Clean Coal’s Dirty Little Secret

By Sarah at ProgressiveKid

Both President-Elect Obama and his former opponent John McCain endorsed “clean coal” as an important element of their energy plans. But “clean coal” is a fairy tale with a very bad ending, as in the Big Bad Wolf eats and digests Little Red Riding Hood and belches out a black cloud afterward.

The Fairy Tale

Once upon a time (February 2002) George W. Bush promised the people all over the land that he would invest $2 billion dollars over ten years to advance “clean coal” technology. The people said, “What is this wondrous thing, this clean coal of which you speak?” George W. Bush said, and I’m paraphrasing rather liberally, “Well, it doesn’t yet exist but in time, you’ll see, this magical technology will emerge.”

So companies from all over the land gathered their best people to see if they could meet the challenge. Of the first eight, two projects had to withdraw early on. Of the remaining six, two were discontinued during project development, two advanced to later stages, and one was completed. In the second round of competition, only four companies had their projects selected, and one had to withdraw eventually. One is in the operational phase and two are under development. Those two will purportedly demonstrate advanced “IGCC technology.”

IGCC. Whatever does that mean? IGCC technology (integrated gasification combined cycle) is technology that mixes crushed coal with oxygen and water to create a combustible liquid fuel known as “syngas.” The process makes coal a little cleaner, emitting a little less sulphur. One major problem with IGCC is that the cost to produce electricity with syngas is 15 to 20 percent higher than the process used by conventional coal plants (Marilyn Berlin Snell, “Can Coal Be Clean?” Sierra Club, Jan/Feb 2007). Another problem is that syngas emits more carbon dioxide than gasoline when it is burned in an engine.

Carbon Sequestration. The third round of projects will give up altogether on making coal cleaner and instead will figure out what to do with the pollutants once they’re emitted. The DOE calls this utilizing “carbon sequestration technologies and/or beneficial reuse of carbon dioxide.” The primary way of sequestering coal involves injecting the emissions into geologic formations for permanent storage. No one knows what happens when you inject carbon dioxide into geologic formations for long periods of time. But we do know that the sites will need to be monitored carefully because, if there were a leak, thousands of people could be killed instantly. In 1986, for example, in Cameroon, a volcanic crater-lake belched bubbles of CO2 into the air. The gas settled around the lake’s shore, killing 1,800 people and thousands of animals (Michael Graham Richard, “Important! Why Carbon Sequestration Won’t Save Us,” Treehugger, 7/31/06).

In addition, the storage process is very expensive and itself generates large amounts of carbon dioxide. Finally, the sequestration process only captures 85 to 95 percent of a plant’s emissions and does not capture toxic emissions such as mercury and other heavy metals (Co-op America).

In fairy tale language, carbon sequestration is like trying to put some of the evils back into Pandora’s jar once it’s been opened.

The Evils

So just what are the evils of coal? Hide under the covers while I tell you.

Evil 1: Pollution and Toxins. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, coal-fired power plants are responsible for generating more than 83 percent of carbon dioxide pollution since 1990. According to the EPA, they are the single largest source of mercury pollution in the country. In addition they have the highest ratio of CO2 output per unit of electricity of all the fossil fuels. Coal plant emissions include neurotoxins, sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxides, arsenic, hydrogen chloride, and mercury and other heavy metals.

Mercury causes brain damage, mental retardation, and blindness. It can be transmitted through breastmilk. According to the U.S. Center for Clean Air Policy, 50 percent of the mercury emitted from coal-fired power plants can travel up to 600 miles (Center for Clean Air Policy, “Power Plant Emissions and Water Quality,” October 1997, Part 1, p. 13). And what happens if that traveling mercury reaches a lake, for example? According to the National Wildlife Fund, even as little as 0.002 pounds of mercury a year can contaminate a 25-acre lake, making the fish unsafe to eat (National Wildlife Federation, “Clean the Rain, Clean the Lakes: Mercury in Rain is Polluting the Great Lakes,” p. 4, September 1999).

Compared to other sources of energy, coal looks bad. It emits 29 percent more carbon per unit of energy than oil. It emits 80 percent more than natural gas (Worldwatch Institute, “Phasing out Coal: Environmental Concerns, Subsidy Cuts Fuel Decline,” Press Release).

Evil 2: The False Promise of Liquid Coal. “Clean coal” often refers to liquid coal. The idea is that coal converted into liquid form can be used to power vehicles, thereby eliminating our dependence on foreign oil. But the problem with liquid coal is that when you burn it in your engine it isn’t any more clean than if you burned coal rock in a coal plant. Burning liquid coal produces a little under two times the amount of carbon dioxide emissions of regular gasoline (27 pounds of CO2 per gallon of oil and gas versus 50 pounds of CO2 for liquid coal).

Evil 3: Mining. Whether you are producing liquid coal or regular coal, “clean coal” or regular old dirty coal, the coal has to be mined. With new attention and money given to “clean coal,” mining will certainly increase. Mining is a highly destructive activity that generates hazardous and acidic waste, contaminates groundwater, and requires the clearcutting of native hardwood forests so that mountaintops can be removed, opening access to coal.

The mining process generates liquid waste called slurry, a mix of carcinogenic compounds and heavy metals. The slurry is stored in open lagoons that, of course, sometimes break and flood. This is even more likely during periods of heavy rainfall and flooding (such as during global warming). Eighty percent of the coal waste surface impoundments do not have liners. Less than half the landfills and only 1 percent of  impoundments have groundwater monitors (“Fast Facts on Air,” A Sourcebook for the Clean Air Advocate, Clean Air Network, 2000), making accidents even more likely.

Mining destroys landscapes. In Appalachia nearly 1 million acres of hardwood forests, a thousand miles of waterways, and more than 470 mountains and their surrounding communities have been obliterated in the last twenty years in the process of mining. (Jeff Biggers, “‘Clean’ Coal? Don’t Try to Shovel That,” Washington Post, March 2 2008).  When a mountaintop is dynamited off and then its contents are cleared, the contents are piled up in the depressions between mountains. The result is a flattened landscape.

Mining is also dangerous to miners. More than 104,000 miners have died in coal mines in the United States since 1900. Twice as many have died from associated black lung disease. The Bush administration has called for reducing mine-safety funds by 6.5 percent (Biggers).

The Moral of the Story

The mercury contamination generated by the coal industry should be enough to persuade human civilization to shut it down once and for all. The talk about “clean coal” does not address toxins like mercury. It does not address the pollution and hazards of mining. It only addresses (a) a fraction of the carbon emissions generated by coal plants and (b) the development of liquid coal as an alternative fuel source. But carbon sequestration is a highly expensive and unproven, possibly risky venture that fails to capture all carbon dioxide emitted. And the burning of liquid coal emits more carbon dioxide than gasoline does. So what exactly is the clean part of “clean coal”?

The fact is that it is politically expedient to talk about “clean coal.” The states that are the big prizes in this election will stand to earn lots of cash in the decades ahead from their coal industries. But the cost in lives and quality of life cannot easily be measured. Once a politician has made a promise, there is the expectation of follow through. None of us can afford this particular promise. It includes no happily ever after.

Image by TheWritingZone, 2008, Creative Commons license.

©2008 ProgressiveKid


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One Response

  1. [...] bookmarking services. Let’s promote each other, as well as this blog carnival. Sarah Lane presents Clean Coal’s Dirty Little Secret posted at on a ledge. Very informative article on why clean coal is not the way to go. Tiffany [...]

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