Is there really "clean" coal?

8 years ago

Some political and industrial leaders throw out the term clean coal with great optimism. Others people, such as environmental groups like the Sierra Club, say clean coal is a misnomer and claim that the idea is impossible to implement.

Coal-burning power plants account for most of the CO2 in the atmosphere. This fact makes some people insist that coal-burning power plants should be forbidden. Period. Other people say we can't do that because we don't have enough capacity to generate the power we went in other ways. Coal burning power plants generate over 50% of our electricity. On the pro-coal side of the issue, people argue that since we are so dependent on coal, we should find a way to live with it, and promote the idea of clean coal as that way.

We know what coal is. It's black, it's dirty, it has to be dug from the ground, and when its burned it creates stinky black smoke. The dust from coal mines gives miners lung disease, the the smoke from burning coal does the same thing to anyone who breathes it. Digging the stuff out of the ground topples mountains, gouges great gaping holes in the earth and leaves devastation in its wake. There's also a little matter of coal ash, as mentioned in MOMocrats: TN Coal Ash Catastrophe Victims Lack Answers, Aid and Media Notice.

Can coal be clean? We used to be satisfied with simply taking the sulfur dioxide out of the smoke to prevent acid rain. Now we want to remove the carbon dioxide as well. The plan for doing that is to separate out the carbon dioxide and "sequester" it in storage facilities under the ground. We would still have the CO2, we would just stash it away from the atmosphere. I say "would" because no one in the U.S. has done this full scale yet.

I haven't seen any explanation of what would happen after we finally got the earth blown up like a balloon full of sequestered carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is a gas. Molecules of gas are really, really, really, tiny. Like xxxxx-small. Molecules that small bounce around in ways we may not be able to control.

Yet the Department of Energy has a Clean Coal Technology Program and Energy Secretary Steven Chu has endorsed the idea of clean coal, although he said it will be at least 8 years before a working technology is available. Chu commented that even if we stop burning coal, China and India will not. Everybody wants to be like America. Everybody wants a big refrigerator, a big TV, and an air conditioned house. As Pogo used to say, "We have met the enemy and he is us." Well, what if America led the way to a cleaner and greener way of generating electricity? Doesn't Chu think that China and India would have the good sense to do the same thing? I certainly think they would. Without our leadership, they may step up to take the lead in clean energy anyway.

In the media, we have coal companies advertising clean coal, which may or may not be possible. We have oil companies saying we can't afford clean energy. We have environmental groups like saying that clean energy like wind and solar can not only fix the economy, it can help the climate. It's hard to judge the facts on their merits, because it's hard to get a viewpoint that isn't biased.

The proof that we have to do something fast is solid, but what is that something? Is clean coal a sensible way to go or a delusion that will get us no further toward the goal of reducing CO2? There are a number of good links and resources in the Wikipedia article on clean coal. You can follow links to sources as varied as Union of Concerned Scientists, Newsweek Magazine, and the Institute for Clean & Secure Energy at the University of Utah. I've also listed some resources at the end that may help you learn more about clean coal.

The blogosphere is ripe with articles about clean coal. At Mama Goes Green: Clean Coal is not the Answer, Mama posted a video by the Sierra Club in a effort to counteract some of what she calls "big coal's propaganda commercials." Green Mama also pointed out, in Al Gore calls for Civil Disobedience, that Al Gore claims that clean coal is like healthy smoking.

A number of bloggers, such as Vaboomer pointed to a spoofy ad by the Coen Brothers about Clean Coal. Which indicates that Vaboomer and the other bloggers regard the idea of clean coal with a lot of skepticism.

Green Grounded: clean coal answers oil dependency concludes "now I understand why “clean” coal is a myth."

The Environmentalist: Word Games talked about how what we call things changes the way they are perceived. Don't say global warming—say climate change. Don't say carbon tax—say cap and trade. The Environmentalist suggest using honest conversation to discuss the issues.

Is terminology like "clean coal" going to lead the way into honest conversation and decision making?

Maybe you've read between the lines and realize that I'm a recycled hippie who spent the 70s reading The Mother Earth News and the 80s building a solar home. I'd like to see coal phased out and clean technology like wind and solar take its place. While coal is being phased out, it would be helpful if we could find a way to add less carbon dioxide and other harmful materials to the atmosphere from its use. If we could make clean coal a transitional idea with a very short timeline, to get us from here to a point where we no longer use coal at all, I might be more in favor of it. (Assuming that Energy Secretary Chu is correct when he says it will take 8 years to get a start on clean coal technology, maybe it's a mistake to even consider it as a transitional idea. A lot of solar panels can be installed in 8 years.) If clean coal is a long term plan to keep the coal industry going till the last seam of coal has been ripped from the earth, I don't see it as anything but a dirty joke.

More resources:

Virginia DeBolt
BlogHer Technology Contributing Editor
Web Teacher
First 50 Words

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