Coal Industry Tries to Hide Dirty Facts Behind 'Clean' Claims

Published on
by
The Guardian/UK

Coal Industry Tries to Hide Dirty Facts Behind 'Clean' Claims

Misleading and duplicitous ads on 'clean coal' cannot camouflage the stench of fossil fuels

by
Fred Pearce

Greenpeace activists disrupt coal loading at the world's largest coal port at Newcastle, Australia (Photograph: EPA)

The fightback begins here. Well, we can hope. The misleading and downright duplicitous ads against clean coal chronicled here are now being contested by - you guessed it - an ad.

Last week the Academy-award winning movie producers Joel and Ethan Coen began airing their commercial on cable TV in the US.
It is a spoof air freshener advert with a suburban housewife spraying
her home with a coal-black aerosol from a can called Clean Coal.
Explaining the magic ingredient, the presenter says that "Clean Coal
harnesses the awesome power of the word clean".

It ends with the caption for anyone with a comedy bypass: "In reality, there is no such thing as clean coal."

Meanwhile, a thick spray of the white stuff in Washington DC couldn't prevent some 2,000 protesters gathering at the Capitol Hill power plant to protest that the plant burns coal to provide steam heating for the federal legislature's cavernous halls.

The snow did allow a mocking Fox News to report
that the scene was "reminiscent of a day in January 2004 when Al Gore
made a major address in New York - on one of the coldest days in the
city's history." They really can't get over Gore, can they?

But
we all have our obsessions, and I fear that the alliterative power of
"clean coal" is destined to reoccur in this column. It is just so
pervasive and so toxic. It seems capable of camouflaging every stench
of the industry. And even the distant prospect of it is just so damned
convenient for politicians caught between coal and environment lobbies.

In
Britain, the prospective "clean coal" technology known as carbon
capture and storage looks like it is being lined up as a fig leaf for
the construction of new coal-burning power plants. How else can one
explain contradictory messages from ministers in recent days?

This
week the word from Whitehall has been that a decision on the Kingsnorth
power plant, likely to be the first of several such plants, had been delayed until the autumn,
while the cabinet minister responsible for both energy and climate
policy, Ed Miliband, conducted a review of coal policy because of
climate concerns.

But I am having trouble reconciling that with
last week's speech by energy minister Mike O'Brien at a coal industry
conference in London where he said "we will need new fossil fuel plants, including coal" to meet a "generation capacity gap by 2015".

Which
is it to be? Watch out for "clean coal" to bridge the climate gap. But
we may be asked to glossed over the fact that, as O'Brien helpfully
explained, Britain's first project to see if it can make the technology
work at an actual power station won't begin its first tests until 2014
- a bit late to plug an energy gap a year later.

The doublespeak
is in overdrive right now in Australia, from where reader Patrick has
sent me updates on the launch of the Australian Coal Association PR
campaign New Generation Coal. It has a multi-million dollar media budget for promoting clean coal.

We
should be grateful that, like its counterparts round the world, the ACA
now concedes that climate change has to be beaten. And unlike many
countries, the Australian $40-billion coal industry is spending a few
tens of millions of dollars a year on R&D into carbon capture and
storage.

But it is small stuff that they are selling big. And one snappily-titled project, Zero-Gen in Queensland, is reportedly on the brink of collapse because of a funding dispute between industry and government.

The Australian industry's claim that carbon capture and storage will be "commercially viable by 2017" is far-fetched to say the least.

Nobody else in the world thinks that is possible. And that, I'd guess, includes the Australian government, which recently snubbed UN climate negotiators by setting itself a derisory target of reducing domestic CO2 emissions by just 5% by 2020.

Australia
is built on coal. It gets 80% of its electricity from burning the
stuff. But domestic emissions are just the start. It is also the
world's largest exporter. As another reader Dave points out, Newcastle in New South Wales
is the world's busiest coal exporting terminal, sending abroad 80
million tonnes of the black stuff every year, mostly to fast-growing
Asian economies like China and Thailand.

So not only are Aussie
greenhouse gas emissions among the world's highest (per head of
population, more than twice those of Britain) they are also doing their
best to bump everybody's up as well.

Until its Labor prime minister, Kevin Rudd, starts doing something about that, his claimed green credentials will be just greenwash.

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