Should we, the nation’s beleaguered taxpayers, be required to spend billions of dollars on an oxymoron?
The oxymoron in question is “clean coal,” and in my view, the answer is “no.” If coal is to have a future, the coal industry and its partners in the rail and electric power industries should pay for it themselves. Here are the reasons.
First, while climate science is complicated, climate policy is simple. We need far lower levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which means we must start decreasing emissions immediately. Our highest priority for taxpayer dollars should be the deployment of market-ready energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies and the rapid development of those that are still in gestation.
The “DOE and industry have not demonstrated the technological feasibility of the long-term storage of carbon dioxide captured by a large-scale, coal-based power plant,” according to a December 2006 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report (PDF). And the U.S. Department of Energy doesn’t expect to have demonstrated the feasibility for at least a decade. Meantime, solving the climate problem gets more expensive and complicated every year.
Second, the rationale for large public subsidization of clean coal is specious. The argument goes like this: We have one hundred or more years worth of coal supplies and the stuff is cheap — it exists, therefore we must consume it. But if ample supplies and low prices are the criteria, we should be investing all of our money in solar. We have a 4.5 billion year supply of sunlight, and it’s free.
Third, clean coal will be expensive. The GAO predicts that electricity from clean coal plants will cost up to 78% more than electricity from conventional coal plants, not counting carbon pricing. Clean coal will require construction of pipelines to move carbon from the power plant to the sequestration site, and permanent monitoring, which means extra cost. Meantime, DOE’s goals (PDF) are to bring the cost of low-speed wind power down to 3.6 cents a kilowatt hour by 2012, geothermal electricity down to 3-5 cents by 2010, and photovoltaic electricity down to 5-10 cents by 2015. By the time clean coal is market-ready, will it be cost-competitive?
Fourth, clean coal won’t be that clean. DOE’s goal is to reduce carbon dioxide emissions 90% — a huge improvement, certainly, but not as good as solar and wind. Meanwhile, coal is mined by the biggest fossil-fueled shovels known to man, then transported long distances by train. That produces more carbon dioxide, as well as considerable other environmental damages. The wastes from mountaintop mining in Appalachia, for example, already have destroyed hundreds of square miles of forests and 1,200 miles of streams.
Fifth, while it’s true that the rest of the world is building two coal plants a week and the United States can’t make a dent in global emissions by itself, we won’t have leverage to encourage other nations to back off coal power until we do.
Climate change is nature’s way of telling us that it’s time, finally, for the world’s economies to be rebuilt for clean and sustainable energy. Current coal plants don’t qualify. Clean coal is the industry’s oxymoronic strategy to keep a carbon-rich resource relevant in a carbon-constrained world.
Our national coal policy should be as follows:
- Federal research on carbon sequestration should continue. But the federal government should require a higher cost-share from the coal industry. (The Energy Policy Act requires a cost share of only 20% for research and development, and even that amount can be waived by the Secretary of Energy.)
- We should ban the construction of any new conventional coal power plant, period. We need to avoid all “lock-ins” — projects that commit us to 40, 50 or 60 years more of greenhouse gas emissions.
- We should require existing plants to improve their efficiency with the best available combustion technologies.
- No coal miner or coal community should be left behind. Insofar as workers and communities are hurt by these policies, we should help them develop new skills, jobs, and local industries.
Coal deserves our thanks for helping build one of the most prosperous nations in history. But it was once a dinosaur, and it is again.