Dirty Business film debunks 'clean coal' myth

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Documentary reveals the true cost of US dependence and the murky realities of marketing ‘clean coal’ technology

by Felicity Carus
The Guardian, January 7, 2011

Dirty Business, the new documentary from the Centre for Investigative Journalism, began its nationwide screening tour last night in Berkeley, California, with the aim of debunking the myth of “clean coal” and kick-starting a debate on the future of energy in the US.

The film shows scarred mountains, abandoned family homes on remote hillsides, water courses toxic with sludge, respiratory fatalities and children whose growth has been stunted by pollution as some of the side effects of coal extraction and the power stations that burn it. And, of course, it shows the effect of coal combustion on global temperatures.

The film is narrated by Jeff Goodell, Big Coalauthor and contributing editor of Rolling Stone magazine, who compares the first time he saw an open-top mine in West Virginia like the “first time you look into an abattoir after a lifetime of eating animals”.

Coal, says Goodell, is “the rock that built America”.

Not only was America’s past built on that rock, but so is its future, say some scientists and politicians, Republican and Democrat alike, including the US president.

“One quarter of the world’s coal reserves are found within the United States – coal is also the workhorse of the nation’s electric power industry, supplying more than half the electricity consumed by Americans,” says the US Department of Energy. “Coal-fired electric generating plants are the cornerstone of America’s central power system.”

That cornerstone is supplied by some 600 coal-fired power stations around the country. This National Public Radio map shows the majority of them located in the “rust belt” states, where heavy industries deliberately located close to the natural resource that would power their manufacturing.

These power stations churn out 1.9bn tonnes of CO2 – equivalent to 81% of CO2 emissions from the total electric power sector.

But as President Barack Obama faces calls from the international community to reduce carbon emissions, pressure to secure America’s future energy supply and delaying tactics from the Republicans on the Environmental Protection Agency’s greenhouse gas regulations, “clean coal” – which involves capturing and storing the fossil fuel’s carbon emissions – appears to be a crowd pleaser that can only offend die-hard environmentalists.

Julio Friedman, who leads the carbon management programme at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, said at the screening last night that it was vital to get carbon capture and storage (CCS) projects up and running as soon as possible. “I want to disabuse people of this idea that we burn coal for fun and profit to line the pockets of businessmen,” he said. “We burn it because it’s a good source of energy.”

Obama has endorsed “clean coal” throughout his political career and CCS projects have benefited from $3.4bn of the $80bn earmarked for federal energy funding as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act 2009.

Such huge federal support has sparked something of a coal dash as companies compete for the opportunity to take federal dollars to fund their pilot schemes – and extract more coal. Even Friedman himself admits that CCS plants will need one-third more coal to power the sequestration technology.

US Energy Information Agency figures suggest that there is no problem finding coal on American soil. Data from 2009 revealed that coal stocks increased by 16.4% or 33.7m tonnes to a record level of 238.8m tonnes.

But other scientists warn that CCS deployment will not be able to keep pace with America’s appetite for coal.

Vaclav Smil, professor at the faculty of environment at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, estimates that the infrastructure of networks of pipelines for CCS would have to be twice that for oil and gas.

He says: “Clearly you don’t have to know anything about anything to realise that industry like that is not going to be created in five or 10 years and still it would contain only 10% of [emissions] we are generating today. The problem of scale is immense. It’s not a technical problem, it’s not a storage problem, it’s just a problem scaling it up to a level where it would make a difference.”

Aside from the problem of building an infrastructure of a technology not yet operating at an economic scale, the real dirty business, as the film suggests, is the murky work of lobbyists, who pay large sums of money to influence political direction.

Up to June last year, members of the 111th Congress had received more than $14.8m from the oil, gas and coal industries, according to the Price of Oil website. Newly elected Alaska senator Lisa Murkowski received $172,896 from the coal industry, and John Boehner, the new speaker in the Congress, received $107,150, the site claims.

Frank O’Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch , estimates that the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE) spent between $30-$40m in 2008 on PR promoting “clean coal”.

The film brings out the heroes (Jim Hansen) and villains (Myron Ebell) of the coal debate. But perhaps the most moving contribution comes from Maria Gunnoe, who was awarded the Goldman environmental activism prize in 2009 for opposing mountaintop mining near her home in the Appalachian mountains.

“The cleaner the power stations get, the dirtier it gets here,” she says, looking into a pond of toxic coal sludge. “We’re losing our rights to our health, life and future of our children. There is no such thing as clean coal whatever comes out of the stacks.”