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Clean Coal or Dirty Pork?

Will someone please sit down with Brian Schweitzer and explain that there is no such thing as “clean coal“? I’m sorry, but it is extremely embarrassing to have my governor flitting around the country pimping for coal companies.

Burning coal is the problem, not the solution. Coal produces almost 50% of our CO2 output in this country. We are pumping over six billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere each year by burning carbon to produce our electricity. According to the American Lung Association 24,000 people a year die prematurely because of pollution from coal-fired power plants. And every year 38,000 heart attacks, 12,000 hospital admissions and an additional 550,000 asthma attacks result from power plant pollution. Coal-fired power plants are the largest emitter of human-generated mercury pollution in the country. Every state now has fish consumption advisories due to high mercury concentrations in freshwater fish. 12,000 miners died of black lung disease from mining coal between 1992 and 2002. Mountain-top removal to mine coal in Appalachia has buried or damaged more than 1,200 miles of streams. Mining coal uses 250 million gallons of water every day. Even without the CO2 problem, “clean coal” is an oxymoron.

President Obama sat down with the governors of ten coal states this week and amazingly enough, they think we should use more coal. They think coal can be clean. Mostly, they think that “clean coal” projects can bring money into their states whether the technology is silly or not. After the meeting “Schweitzer noted that Montana and the Canadian province of Saskatchewan have been cooperating on such a project, which he said should be ‘at the head of the linefor applying for federal assistance.” It’s all about the money, it’s not about clean anything. The administration would like to spend nearly $700 million this year on “clean coal” projects and our governor wants to make sure Montana is first at the trough. It’s bad enough that our governor is willing to sacrifice the Tongue River valley for a few million coal dollars, but that’s not good enough for the “Coal Cowboy”. He would strip mine the entire eastern side of Montana if it would bring in a few bucks.

Schweitzer was on the Ed Schultz show yesterday singing his “clean coal” hymn to the choir. Schultz is from North Dakota, so Brian made sure to bring up the success of the Basin Electrtic project near Beulah. A group of Michigan gas companies built a plant to produce synthetic natural gas from coal. They put in $500 million. The American taxpayer put up $1.2 billion. The taxpayers also put up $100 million to build a 200-mile pipeline to get the captured CO2 up to Saskatchewan, where it is used to produce oil from a worn out oil field. The oil is then burned to… produce more CO2. They sequester a small amount of CO2 at an enormous cost. When the price of natural gas dropped, the owners walked away and the energy department ponied up another $1 billion to buy the plant before selling to Basin Electric at a loss. That’s what “clean coal” success looks like. Good deal for North Dakota, crappy deal for the American taxpayer.

The U.S. is the largest per capita emitter of greenhouse gases in the world. We have committed to reducing our greenhouse gas emissions by 17% by 2020 and by 83% by 2050. Clean coal technology is expected to be ready for prime time in, maybe thirty years. I’m no whiz at math, but if the ND plant is sequestering about 3 million tons of CO2 per year, and 17% of our current output is around 1 billion tons, that means that we would need over 300 such plants to be up and running by 2020 to sequester enough CO2 to reach our stated goal. That’s 30 plants a year for the next ten years.

Coal got us into this mess. It’s not going to get us out. Okay, we are committed to using some coal for a while yet, that means that we will kill some more miners, destroy more mountains, cause more lung disease, pollute our water and warm the planet for a while longer. What we don’t need to do is spend billions of dollars promoting some screwy technology that has no chance of helping the situation just to make more money for coal companies and to get votes from coal states. Let’s spend those billions on clean energy technologies that really exist and may actually help so that we can ween ourselves from the coal trough that much sooner.

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3 Responses

  1. There’s no such thing as ‘clean coal’. If people want more background, an overview of the role that coal plays in our country, and how it affects people’s lives, watch the movie COAL COUNTRY. It’s urgent that we start the transition away from coal. (www.coalcountrythemovie.com)

  2. In your zeal you are either mis-stating or misunderstanding important facts. Coal can be made “clean” when the techniques used to process coal do NOT burn the coal. Burning coal produces CO2 and right now sends it into the atmosphere. Coal can be gasified (which is what happens at the plant in Beaulah ND) and the CO2 is easily captured. Then it can be sequestered.

    We need coal in the electrical generation mix (we currently get over 50% of our power from coal and we cannot be weaned off of it overnight. In fact, it will likely take many decades to do so, if it can be done). In the meantime, we need to let American engineering and design (and science) work for us by testing the best ways to process (not burn) coal and to test and prove out the best ways to sequester the carbon.

    A test plant in Montana could be one of upwards of a dozen such plants which will be the way we perfect the science and find a way to use coal “the right way”.

    Folks like you think science is something we should believe in when it comes to things like stem cell research (and I agree with that) but do not want us to rely upon scientific advancements when it does not fit our political prejudices (like your visceral dislike of coal).

    I, for one, have faith that we can perfect the science around cleaner coal and am appreciative of the commitment of the Obama administration to a diversified mix of energy sources as we move into the future. Clean coal, safe nuclear and renewables like solar, wind and geothermal all need to be part of the mix as does conservation and efficiency.

    • GFG,

      Thanks for the response. I totally agree with your conclusion that all of our energy resources must be a part of the mix going forward. There is no way we are going to drop coal for many years yet, but we need to use it responsibly. I will reiterate that coal cannot be made clean. Even if we disregard the CO2 problem we are still left with a fuel that strips the tops off of our mountains, pollutes our streams and air, produces millions of tons of toxic ash that must be stored forever, increases the incidence of lung disease, cardiovascular disease and strokes, kills miners through accidents and black lung disease and uses 250 million gallons of our precious water every day.

      Coal gasification has been getting a lot of buzz from the industry lately, but only a few years ago it was coal-to-liquids, which they dropped like a hot potato when they found that it was actually more, rather than less, polluting. Gasification is still only about 40% efficient right now and will not work without an unproven sequestration component. CCS is extremely expensive in terms of both money and energy. It requires about one-third of the produced energy just to compress, transport and store the CO2 underground. About one-fourth of the CO2 is lost in the sequestration process. For every two coal-fired power plants that sequester CO2, we would have to build a third plant to supply the CCS energy. That would also mean mining more coal and mining is responsible for a lot of the pollution. In California, they found that residents were in favor of cleaner coal power until they found that they would be living atop a vast reservoir of toxic gas with no guarantee that it would never leak. There are NIMBY problems with CCS, questions about groundwater pollution and whether it will ever scale up to commercial needs at a reasonable cost.

      The main advantage of the CCS process right now is the billions of dollars that experimental projects pump into state coffers in order to secure their support of clean coal efforts. There are other, cheaper solutions. The World Coal Institute estimates that we can gain a 25% savings in greenhouse gas emissions by improving the efficiency of existing coal-fired plants at a much lower cost than building an entirely new generation of more efficient plants. Yes, we must use coal for a while, but we should not be touting new coal technologies as THE answer to our energy needs. Let’s focus some of that money into existing clean power alternatives that we already know work and not into a possible technology that may work sometime in the future. If we build new coal plants, and we will, they must be as efficient as possible and yes, we should continue to explore CCS technologies, but only as a bridge technology that we will walk away from as soon as possible.

      I too am appreciative of the administrations commitment to solving our energy problems, but I don’t think that pumping all our toxic pollutants down a hole in the ground is the answer. Sequestration technology may prove to be helpful in a small way at an exorbitant cost, but it will never prove to be a worthwhile solution in the time frame that we have to work with. As we go forward, we should be focused on moving away from carbon-based fuels, not on finding new ways to continue to pollute the Montana.

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