Clean coal? Still just a dream

clean coal? yeah, right.clean coal? yeah, right."Clean coal technology is something that can make America energy independent," said President Obama on the stump in 2008. "This is America. We figured out how to put a man on the moon in 10 years, and you tell me we can't figure out a way to burn clean coal that is mined right here in the United States of America and make it work?" He also said something about "five million new jobs." Watch it here.

The coal industry says $12 billion worth of clean coal research is underway in 43 states. Coal is still cheap and relatively abundant. And it remains a potent energy source, producing 39% of world electricity. Half of all American electricity is from coal, and the U.S. has 250 billion tons of recoverable reserves, the industry says. That's "more than three times Saudi Arabia's proven oil reserves."

"The environmental footprint of coal-based electricity generation has been significantly reduced," says the America's Power website, which added the bold text. "Some say that is a real accomplishment. We say it is a great start."

So if something called "clean coal" actually existed (and there's no evidence it does), we'd be home free. But the concept presupposes some conditions that are far from reality today, and unlikely ever to happen. Domestic coal reserves would have to be mined sustainably, then burned in a process that captured (or "sequestered") its copious carbon dioxide emissions before they reached the atmosphere and contributed to global warming. Neither is nigh.

A process that starts with ripping ancient mountains apart to get at coal seams will always struggle to be sustainable. When he first saw a mountaintop removal mining operation, Rolling Stone contributing editor and Big Coal author Jeff Goodell said at a recent "Covering the Green Economy" summit that it was like "looking at the underbelly of the digital economy." The electricity to run iPods and Blackberrys was coming out of a toxic hole in the ground covering thousands of acres.

Mountaintop removal is probably 10 percent of American coal production, but other methods are problematic, too. Longwall mining, for instance, accounts for 31 percent of coal production, and by cutting a 800-foot-swath underground has undermined many home foundations.

Goodell also looked at the carbon capture that's an essential to clean coal's future. "If carbon capture doesn't work, then there's no future for coal," he said, before concluding, "It is doable, but not at scale, in time, or in a commercially viable way that has real meaning. Culturally and economically it won't work."

The industry begs to differ. Ned Leonard, vice president for program support of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE), said that "it's everybody's fervent prayer, from the Obama administration to the industry, that in 10 to 15 years a diverse array of carbon capture and storage technologies will be widespread."

I went to coal country in West Virginia in 2007, and saw trucks with 16-foot tires -- so big they can't travel on public roads, but must be assembled on site -- rumbling through blasted moonscapes. Only when the seam is exhausted is "remediation" attempted. I wrote then that I had seen mountain valleys and their water supplies buried under tons of chemical-laced rubble, leaving once-thriving communities to become ghost towns.

"These are the so-called 'valley fills,'" I wrote then, "pulverized mountaintops laced with all manner of toxic materials. Dumped into the hollows between mountains, they bury or add poisonous flavoring to the alpine streams that provide drinking water to local communities. They appear as obscene unnatural bulges on the landscape, with the grass covering described by one activist as 'lipstick on a corpse.'"

Green jobs? Economically challenged West Virginia remains in recession, and the coal industry is not among the state's biggest employers -- that honor goes to Wal-Mart and the state government. When Big Coal started ripping the tops off mountains, it no longer needed legions of sub-surface miners -- a few truck drivers could do the work.

Gristreports that some mining companies have cut employment by 90% in the last 40 years. According to a report this year from Downstream Strategies, coal production peaked in 1997 in central Appalachia, and in the region as a whole just 2% of the workforce is involved in mining. By 2020, mining could decline another 46%. This chart shows how many mining jobs have been lost:

Now back to carbon sequestration. Keep in mind that burning coal is a much cleaner process than it used to be. The Obama administration proposed new rules July 6 that should reduce sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions by hundreds of thousands of tons annually. That's a big step forward and good news for American lungs, but it isn't the same thing as sequestering carbon.

The definitive source on the state of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology is a special report prepared by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and while it estimates that 85% to 90% of a plant's emissions could be captured with CCS, it also reports that few of the processes involved have evolved into mature markets. Most are in research phases or could become "economically feasible under specific conditions."

Under best-case conditions, we'd be grabbing coal's CO2 emissions out of smokestacks and out of the air, using pipelines to transport it and storing it in underground geological formations or the ocean. But the processes are extremely expensive, energy-intensive, experimental and uncertain.

ACCCE spokesman Ned Leonard said the industry has made a good deal of progress since the 2005 IPCC report. He said one fairly mature technology uses amine solutions post-combustion to capture carbon. The drawback, he said, is that the process uses a lot of energy and becomes "a parasite on the coal plant." A second, oxy-fuel, separates air going into the boiler, resulting in a pure stream of CO2 to capture. "But the air separator uses a lot of energy."

Leonard said that an oxy-fuel pilot plant is being set up in Europe. In 2009, American Electric Power's 50-megawatt Mountaineer plant at the Ohio and West Virginia border began using a chilled ammonia process to capture 90% of its CO2 output, and if it works well there it will be scaled up to a 350-megawatt plant in Oklahoma, he said.

Legislation that caps carbon emissions and sets up a trading network would speed up sequestration efforts. "Without something like that utilities don't have the incentive," Leonard said. But the prospects for cap and trade are fairly dim at the moment. And any effective CCS technology would have to work as a retrofit, because 95% to 98% of our emissions will be from existing plants. Cost and space are issues.

Big Coal's Goodell describes CCS as "a technological mirage" that "everybody writes about it as if it will happen tomorrow." It's fairly safe to say that for the foreseeable future, most coal will be mined using environmentally destructive methods, and burned producing a lot of CO2 without carbon capture and storage. So calling it "clean" seems a misnomer, to say the least.
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