"Clean coal" is a contradiction in terms. Television ads, billboards and politicians use the term, but mining coal and burning it remain a dirty business. With the threats posed by climate change as a backdrop, industry is waging a PR offensive to claim coal is both benign and indispensable.
But is even cleaner coal a real, if distant, promise ... or merely a dangerous distraction?
Coal generates half the nation's electricity, and almost all of Pennsylvania's. Burning it releases more than one-third of the United States' carbon dioxide emissions -- the chief cause of climate change -- and other pollutants like mercury. The promise of clean coal relies mostly on "carbon capture and sequestration," a means to trap the CO2 in power-plant emissions, liquefy it, and inject it deep underground. The technology to do so exists, but is unproven on a large scale.
Without CCS, proponents say, we'll never cut CO2 emissions enough to avoid the worst effects of climate change. A new high-profile report from a group headed by Carnegie Mellon professor M. Granger Morgan urges the Obama administration to create a commission to regulate CCS, and to overcome legal and other obstacles to deploying it.
Critics counter that no coal-fired plants currently employ CCS, and that the technology won't be feasible on a commercial scale until it's too late. (Estimates range from 2020 to 2030.) Worse, if the promise of CCS convinces us to build more coal plants, we'll lock in decades more of emissions. "[T]he world needs to reduce the amount of CO2 produced, not bury it underground and hope that it stays there," says the environmental group Greenpeace, in a 2008 report titled False Hope.
Challenges to CCS are legion. Capturing and processing the CO2 would reduce the efficiency of power plants by 30 percent or more. The increased energy use would require us to build power plants for our power plants, potentially doubling the price of electricity.
Then there's storage: We'd have to find enough spent oil and natural-gas wells (or other suitable geologic formations) to store huge quantities of the stuff, and monitor it for centuries. And we'd have to build a vast pipeline network to transfer CO2 from power plants to the underground sites.
Meanwhile, we'd continue mining lots of coal -- arguably the most environmentally destructive activity in the U.S., with its blown-apart mountains and poisoned water. And power plants would still produce other wastes, like the tons of fly ash behind recent disasters in Tennessee and Alabama.
From 2002 to 2007, federal spending for electricity-related fossil-fuels research-and-development (including on CCS) was $3.1 billion -- more than twice the comparable figure for renewable sources like solar power and wind. Even so, CCS will become economically feasible only after the government puts a price on carbon emissions -- a price that might make renewables a much better bargain.
So why shovel vast sums of money into sanctifying a dirty, inefficient, nonsustainable fuel source -- with technology we still haven't perfected -- when we could ramp up stuff we already use: energy efficiency and renewable power?
Some argue that the U.S. should perfect CCS technology and export it to China and India -- whose own increasing reliance on coal would nullify any cuts we might make. And in any case, our growing appetite for energy, left unchecked, might leave us no choice. To make do with renewable energy supplies, as groups like Greenpeace propose, would likely require reducing demand through efficiency and conservation on a scale we've never seen.
We've never seen large-scale CCS, either. Yet while Jan Jarrett, head of Citizens of Pennsylvania's Future, prefers conservation to coal, she's among those environmental activists who favor CCS research.
"Every single way we have to reduce carbon, we have to try," says Jarrett. "There's no one way. We've got to do it all."