Clean Coal: Maybe Unicorns Will Save Us

Because there's no such thing as clean coal.

unicornApparently, everybody loves clean coal. Barack Obama loves it and John McCain loves it. Joe Biden really loved it during his VP debate — and Sarah Palin loved it too.

But here’s the problem. Clean coal is very much like a unicorn: it doesn’t exist.

And because it doesn’t exist, it will not save us from climate change.

Via Kate Sheppard, Carolyn Auwaerter of 1Sky nails it:

“Clean coal” is a contradiction in terms. Conventional coal-burning power plants are the leading cause of global warming pollution in the United States. Coal lobbyists will immediately reply that they can develop coal plants in the future that will capture and sequester carbon pollution.

But this is misleading. Carbon capture and sequestration is unproven, dangerous, and exorbitantly expensive. At best, the technology will not be commercially available until 2030 and the U.S. Department of Energy calculates that installing carbon capture systems will almost double plant costs, which won’t provide any relief to Americans’ soaring utility bills.


Allow me to elaborate. There are basically two meanings of “clean coal.” The first is new conventional coal plants, which can indeed be more efficient and cleaner than the awful old ones. But even the new ones are a disaster. New coal plants are “clean” in the same way that it’s “healthy” to switch from Marlboro Reds to Camel Lights.

The other meaning of “clean coal” is happy talk about futuristic coal plants that will capture and sequester carbon. I hope these arrive someday—truly I do—but at the moment they’re far beyond the engineering horizon. The technology to capture and sequester carbon would be an excellent thing. And I’m all for it. But the potential arrival of this technology is much too risky to bet on.

I really hope that all this “clean coal” nonsense is just empty pandering to coal-producing swing states. That’s my best case scenario. Because we need a serious carbon cap right about now. And it’s pretty hard to see how coal jibes with any realistic climate protection.

Speaking of carbon caps, that’s another thing that Obama, McCain, Biden, and Palin all profess to agree on. But if we’re going to hitch our climate strategy to clean coal, there’s just one thing left to do: shut our eyes tight and wish with all our heart for the magic global warming unicorns to fly to our rescue!

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  1. ryanshaunkelly says:

    Remember,you MUST take one of the candidates who forced you to pay for the Wall Street bailout.Deal?”The two parties should bealmost identical, so thatthe American people can’throw the rascals out’at any election withoutleading to any profound orextensive shifts in policy.”-Carol Quigley

  2. LB says:

    It’s been a frustration of mine whenever I hear “clean” and “coal” put together as a real answer to, well, anything. I was mildly encouraged many months ago when I’d hear references to real alternative energy mechanisms like wind, pv, geothermal, etc. That all ended right about the time the primaries ended. Thank you for putting this message out there. Voters need to understand that when the candidates talk about clean coal, they are talking absolute nonsense.

  3. Matt the Engineer says:

    I sometimes forget it isn’t just the energy world where politicians used meaningless but hopeful words to describe a non-solution to a real problem. But this morning I heard a doctor interviewed that was frustrated at both candidates using the term “preventative medicine” in the context of saving medical costs. In the medical world, this involves screening healthy people and almost by definition will increase costs (cost for screening, many healthy people will go in for surgery by mistake, etc.). Sure you end up with more healthy people and may be worth it for that reason alone, but the idea that this saves money simply goes against economic and medical facts.So I’ll add “preventative medicine” to my long list* of politically-charged terms to be mentally replaced with “I don’t think you know what I’m talking about” when uttered by politicians. *others include: “clean coal”, “alternative energy”, “clean fuels”, “bio fuels”, “energy independence”…

  4. Andy Andersson says:

    “Clean coal” is a useful term. It denotes coal that does not release sulfur dioxide, more radioactivity than nuclear plants, lead and mercury into the environment, etc. It is therefore much preferable to “dirty coal” that has all these drawbacks. However, it doesn’t lead to reduced carbon-dioxide emissions but shouldn’t therefore be shunned since the “alternative energy” (another useful term, Matt) solutions are far from able to satisfy energy requirements in the short run.As we strive for “energy independence” and control of climate-changing emissions we have to realize that we have to work on several fronts simultaneously and always retain existing technolgies and gradually fade them into more acceptable alternatives. Policy change is what makes this fading process take place.Policy is changed by politicians, public servants that listen to you, maybe read your blogs. The fact that they are public servants should not make their language suspect; theirs is the same as your and mine. Some of us are both scientists and politicians and understand the ideas behind “clean fuels” and “bio fuels” quite well; maybe we even act on our understanding.

  5. chowe says:

    Thank You. I’m sick to death of hearing contrived words such as “clean coal”. Politics is just full of invented words. And the American public absorbs them as if they were gospel. You are the only voice other than my own who seems to hear the irrationality of such talk. In these times of turmoil, it’s letters, conversation, and writing like yours that helps me feel hopeful.

  6. Nick says:

    Kleen KoalShmeen coal. Scrub out the crap that goes with the carbon dioxide and water burning coal, and it is no different from burning ethanol, gasoline, bio fuels, natural (or unnatural) gas. Burn wood, paper, your socks, tons of dollar bills…. You get heat, and yes, carbon dioxide and water. We need to stop cutting down trees, markedly decrease our use of energy, shrink our houses, and do some other simple measures. How about walking and bicycling? I have a hard time walking or biking to work, as we have such unfriendly places to move around on foot or bicycle. Planet Earth is our home, and we need to do the little things to keep it clean. Turn out the lights, too.

  7. Matt the Engineer says:

    [Nick], the difference is that the US has a huge amount of coal in the ground, ready for burning, with no real way of doing it without releasing all of that carbon dioxide that was stored safely in the ground. Burning wood, paper, socks, or dollars would all release carbon dioxide, but this isn’t new carbon into the cycle – it will be absorbed again by the next trees, grass (for feeding your wool sheep) and cotton plants. Which is also why I question our need to “stop cutting down trees”. Sure, slow down cutting down trees to a sustainable level. And definitely stop clear cutting and cutting down trees in new areas. But trees themselves can be a renewable resource. (the rest of your suggestions I agree with)

  8. Eddisionklein says:

    The process of clean coal is nothing but the process of polluting the environment. It is nothing but Global Warming. So, the US Government is planning to convert the carbon dioxide released by clean coal techn0logy into liquid form.It will reduces the pollution.

  9. Mighk says:

    And even if they could make coal “clean” and sequester the CO2, they’re still destroying mountains and streams to get the stuff.

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