climate change, the real question is not whether coal can be made clean, but whether we should even try.

Clean coal can mean many things to many people. Until recently, the phrase was often used to describe various processes to reduce air and water pollution caused by mining and burning coal, such as installing scrubbers on smokestacks to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions that cause acid rain. But the industry’s biggest problem is that coal is the country’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. So now clean coal usually refers to carbon capture and sequestration, an attempt to capture a plant’s carbon emissions and store them underground, permanently, rather than releasing them into the atmosphere to contribute to global climate change.

The biggest challenges of carbon capture for the U.S. coal industry pertain to scale and cost, both of which are huge. Researchers at MIT estimate that if less than two-thirds of the carbon dioxide from U.S. coal plants were captured and compressed for storage, the collective volume to be stored underground “would about equal the total U.S. oil consumption of 20 million barrels per day.”

Building an infrastructure to accomplish this would not be cheap. The Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory found that adding carbon capture to existing coal plants would increase the cost of electricity generation by 81 percent. This includes neither the rising cost of coal, nor the heightened cost of new coal plant construction, which has surged by more than 130 percent since 2000.

Assuming these challenges can be met, then what? Coal will still be dirty. The American Lung Association estimates that pollution from coal-fired power plants triggers 550,000 asthma attacks and 38,000 heart attacks annually, helping to cause an estimated 24,000 Americans to die prematurely each year. Coal combustion is also the country’s largest source of mercury poisoning and releases more than five dozen different types of hazardous air pollutants.

And don’t tell the residents of Appalachia that coal is clean. Mountaintop removal coalmining has flattened 450 mountains and buried more than 700 miles of rivers and streams in one of the country’s most beautiful regions.

Rather than perpetuate our country’s dependence on dirty energy, we can rejuvenate our economy with a transition to truly clean and renewable energy resources. Each year, the price of coal soars, while the costs of solar and wind decline. A report prepared for the California Public Utilities Commission earlier this year estimated that clean coal plants would cost 17 cents per kilowatt hour, compared to 12.7 cents for utility-scale solar power and just 9 cents for wind. Moreover, an analysis of more than a dozen independent reports studying the impacts of clean energy on employment found that wind power produces up to three times as many jobs as coal per unit of power produced. Rooftop solar produces seven to 10 times as many jobs.

Clean coal” is both an oxymoron and an excuse policymakers use to avoid developing a responsible energy policy. Every dollar spent on a clean coal infrastructure is a dollar better invested in energy efficiency and renewable energy.

Michael Brune is the executive director of Rainforest Action Network and the author of “Coming Clean – Breaking America’s Addiction to Oil and Coal,” (Sierra Club Books, 2008).