Clean Coal: A Costly Chimera?

Guest Blog | February 18, 2014 | Coal, Energy Policy
Statue of the mythical Chimera

The subject of coal has been dominating news lately.  After being unregulated for decades, the Environmental Protection Agency is finally crafting regulations to limit carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants.  Currently, proposed carbon emission regulations for new power plants are open for public comment and regulations for emissions from existing power plants are due out in June 2014.  As expected, there has already been a lot of push back from industry and coal interests around these carbon regulations.

Like the wildly imaginable (but ultimately fanciful) Chimera of Greek mythology, clean coal has remained an unrealized fantasy of the coal industry.  One of the key issues involved in the carbon debate is whether or not “clean coal” technology is currently a viable and realistic option for reducing carbon dioxide emissions from existing coal-fired power plants.  Even the company currently constructing the nation’s only carbon capture plant, Southern Company, claims that the technology is not yet commercially viable. To date, efforts to develop so-called clean coal technologies have failed to deliver and we continue to suffer the negative impacts of dirty coal-fired power plants.

One of the more captivating failures of a proponent of clean coal technology is the story of Bob Walker.  Bob Walker, the former CEO of Bixby Energy Systems of Ramsey, promised investors that his company had developed technology that could convert coal into a cleaner burning flammable gas through a process generally known as coal gasification.  That promise, and the failure to deliver on that promise, was the impetus for fraud, conspiracy, tax evasion and witness tampering charges brought against Walker in U.S. District Court.  Walker is charged with defrauding 1,800 investors of $57 million over a decade long scam.

Despite Walker’s knowledge that his technology was not commercially viable, he continued to recruit investors for his project – going as far as issuing a news release asserting that the company’s “revolutionary process that efficiently converts coal into clean-burning energy has been developed and is commercially available” on the same day he received confirmation from developers that the revolutionary process did not work.  Employees claim that Walker fed natural gas into a coal-gasification machine to “sweeten the flame” and make it appear that the coal-to-gas process actually worked.  Walker’s company collapsed in 2012 after the first commercial installations of its coal-gasification machines were unsuccessful.

Walker’s coal-gasification system was not his first foray into the energy production realm.  In 2006, Walker was invited to testify on energy policy before the U.S. House Agriculture Committee.  During testimony, Walker told congressmen that he would be able to power peoples’ homes with agricultural biomass within two years.  Walker’s biomass project – dubbed the “Omni System” – went nowhere.  Shortly after his testimony, in 2007, Walker began touting his “Bixby Process” which promised to transform coal into gas, along with liquid fuel and activated carbon.  Walker wooed investors and worked to cover up evidence that the Bixby Process was a flop – until he was ousted from the company in 2011 amid a criminal investigation.  Walker has been in jail since August 2012 and his trial began in mid-January 2014.  No matter the ultimate verdict, the case of Bob Walker illustrates how the promise of clean coal can blind investors to the risks associated with this burgeoning technology.  Like Walker, businessmen given to fantastic schemes continue to lure others into the belief that clean coal is the energy future and not a costly chimera.

Although the moniker of “clean coal” is more often associated with experimental technology like carbon capture and sequestration and coal gasification, some have applied the phrase to any process that “cleans” coal.  Coal is a dirty energy source and believing otherwise is to live in a fantasy land.  Even the coal industry understands the need to process, refine and “clean” coal before it is burned in coal plants.  For example, after being mined, coal is cleaned in a process known as wet-washing to remove impurities before it is burned.  Toxic chemicals, like the kind that recently contaminated drinking water for nine counties in West Virginia, are used to separate the useable coal from other materials, known as coarse refuse, before it is sold for use in coal-fired power plants.

Little is known about the health effects from exposure to these types of chemicals, despite the close proximity of these chemicals to water supplies and communities.  7,500 gallons of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM) spilled into West Virginia’s Elk River, contaminating drinking water supplies and sending more than 400 people to area hospitals complaining of health problems likely caused by exposure to contaminated water.  The source of the spill, a terminal at a coal processing plant owned by Freedom Industries Inc., had not been inspected since 2001 – 13 years ago!  Since this disaster, Freedom Industries has filed for bankruptcy, temporarily halting lawsuits brought against the company for damages caused by the chemical spill.

After the wet-washing process, the leftover coarse refuse and toxic chemicals are ultimately stored in what are known as “coal sludge impoundments” – enormous dams near coal processing plants that can hold billions of gallons of coal waste at a time.  Coal sludge impoundments can fail and cause widespread devastation by spilling billions of tons of toxic material into surrounding communities and waterbodies.  The most devastating failure to date, known as the Buffalo Creek disaster, killed 125 people in West Virginia and left thousands homeless.  And just a few days ago, an unknown amount of coal slurry, which contains the same toxic chemical (MCHM), from a coal preparation plant into the Kanawha River in West Virginia.

As we wait to see how EPA will craft carbon regulations for existing plants, we will continue to keep a close eye on our coal plants in the Southeast.  Each stage of coal fired power production – extraction, refinement, combustion and waste storage – has the ability to wreak havoc on the environment. Yet another recent example of coal’s toxic and unstable legacy happened here in the Southeast just two weeks ago when the Dan River coal plant ash impoundment failed, dumping 140,000 tons of ash waste and contaminated water into the river.  Instead of waiting on the mythical chimera beast of “clean coal” to finally become a reality, we should be working to promote a clean energy economy that embraces renewable energy sources as well as energy efficiency measures that can deliver clean, affordable power NOW.

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