'Coal is so clean and fresh that the prime minister brushes his teeth with it, Downing Street said last night. Mr Brown said advances in coal technology meant it was now one of the cleanest substances on Earth, and an unrivalled remover of stains and scaling." So says the satirical website the Daily Mash. The real claims are scarcely battier.
Ministers are about to decide whether to approve a new coal-burning power station at Kingsnorth in Kent. This would be the first such plant to be built in Britain since the monster at Drax was finished in 1986. As well as coal, it will burn up the government's targets, policies and promises on climate change.
John Hutton, the secretary of state in charge of energy, has started justifying the decision he says he hasn't made. "For critics," he argued last week, "there's a belief that coal-fired power stations undermine the UK's leadership position on climate change. In fact, the opposite is true." Quite so: if we don't burn this stuff the Chinese might get their hands on it. Or could he be a true believer? Does he really think there's such a thing as clean coal?
Clean coal's definition changes according to whom the industry is lobbying. Sometimes it means more efficient power stations - which still produce almost twice as much carbon dioxide as gas plants. Sometimes it means removing sulphur dioxide from the smoke, which boosts the CO2. Sometimes it means carbon capture and storage: stripping the carbon out of the exhaust gases, piping it away and burying it in geological formations. None of these equate to clean coal, as you will see if you visit an opencast mine. But they create a marvellous amount of confusion in the public mind, which gives the government a chance to excuse the inexcusable.
In principle, carbon capture and storage (CCS) could reduce emissions from power stations by 80% to 90%. While the whole process has not yet been demonstrated, the individual steps are all deployed commercially today: it looks feasible. The government has launched a competition for companies to build the first demonstration plant, which should be burying CO2 by 2014.
Unfortunately, despite Hutton's repeated assurances, this has nothing to do with Kingsnorth or the other new coal plants he wants to approve. If Kingsnorth goes ahead, it will be operating by 2012, two years before the CCS experiment has even begun. The government says that the demonstration project will take "at least 15 years" to assess. It will take many more years for the technology to be retro-fitted to existing power stations, by which time it's all over. On this schedule, carbon capture and storage, if it is deployed at all, will come too late to prevent runaway climate change.
Kingsnorth will produce around 4.5m tonnes of CO2 every year; if all eight of the proposed coal plants are built, they will account for 46% of the emissions Britain can produce by 2050, assuming the government sticks to Brown's new proposed target of an 80% cut. Aviation, using the government's own figures, will account for another 184% (these figures are explained on my website). Even if we stopped breathing, eating, driving and heating our homes, the new runways and coal burners the government envisages would more than double our national greenhouse gas quota.
The government seeks to bamboozle us by arguing that the new power stations will be "CCS ready", meaning that one day, in theory, they could be retrofitted with the necessary equipment. But even this turns out to be untrue. In January, Greenpeace obtained an exchange of emails between E.ON, the company hoping to build the new plant - yes, the same E.ON that broadcasts footage of fluttering sycamore keys, suggesting that its dirty old habits have gone with the wind - and Gary Mohammed, the civil servant drawing up the planning conditions.
Mohammed begins by sending an email of such snivelling obsequiousness that you can almost smell the fear on it. "Drafting the conditions for Kingsnorth. If possible I would like to cover CCS ... I admit this suggested condition could be without justification and premature but no harm in trying to gauge your opinion." (This "suggested condition" was actually government policy. Who's running this country?) E.ON replied by claiming that the secretary of state "has no right to withhold approval for conventional plant" (in fact he has every right). All it would allow the government to specify was that the potential for CCS "will be investigated". Mohammed wrestled with his conscience for all of six minutes before replying. "Thanks. I won't include. Hope to get the set of draft conditions out today or tomorrow."
This exchange took place in mid-January, a few days before the European commission published a proposed directive specifying that all new coal-fired stations must be CCS ready. Mohammed must have known that he was helping E.ON to win approval for the plant before the directive comes into force next year.
You might by now be beginning to derive the impression that carbon capture and storage is not the green panacea ministers have suggested. But you haven't heard the half of it. Even if it does become a viable means of disposing of carbon dioxide, new figures suggest that it's likely to enhance rather than reduce our total emissions.
For the companies bidding for contracts to bury the gas, one technique is more attractive than the others. This is to pump it into declining oil fields. The gas dissolves into the remaining oil, reducing its viscosity and pushing it into the production wells. It's called enhanced oil recovery (EOR). The oil the companies sell offsets some of the costs of carbon storage.
A few weeks ago, the green thinker Jim Bliss roughly calculated the environmental costs of this technique. He used as his case study the scheme BP proposed but abandoned last year for pumping CO2 into the Miller Field off the coast of Scotland. It would have buried 1.3m tonnes of CO2 and extracted 40m barrels of oil. Taking into account only the four major fuel products, Bliss worked out that the total carbon emissions would outweigh the savings by between seven and 15 times.
So has the government ruled out enhanced oil recovery? Not a bit of it. Its memo about the demonstration project says that Hutton's department "will want to ensure that the treatment of EOR and non-EOR projects are dealt with on a level playing-field basis". Another document suggests that it favours this technique: enhanced oil recovery will lead to "increased energy security, domestic revenue and employment". But, the government notes, this will have to happen before the North Sea's oil infrastructure is dismantled. "Now is the perfect opportunity to realise the significant opportunities offered by CCS."
Like biofuels and micro wind turbines, carbon capture and storage turns out to be another great green scam. It will come too late to prevent runaway climate change; the government has no intention of enforcing it; and even if it had, the technique is likely to boost our carbon emissions. This is what John Hutton calls "meeting our international obligations". Heaven knows what breaking them might look like.
George Monbiot is the author of the best selling books The Age of Consent: a manifesto for a new world order and Captive State: the corporate takeover of Britain. He writes a weekly column for the Guardian newspaper.
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