Do clean coal proponents actually want clean coal?

Guest Blog | July 30, 2011 | Coal, Energy Policy
cleancoalThere are two facts that the hawkers of “clean coal” don’t want you know. First, there is no such thing as clean coal. Second, the salesmen of clean coal would not want such a thing if it did exist.

Its seems paradoxical but it makes perfect sense. The “clean coal” campaign is simply an effort by coal companies to convince Americans that coal is not as obscenely expensive and damaging as it actually is. Although coal cannot ever be truly clean, there are technologies that make the process of burning coal a little less dirty. But these technologies are expensive to install and operate, which means that if coal companies pursue less dirty coal, it will increase their expenses and thereby undermine the main thrust of their clean-coal-campaign, to wit, convincing us that coal is cheap and easy.

The corporate “clean coal” media campaign is disingenuous in many ways – heavily coal-dependent electric companies would have you believe that coal is the cleanest way to keep the lights on. Don’t believe it. Coal is a dirty business from cradle to grave.

There is no such thing as “clean coal”

Coal mining, particularly in southern Appalachia, is one of the most destructive forces of mankind, blowing off the tops of mountains, filling streams and valleys with rubble and ripping communities apart. Transporting coal from mine to plant produces large quantities of climate pollutants as well as more traditional air pollutants. Burning coal releases millions upon millions of tons of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, which react to form smog, acid rain and particulate matter. Burning coal also releases hazardous air pollutants, heavy metals and acid gases. Finally, coal ash–the waste left behind after coal is burned–contains additional toxic heavy metals like arsenic, chromium, selenium, mercury and more.

With a life-cycle so rife with destruction and pollution, its hard to imagine that anybody could fathom a clean future let alone insinuate a clean present. Yet, organizations like the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE) and member utilities like Southern Company pretend to do just that. Clean coal proponents base some of their clean coal claims on technologies that address traditional pollutants such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter and mercury. While the technology really does make coal less dirty, they do not make coal “clean” in any commonly accepted meaning of the word–particularly because they transfer many of the air pollutants by capturing them and depositing them in coal ash, which regularly leaks into surface and groundwater (see two detailed studies of coal ash contamination here and here). Just as importantly, these technologies only work if coal plants actually use them. Many do not. disadvantages-clean-coal-800x800

Proponents of clean coal fight against cleaner coal

The actions of clean coal proponents suggest they simply want the status quo. If less dirty coal were their goal, then a clean coal alliance like ACCCE  would champion proven control methods and utilities like Southern Company would use them throughout their coal fleets. But that’s not the case: ACCCE and Southern Company are actually fighting the adoption of clean coal technologies in their home territory and on Capitol Hill every step of the way.

As the United States Environmental Protection Agency proposes and adopts new rules to clear the air and water, ACCCE and Southern Company are among the loudest and best funded opponents. ACCCE recently derided clean air regulations for being “the most expensive EPA rules ever imposed on coal-fueled power plants . . .” without ever mentioning their environmental “clean” benefits. Southern Company has likewise lambasted EPA proposals and stated, in particular, that by pushing for implementation of environmental technology EPA is proposing “one of the most burdensome” and “far reaching” rules ever. They too fail to mention that the farther reaching the rule, the greater the protections for human health and the environment and the cleaner their operations will become.


Kicking the coal down the road

Besides fighting regulations that will help to make coal less dirty, proponents of clean coal are also trying to change the nature of the debate by passing over the proven technologies that address traditional pollutants and instead harping on unproven technologies that may never come to fruition.

ACCCE likes to talk about carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), which is often touted as a cure for the climate crisis. The technology would collect carbon from smoke stacks and pump it below ground where it would, theoretically, be safely stored indefinitely. Unfortunately, CCS has yet to be implemented on a large scale and the costs may be so high that coal companies, who still balk at installing less expensive proven technology, would refuse to widely adopt CCS.

Coalitions like ACCCE may like CCS because it is much easier to advocate for government and academic research and investment than to actually spend the time, effort and money to adopt an existing technology. In other words, they are just taking the easy way out by shifting the focus from what they can do now to what they may or may not do in the future. If coal advocates are always just hoping, without commitment, for the next big thing, they continue to shirk responsibility for their contribution to pollution today and are really just talking out of both sides of their mouths. They are promoting clean coal while fighting any efforts at climate change legislation and criticizing EPA for its efforts to reduce climate and traditional pollutants.

This type of double-speak makes it embarrassingly clear that the propaganda of clean coal and the reality of less dirty coal are wildly divergent. Coal will not clean up because coal companies don’t want to spend money on less dirty coal. These groups may continue to fight incremental changes, but as they kick and scream, we are all beginning to see a monumental change as our overall reliance on coal is declining. Only when coal becomes a marginal part of our energy generation will we actually be on our way to a clean energy future.

Guest Blog
My Profile