Is Clean Coal an Oxymoron?
Even though coal is the dirtiest of all fossil fuels – when burned, it produces emissions that contribute to global warming, create acid rain and pollute water – it generates half of the electricity in the United States and will likely continue to do so as long as it’s cheap and plentiful according to the Energy Information Administration. Yet with all of the, ahem, hot air that has been blown forth around alternative energy sources like nuclear, hydropower and biofuels, one would think that coal is losing steam. Well, hold onto your mining helmets because a nifty, little idea called clean coal technology is gaining traction and looks to support America’s addiction to coal.
Most of us have heard the term “clean coal” bandied about by politicians and environmental activists as a realistic means to reduce carbon emissions. But what does this mean exactly? Are we talking about literally giving regular, sooty coal a bubble bath before it’s burned, steamed and flambéed into useable and much cleaner energy? Yes and no. Yes, in that clean coal seeks to reduce harsh environmental effects by using multiple technologies to clean and contain its emissions. No, because it appears that clean coal still leaves behind a hefty carbon footprint.
And therein lies the “insidious” oxymoron of the term clean coal, according to 2008 article published by The Washington Post that is still very relevant today. Here’s an excerpt from that article, “Clean Coal, Don’t Try to Shovel That”:
With the imaginary vocabulary of “clean coal,” too many Democrats and Republicans, as well as a surprising number of environmentalists, have forgotten the dirty realities of extracting coal from the earth. Pummeled by warnings that global warming is triggering the apocalypse, Americans have fallen for the ruse of futuristic science that is clean coal. And in the meantime, swaths of the country are being destroyed before our eyes.
The Washington Post article doesn’t dive deep into the potential of clean coal technology, and instead, reminds us that above all, “strip mining and underground coal mining remain the dirtiest and most destructive ways of making energy.” Here’s how they break it down:
- More than 104,000 miners in America have died in coal mines since 1900.
- Twice as many have died from black lung disease.
- Dangerous pollutants, including mercury, filter into our air and water.
- The injuries and deaths caused by overburdened coal trucks are innumerable.
- Millions of acres across 36 states have been dynamited, torn and churned into bits.
- More than 60 percent of all coal mined in the United States today comes from strip mines.
Other news sources are a bit more pragmatic in their depiction of what really constitutes clean coal technology. A recent CBS News article for instance, provides insight into how coal can become cleaner. Currently, the cleanest coal plant in the United States is operated by Florida’s Tampa Electric. The company mixes the coal with water and oxygen which is converted into gas. The company’s president, John Ramil says this “gasifying” process removes pollutants like sulphur, nitrogen and soot, which virtually eliminates acid rain.
But not so fast, according to John Hansen, NASA’s expert on global warming who says all coal plants, even Tampa Electric’s plant, still emit millions of tons of carbon dioxide – the most threatening greenhouse gas.
“There is no coal plant that captures the carbon dioxide and that’s the major long-term pollutant,” says Hansen.
As more clean coal proponents become hip to Hansen’s findings, a new idea is under way whereby most of the carbon dioxide from coal is captured and stored underground. Here’s more from the CBS News article:
The idea is called “capture and sequester,” and a global race is on to learn how it should be done. One Norwegian firm is storing tons of carbon dioxide in rock caves beneath the North Sea. America’s efforts to sequester carbon have stalled. The Department of Energy planned to fund a plant, but pulled all funding when the price grew too high.
And now, the failure to solve the carbon dioxide problem is a threat to coal itself. In the last five years, at least 63 coal-fired power plants have been scrapped or defeated by public opposition. Enter the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE) a non-profit organization that looks to debunk the myths and confusion around clean coal technology and perhaps help keep the coal industry alive in the coming years. The ACCCE’s recent battle arrived in a public statement in response to the latest National Resource Defense Council (NRDC)-funded study citing supposed risks to consumers resulting from coal-fueled power plant expansion. Here’s what the ACCCE had to say in a recent press announcement:
“ACCCE disagrees with the NRDC’s assessment regarding the future of advanced technologies to capture and store CO2. To date, the coal-fueled electricity sector has commercially deployed technologies to reduce emissions by more than 30 percent even as the use of coal to generate electricity has tripled to meet growing energy demand. This progress gives every reason to be optimistic about meeting the challenge of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, while at the same time, using domestic energy resources to meet growing energy needs and keeping energy costs affordable for American families and businesses.”
What are your thoughts? Is clean coal an “insidious oxymoron” or a viable means to reduce harmful emissions?