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Dispelling The Clean Coal Fairy Tale

Benjamin Gottlieb |
December 29, 2011 | 8:43 p.m. PST

Executive Editor

Photo courtesy of Creative Commons.
Photo courtesy of Creative Commons.
It’s hard to think about coal without feeling a bit dirty.

After all, the image of the conventional American coal miner, emerging from the depths of an Appalachian anthracite mine, caked in a foundation of jet-black, coal-based makeup, does not exactly scream out Mr. Clean.

But what coal lacks in hygiene, it makes up for in profit, working-class jobs and, above all, energy.

Nearly half the electricity used in the United States is generated by coal-fired power plants, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration figures. The abundance of coal deposits, coupled with the roughly 80,000 coal-related jobs in the U.S., makes the case for cleaning up coal’s dirty image awfully compelling.

The concept of “clean coal” made a considerable splash on the political stage in the early 2000s, championed by then-President George W. Bush as a balancing act between the nation’s environmental concerns and energy worries. A “clean-coal” coal fueled power plant would make use of the nation’s rich coal deposits in an eco-friendly way, capturing the carbon emissions of American coal-fired plants and storing them in deep, underground caverns.

The storing of carbon would be handled in manner similar to the stowing of radioactive material through a process known as carbon sequestration.

Almost a decade later, however, clean coal technology has yet to leave the drawing board. Its progress halted by both aggressive environmental lobbying and hard science, negating the eco-friendly sticker that “clean coal” advocates have stuck to their research.

“The idea is that if you can capture the emission from coal and pump it underground, you won’t pollute [the atmosphere],” said David Graham-Caso, former press deputy for the Sierra Club.  “I guess fairy tales are ideas as well.”

Much like petroleum and natural gas, coal is a fossil fuel, formed when layers of dead plants are compressed for millions of years. The metamorphosis augments the chemical and physical properties of the decayed plant matter into highly combustible, gas, liquid gas and organic rock.

Basically, coal-like oil and natural gas is a form of perfectly preserved, rotten plant matter; and it’s ideal for converting into electricity. Millions of years of archived photosynthesis are accessible by a simple spark.

To tap into this energy source, workers at coal-fired power plants thoroughly grind the coal harvested from underground coal beds, priming the coal to be heated in large water furnaces, generating steam. The steam is then used to power a steam engine or turbine, transforming the heat energy into electricity. 

But American coal-fired power plants in operation today have staunch opponents. For environmentalists, these power plants contribute considerably to environmental degradation and atmospheric pollution.

“Coal is the most egregious contributor to climate pollution,” Graham-Caso said.

Pollution generated by coal-fired power plants also plays a role in heart disease, cancer, stroke and chronic lower respiratory disease, four of the five leading causes of death in the United States.

U.S. coal refineries also produce roughly one-third of the nation’s C02 and nearly half of its mercury emissions from its coal stacks. Roughly 24,000 Americans die prematurely each year from the poison exhaled from coal-fired power plants, according the American Lung Association.

The risks of death, coupled with the urgency for energy independence, underscore the need for technologies like clean coal, according to Adam Rose, Acting Director for the USC Energy Institute.

Big-name coal companies – such as Peabody Energy and Arch Coal Inc – and environmental groups like the Sierra Club agree that coal needs to clean up its act.

But while the coal lobby lauds carbon sequestration, or the capture and storage of carbon emissions, as the answer to curbing pollution, environmentalists are ready to transition the nation away from coal energy altogether.
Rose, whose research focuses on carbon trading policies, agreed coal’s act needed to be cleaned up to help reduce carbon emissions, but that most experts consider capturing carbon emissions and storing them underground as a near term solution.

“We’d run out of spaces to store this type of stuff,” Rose said.

A high number of these “spaces” have been pinpointed in Morgan County, Illinois, the de facto heart of the nation’s clean coal movement.

At the helm of the clean coal movement is the FutureGen Alliance, an energy company conglomeration working toward creating an operational clean coal facility. Their latest undertaking, FutureGen 2.0, builds on the carbon-capturing model pioneered earlier this decade, storing emissions underground in deep caverns.

The idea is not so much to give coal a soothing bubble bath and a hearty scrub, but rather to capture the CO2 created during the coal-electricity generation process and “pump it in to deep geologic formations thousands of feet below the earth’s surface,” FutureGen said in a recent release.

By storing the C02 deep underground, coal plants will, in theory, significantly reduce their contribution to global warming and scale back the health risks associated with coal production.

But the FutureGen model for storing coal emissions revolves around finding suitable caverns for storing the waste C02, a process that has proved to be arduous at best.

FutureGen 2.0 – which recently received and estimated $1 billion from the American Recovery Act – believes they’ve found their ideal depot in Morgan County’s underground salt-water formations, but they have yet to physically launch such a plant.

FutureGen has yet to be successful because they do not address pollution problems caused by coal-fired power plants, Graham-Caso said.

“Think about cigarettes… [Carbon sequestration] would be like taking out just one of the 100 horrible toxins in cigarettes,” Graham-Caso said. “The Sierra Club does not support it.”

That’s not to say clean coal technology could not be successful; it could be useful in the future, for example, with steal plants to reduce emissions, Graham-Caso admits.

“But it’s ridiculous to think that you can solve the public health problems with this technology,” he said.

For now, the jury is still out on clean coal.

Skeptics doubt that CO2 can be stored in the Earth’s crust safely and that federal support the technology would pave the way for other fossil fuels to mask their production's hazards with a Band-Aid.

A $1 billion government check says otherwise.

A tax-payer commitment to fund the embattled fossil fuel companies of the country, and their pet projects such as clean coal, also detracts from the broader debate on climate change, Graham-Caso said.

What remains true, however, is that we’ve yet to see a fully functional clean coal power plant in the U.S. And while viable alternative energy options such as wind and solar have proven results, federal funds continue to pour into clean coal projects.


To reach Benjamin Gottlieb, click here.

Follow him on Twitter @benjamin_max.

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