Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Myth of Clean Coal: Analysis

Will coal become the clean, green fuel of the future? Not so fast.

Coal is pretty amazing stuff. A single fist-size lump of bituminous coal contains about 12,000 Btu—enough energy to power a 75-watt bulb for two days. It's relatively easy to dig out of the ground and dirt-cheap: about one-sixth the cost of oil or natural gas per Btu. Most of the modern industrial world we see around us was built with coal power.
But coal has issues. Each lump can contain large amounts of sooty particulates, sulfur and nitrogen compounds (which cause acid rain), and traces of mercury and other toxic metals. Although coal-fired power plants are cleaner than they used to be, they are still bad news for the environment and human health. A recent study concluded that coal emissions contribute to 10,000 premature deaths in the United States each year. And coal is by far the largest single source of greenhouse gases in the U.S. So it is no surprise that coal has long been the primary target of proposals to cut air pollution and carbon-dioxide emissions.

Until now. Just in time to skirt the various plans to cap or tax CO2, coal is getting rebranded. The new buzzword is "clean coal"—and it's being portrayed as the high-tech, low-emissions fuel of the future. Senators John Kerry, D-Mass., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., recently wrote a New York Times op-ed piece calling for the United States to become the "Saudi Arabia of clean coal." U.S. energy secretary Steven Chu has called on his counterparts around the world to promote the "widespread affordable deployment" of clean-coal technology. A current climate bill in the U.S. Senate proposes a complex regime of taxes and subsidies intended to cut America's greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent by 2020. But the bill effectively gives the coal industry a pass on cutting emissions until "sufficient commercial-scale" clean-coal technology has been deployed. Why try to reduce our dependence on coal today, the reasoning seems to be, when fabulous, guilt-free clean coal is just around the corner? Read more.

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