Dear Umbra,

I noticed that several of the presidential primary debates were sponsored by clean coal. This was announced during breaks and several commercials aired. I have since seen several more commercials and online advertisements. Is clean coal an oxymoron? Is this a PR stunt or are there any real environmental benefits to clean coal that rival solar and wind? See www.americaspower.org.

Andrew S.
Brookline, Mass.

Dearest Andrew,

The link you sent to America’s Power is a divine example of clean, selective fact presentation: “Sometimes, we tend to forget about the role electricity has on our lives [sic]. Did you know that half of the electricity that heats our homes, lights our schools, and powers our businesses comes from coal?” What about sports events? Is coal involved in sports events? Because I feel a cheer coming on.

It’s time to turn the page on coal.

I think these penetrating insights are meant to sway us over to the coal. I do forget the role electricity has on my life, and I do forget that half of the United States’ electricity supply comes from coal. These coal people know me so well. They seem so nice. Too bad I want them all out of business.

Why? Because coal is affiliated with our most famous environmental problems here in the U.S.: Almost all acid rain is coal-derived; coal is the leading source of mercury emissions; mountaintop removal mining has destroyed ecosystems in the Southeast; and now, it is one of two fuel sources most closely affiliated with global climate change.

It is this last infamy that so concerns not only coal executives but anyone with half an ear tuned to the dire radio station of the future. Coal is a currently cheap, plentiful domestic fuel; it is also plentiful in other electricity-hungry nations such as India and China. In the U.S., electricity from coal already produces more carbon dioxide emissions than the entire transportation sector.

So clean coal is both an oxymoronic PR stunt and a general term for efforts toward better coal-derived power. The Clean Coal Technology Program of the Department of Energy started back in 1985, so in a way clean coal refers to any of the cleaning techniques (scrubbers, washing) that can make coal more palatable and less deadly to our health and planet. Coal plants have, in fact, made improvements over the past few decades in response to acid rain-related governmental regulations regarding sulfur, particulates, and nitrogen oxides.

These days, clean coal mostly seems to refer to reducing CO2 emissions. The issue of coal and global warming is simple: Coal is a horridly dirty fuel that contributes frightening amounts of CO2 to the atmosphere, and we can’t afford to increase the amounts of CO2 we add to the atmosphere. Newer ideas behind the “clean coal” phrase are gasification — a thermo-chemical, non-burning way to get energy from coal — and carbon capture and storage/sequestration (CCS). Remember the great idea of sending nuclear waste into space? CCS is the carbon counterpart: Take our world-destroying gas and pump it into underground holes or deep ocean caverns.

Herein lies the dilemma: Should we spend money and time researching and developing technology to make coal less awful? Or is this a stupid misdirection of human capital, better spent on solar, wind, hydro, ocean power, and conservation? Within these basic choices lie multitudes of questions about global responsibility, costs per kilowatt, the potential of technology, the role of corporate money in government policy, and the will of the people.

Does coal have environmental benefits to rival solar and wind? No. But it’s easy to burn and there is tons of it. That bounty and our hunger for electricity complicate things. And boy, is it complicated.

Of course, this summary of the issues is necessarily and shockingly brief. But if you wish to learn more, you’re in luck: You can find a lot of satisfyingly dense information about the clean coal debate on our very own Gristmill blog.

Loyally,
Umbra