What in the World is Clean Coal?

Minnesota Power Plant Image by Josie Welsh – 2011

I watched President Obama’s speech a few nights ago, and really got a kick out of his formal recognition that climate change is real, and threatens our well-being. I believe his comment was something like this, “Climate change is not a hoax. More droughts and floods and wildfires are not a joke. They’re a threat to our children’s future. And in this election, you can do something about it.” It was good to hear, and he has made some cautious progress on the environmental front.

However, I also noticed that he has quietly added to his own website, under his “Record on Energy and the Environment” page, advertising his support of “clean coal”. Man, whoever came up with that marketing stunt is a genius. What is it? It sounds great! We wouldn’t have to change our ways – just add a little technology and we’re golden. Perfect. Here is a radio ad running in Ohio, from Obama’s campaign.

This might come as a surprise, but the term “Clean Coal,” really has no formal, agreed upon, definition. According to Slate online magazine, the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity defines clean coal as “any technology to reduce pollutants associated with the burning of coal that was not in widespread use” prior to regulations from 1990.

That is interesting because in 1990, there were some significant upgrades to the Clean Air Act, that added language to address acid rain, ozone depletion, and other types of toxic air pollution by limiting  the levels of nitrogen dioxides, sulfur dioxides, chlorofluorocarbons, and hydrochlorofluorocarbons, that can be pumped into the air. Since then, the list of chemicals regulated by the Clean Air Act has grown to 189, and the process for reviewing these power plants has become centralized and more efficient.

As the list of regulations grow, the technologies improve somewhat. What is interesting to me is how the coal industry is marketing “clean coal”, in the face of increased pressure from natural gas, wind, solar, and bio-fuels. All of the sudden, all those developments, that they fought with such vigorous and unrelenting intensity, are becoming a marketing effort. Convenient. Look at what we’re doing! We can be totally clean! Really, it’s just steam coming out of those smoke stacks…Hmmm. Obama might have faith, but I don’t.

At least I know what “Clean Coal” is now. It’s mostly a marketing gimmick. It does encompass some hope that we will be able to develop current technologies to a point that the smoke stacks will breathe only fresh clean air into the atmosphere and the power plant might become more than 50% efficient. However, there are alot of things that it can’t fix, and the current track record, with the current technologies, do not instill much confidence. Additionally, the persistent resistance of many power plant operators to upgrading old facilities to meet the current requirements compounds the lack of confidence in coal. Constantly requesting extensions of time, and taking advantage of loopholes indicates the true intent of these operators.

The American Lung Association doesn’t believe in clean coal. They have stated that 24,000 people die every year, prematurely, as a result of coal-fired power plants. They claim that 38,000 heart attacks, 12,000 hospital admissions, and 550,000 asthma attacks are directly related to coal-fired power plants.  Additionally, burning “clean coal” still emits mercury, which has only gotten worse as technologies have gotten better. Mercury is bad on many, many levels, but is most harmful to infants and small children. It impairs the development of their brains and nervous systems, leading to learning disabilities, coordination problems, attention problems and lowered IQs.

The Center for Disease Control estimates that 12,039 coal workers died as a result of “black lung” between 1993 and 2002. Their numbers are improving with time, but these power companies are still killing hundreds of their employees every year, without apology.

Clean coal still requires massive amounts of water. Keep in mind my previous post about our limited freshwater resources as you read this. The water is used for cooling and for scrubbing the air leaving the smoke stacks. In a report issued to Congress from the Department of Energy, it is estimated that 3.3 billion gallons of water are consumed everyday. Overall, coal-fired plants use 39% of all the freshwater used in the country, but a very large part of it, in newer plants is returned to its source. However, the 3.3 billion gallons per day is what is consumed, and not returned.

Clean Coal still removes mountain tops to get coal, destroying important environmental amenities for future generations, as well as destroying important habitat for the tens of thousands of species that live in the areas affected.

The process of mining coal kills rivers, streams, and other waterways that are nearby.

The list goes on, and on. When I hear statistics like “24,000 people die every year”, it sure seems like it should be the top news story everyday, rather than Prince Harry showing his ass. How many people died in the World Trade Center collapse? If we could only pour the same resources into alternative energies as we have into these wars, we would have our solutions by now. It is hard to believe that there is any way to support coal, in any form, when there are many simpler and cleaner technologies itching to take over, and the penalty for using coal is so high. The world used 8 billion tons of coal last year, to power thermoelectric plant that are only about 35% efficient, at best. China dug up about 8 billion tons on its own in 2011. The United States has about 237.295 billion tons in reserve within its borders, and it burned more than a billion tons last year. It doesn’t really matter that the coal is being “cleaned”, the environmental destruction that will ensue from using this coal will be beyond what the biosphere can tolerate.


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