Published on
The Herald-Times (Bloomington, Indiana)

'Clean Coal' Doesn't Exist, Despite Industry Marketing Campaign

Ben Brabson, Ph.D. & Lisa Ramsden

 Why, do you suppose, the coal industry is spending $40 million a year on marketing to convince us that coal is "clean?" Twenty years ago "clean coal" meant that coal plants produced no mercury, no oxides of sulfur and nitrogen, and no particulates. Now, because of the devastating consequences of carbon dioxide on climate, "clean coal" also means no CO2.

At this moment, our principal energy sources are the carbon fuels: plentiful coal, dwindling oil and natural gas. Unfortunately, the carbon dioxide they produce when burned is also the principal cause of our rapidly changing climate.

Our short-term response is an immediate reduction in fossil fuel energy use, accompanied by immediate reduction in cost, pollution, and a slowing change in climate.

This focuses our attention on two long-term paths forward: Renewable energies or carbon capture and sequestration. Renewable energies include solar, wind, biomass, waves and other sources that produce essentially no new CO2.

Fortunately, the Earth receives the equivalent of the world's total fossil fuels every two weeks from the sun. Carbon sequestration is where coal plants capture their carbon dioxide and inject it permanently underground.

Wind and solar currently produce less than 1 percent of electricity in the U.S. However, at their present phenomenal rate of growth, they would outstrip coal energy production in as few as 18 years, without the pollution or public health dangers from coal. Perhaps this helps to explain the coal industry's $40 million marketing effort.

Many national leaders, including President-elect Obama and Congressman Baron Hill, are fully aware of the negative impact of carbon dioxide on climate. While supportive of renewable energies, they are also attracted by the coal industry's pitch for carbon sequestration.

Unfortunately, the near-term prospects for carbon sequestration are not bright. The reasons are straightforward.

To start, these plants are designed to sequester only a portion of the CO2 generated from the coal they consume. Second, while most coal plants are very good at removing SO2 and mercury, not one is actually capturing a majority of its generated CO2.

Third, sequestration-ready plants are expensive. Estimates range up to three times the cost of energy from wind. Fourth, much of the research and development of carbon capture and sequestration has not been done.

For example, we do not yet know whether the strategy of drilling wells and injecting CO2 into the ground is economically feasible.

Finally, while carbon sequestration plants have a small efficiency advantage over conventional coal plants, that advantage is lost when the energy needed to sequester the CO2 is included. This results in additional coal consumption and CO2 pollution.

For these and other reasons, FutureGlen, the flagship coal gasification project, a public-private partnership with the U.S. government, was abandoned in January of 2008.

The reason for this failure is simply that the economics of carbon sequestration is not supported by its limited scientific and technical understanding.

It is particularly important that state regulatory agencies not be tempted to approve new coal plants on the hunch that carbon sequestration might work at some point in the future. Sequestration is not a proven technology on the scale necessary to protect the climate.

Research into the technology will continue, but we must not divert funding away from proven and safe solutions to the energy crisis: conservation, efficiency, and renewable energy technologies. The era of clean coal has not arrived, so let's see our country invest in the clean energies that have.

Now is the time for President-elect Obama and Congressman Hill to show strong environmental leadership by focusing their attentions first and foremost on our achievable renewable energies.

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Brabson is a professor emeritus of physics at Indiana University, his area of research being energy and global climate change. Ramsden is a field organizer with Greenpeace's global warming campaign.

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