The clean coal PR push is looking more and more hollow. In The NYT, Matt Wald paints a grim picture: cost overruns, technological uncertainty, waning support from utilities, and a mess of unanswered questions about everything from security to legal liability.

But one assumption running through the article needs to be exposed and unequivocally rejected.

According to John Thompson of the Clean Air Task Force, without clean coal — that is, carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) — “we’re not going to have much of a chance for stabilizing the climate.” Why?

The fear is that utilities, lacking proven chemical techniques for capturing carbon dioxide and proven methods for storing it underground by the billions of tons per year, will build the next generation of coal plants using existing technology. That would ensure that vast amounts of global warming gases would be pumped into the atmosphere for decades.

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Think about that. If we can’t hand coal utilities a way to remove the carbon from their emissions, they’ll go right on burning dirty coal. Says Wald, “Coal is abundant and cheap, assuring that it will continue to be used.” Even if it’s going to consign civilization to unthinkable suffering, we’ll keep doing it, because it’s cheap.

That is insane on many levels, but let’s just mention three.

First of all, coal isn’t cheap. The rock itself is still fairly cheap on a on a dollar-per-BTU basis — though that’s changing rapidly — but what matters is the cost of delivered power, and on that basis coal-fired power plants, qua investments, suck. The cost of building power plants is spiking, up 130 percent since 2000 and 76 percent in just the last three years. Last year, the price for supercritical coal exceeded $2500/kW.

New, Clean Air Act-compliant coal plants of any kind are expensive, but IGCC plants are more expensive yet, and according to MIT adding carbon capture and sequestration (large-scale tests will be done by 2020!) will add another 40 percent on to the price of delivered power. Given our practical experience to date — the aborted FutureGen clean coal project topped out at an estimated $6500/kW — that’s probably optimistic.

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Coal isn’t cheap. That’s why 59 proposed plants got scuttled last year.

Second of all, an activity that leads to an uninhabitable planet cannot, by definition, be “cheap.” To the extent coal appears cheap, it is an artifact of grotesque market failure, our inability to hold Big Coal accountable for even a fraction of the damage it does. But the damage is real. The health and environmental costs of coal are real costs. Subtract them from the societal value of coal and you get a negative sum.

So we don’t have to — indeed, cannot — stand by and allow utilities to “build the next generation of coal plants using existing technology.” To borrow a phrase from my four-year-old, they are not the boss of us. We are the boss of them. They will build what we, as a nation and as a species, let them build. We do not have to sacrifice our future for the benefit of electrical utilities.

Third and finally, we’ll manage just fine without coal. If CCS doesn’t work out, a moratorium on new coal plants is put in place, and we slowly begin shuttering existing coal plants, we will not be cast into economic misery and privation. New sources are rapidly developing and deploying; the energy efficiency market is exploding; both those trends will be turbo-charged by a price on carbon and a moratorium on coal. Once the horrific danger of climate change becomes unavoidably clear, there will be enormous public investment in green R&D and infrastructure. Renewables and efficiency will be huge industries, generating good jobs and economic growth. The market will reward efficiency and low-consumption living arrangements. America will adjust, and it will be easier than the economic models predict. It always is.

Our fate is not tied to coal’s.

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