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Bridging climate science, citizens, and policy

“Clean” Coal – Debunking Recent Propaganda


As America looks forward to the upcoming Obama Presidency, one of the critical issues we all face is energy policy.  Thankfully, Obama displayed a pattern of looking forward on this issue instead of looking backward like George Bush, John McCain and many other Cons-ervatives.  All we heard from the Republicans was drilling and mining would easily take care of every need America has for as long as we want.  Clearly, most Americans understand that that’s just not true.  Americans expect and deserve to have renewable energy infrastructure developed to replace dirty fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas.

Not to be outmanuevered, the energy dead-enders continue to cheerlead for their outdated approaches.  Among those approaches is “clean” coal.  Those quotes are placed there to draw attention to the fact that there is no such thing as clean coal.  Coal by definition is a dirty fuel source – mining, processing and burning it involves the use of heavy industry.  That industrial work releases toxins and pollutants into our environments and climate system.  The cheearleading has turned increasingly toward greenwashing discussion of energy policies to come.

Brad Jones, the West Region Communications Director of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, had an opinion piece for the Denver Post recently.  In it, he argues for the continued (and expanded) use of coal as an energy source, not least because “clean” coal is just around the corner.  He glosses over the fact that “clean” coal has been in energy policy-makers venacular for over 30 years already.  It has been just around the corner for over a generation.  He quickly mentions some technologies being developed, including “enhanced scrubbing and filtering processes, greater efficiency measures, integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) and carbon capture and sequestration.”

The approach I’m going to take is from a climate change perspective.  Humans are forcing the climate system by changing the atmospheric make-up of chemicals such as carbon dioxide, methane and water vapor.  Carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere have been increasing and will continue to increase as long as humans continue to burn fossil fuels using today’s technologies. To avoid catastrophic shifts in climate, the concentration of CO2 must first level off, then be decreased.

The first two technologies Brad mentions don’t meaningfully address carbon dioxide.  Scrubbers take care of things like mercury and other impurities in coal.  Efficiency starts to address the release of carbon into the atmosphere, but it doesn’t stop that release from occurring.  It doesn’t slow it down at a fast enough rate to allow CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere to level off.

The last two technologies sound really cool, but are in limited use today and will likely remain that way for some time to come.  IGCC doesn’t reduce the amount of carbon being generated – coal is gasified and then burned.  More impurities can be removed, but pollution of water remains a large concern by plants that use this technology.

Finally, we get to carbon capture and sequestration.  This technology rests largely in the research realm today.  It isn’t expected to become available for large-scale market deployment for decades.  The planet cannot wait decades for humans to gain experience with this technology.  This is the only technology that Brad mentions that would lend the adjective “clean” to be applied to burning coal.  Until it is ready, burning coal, whether it be in solid, liquid or gaseous form, will continue to impact our climate system.

Next, Brad tries to support his dead-end energy policy by cherry-picking polls that show support for coal.

When asked, “Do you believe coal is a fuel for America’s future?” 69 percent of survey respondents agreed (compared to 26 percent who disagreed). Furthermore, 84 percent agreed that developing new advanced clean coal technologies offered opportunities to create American jobs and export these technologies to other countries.

Notice how generic that poll question is.  How about, “Despite causing global warming, do you believe coal should continue to be used as a fuel?”  Or how about, “If technologies to capture carbon from coal won’t be ready for 10-30 years, would you support coal or renewable energy development?”  The answers would be very different than the ACCCE poll Brad cites.  In fact, a poll that asked different questions this summer came up with very, very different results than the ACCCE poll:

When asked which one energy source they would support if they were President, 41 percent of Americans picked solar. Solar and wind together were favored nearly 20 times more than coal (3 percent).

Only 3% of those surveyed named coal as the one energy source they would personally support.  That paints quite a different picture than the one Brad was shooting for.  Other polls that aren’t as ideologically driven as ACCCE’s in the past 10 years have shown increasing support for renewable energy development.  These energy sources won’t pollute our environment and will slow down the burning of fossil fuels in the next 35-50 years.

Brad also throws in some pro-coal talking points (read: “stretched” truths):

They [Americans] understand that American working families earning between $10,000 and $50,000 per year have seen their household energy costs more than double since 1997.

At the same time, they understand that policies which disregard coal will inevitably lead to significantly higher electricity costs and dramatic job losses, while crippling our efforts to lessen the effects of the current economic recession.

Of course, Brad doesn’t mention that coal plants have been coming online in the U.S. since 1997.  So coal hasn’t been disregarded since 1997 and yet energy costs have already more than doubled.  Is he trying to say that renewables would cause an even faster energy price increase in the future?  Because the facts simply don’t match up with his claims.  Energy from solar and wind plants cost just a little more per kiloWatt-hour (kWh) than coal or natural gas (solar and wind energy cost less this summer than natural gas; this is likely to be increasingly the case).  The increases in energy that Brad brings up has come about as a result of higher commodity prices, which are influenced more by commodity traders than consumers.  Traders want a profit for their sales.  Those costs are passed on directly to energy consumers.  Brad doesn’t mention any of this of course, because he wanted his readers to draw the conclusion that evil renewable energies are the cause of people’s energy costs.  It’s disingenuous to say the least, but that’s all the fossil fuel corporations have left as they try to remain relevant.

Brad is partially correct: investing in new technologies will keep energy affordable for Americans; it will create good-paying jobs that are less likely to be outsourced.  But those technologies exist in the realm of renewable energy.  There is much to be done to bring wind, solar, and other renewable technologies to market.  The use of fossil fuels was a 19th and 20th century energy policy.  The use of renewables will again become the dominant source of energy for the world in the 21st century.  The need is there – we just need a national directive to help focus efforts to do the heavy lifting.

(h/t M.G.-NWF)

Related SquareState diary by sufimarie.

ClimateProgress also had a post on this general subject.


2 thoughts on ““Clean” Coal – Debunking Recent Propaganda

  1. We seriously need to get on with the business of becoming energy independent. While we are doing the happy dance around the pumps with the lower prices OPEC is planning yet more production cuts and will not quit until they achieve their desired price per barrel. The record high prices this past year have done serious damage to our economy and society. WE must move forward with energy independence. It would cost the equivalent of 60 cents a gallon to charge and drive an electric car. If all gasoline cars, trucks, and suv’s instead had plug-in electric drivetrains, the amount of electricity needed to replace gasoline is about equal to the estimated wind energy potential of the state of North Dakota. Why not use some of the billions of stimulus and bailout money to get some alternative energy projects set up on the national level? We could create badly needed new green collar jobs, produce clean cheap energy and reduce our dependence on foreign oil. What a win-win situation this would be for our nation! We have the knowledge, we have the technology, what America lacks is a plan. Jeff Wilson has a new book out that is beyond awesome. The Manhattan Project of 2009 Energy Independence NOW. He walks you through every aspect of oil, what it is used for besides gas, our depletion of it. The worlds increased need ie 3rd world countries becoming more modernized and consuming more. He explains EVERY alternative energy source and what role they can play to replace oil. His research is backed up with hard data and even includes a time frame and proposed legislative agendas to wean America off oil.

  2. Pingback: Project Better Place in Hawaii; Carbon Is “Forever” « Weatherdem’s Weblog

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