“Clean coal” is a fantasy

June 3, 2008 | By | 14 Replies More

If you stop to listen to the “solution” to the energy crisis, you’ll hear millions of people (including most politicians) reassuring themselves that coal will be the new oil, because the United States has plenty of it and because there is now a way to burn coal “cleanly.” This last claim is pure fantasy. There is no feasible way of burning coal cleanly.

There is no place in the U.S. where coal is burned cleanly. Everywhere coal is burned, tons of CO2 are thrown into the atmosphere. The plans to set up clean coal plants have been scrapped, according the NYT.

For years, scientists have had a straightforward idea for taming global warming. They want to take the carbon dioxide that spews from coal-burning power plants and pump it back into the ground. . . But it has become clear in recent months that the nation’s effort to develop the technique is lagging badly.

In January, the government canceled its support for what was supposed to be a showcase project, a plant at a carefully chosen site in Illinois where there was coal, access to the power grid, and soil underfoot that backers said could hold the carbon dioxide for eons.

Perhaps worse, in the last few months, utility projects in Florida, West Virginia, Ohio, Minnesota and Washington State that would have made it easier to capture carbon dioxide have all been canceled or thrown into regulatory limbo.

In short, “clean coal” is a fantasy.  A U.S. energy policy based on  the imminent availability of clean coal is a disaster.

Yet, simple as the idea [of clean coal] may sound, considerable research is still needed to be certain the technique would be safe, effective and affordable.

Burning coal for energy is dangerous for many reasons. The lack of any real life method of burning coal “cleanly” is one of many reasons to steer our energy policy sharply toward conservation.


Jeffrey Sachs, writing in Time Magazine:

An important measure of the government’s technology commitment is the federal budget for energy research and development. According to the International Energy Agency, U.S. spending for all energy research–nuclear, wind, coal, solar, biofuels, etc.–was a meager $3.2 billion in 2006. The Pentagon spends that much in about 40 hours. Spending on carbon capture and sequestration was a mere $67 million.


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Category: Energy, Environment

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (14)

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  1. KGrandia says:

    Agreed! Great post, it just popped up in my RSS – I just started a new site called http://www.coal-is-dirty.com, send along anything you find on this topic!

  2. Uncle B says:

    Its time for America to go on a fishing retreat! Don't burn gas, don't go to work, Don't burn coal, Don't shave, don't do anything, until a starving, shivering, hungry, sick world calls us back and appreciates what we do! If they don't like what we do, f**k 'em we'll quit! Like the man said, 'take this job and shove it! Now they're telling us we can't even burn coal right! I'm telling them 'do better or f**k off until you can!

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    Rolling Stone has now weighed in, demonstrating how coal companies (and politicians) are duping American Citizens about coal. http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/story/219185

  4. Erich Vieth says:

    Peabody Coal Company is boasting about its $9 million investment into “clean coal” technology while downplaying "that the coal industry’s largest front group has vowed to pour $40 million into efforts to block climate change and alternative energy legislation." http://thinkprogress.org/2008/08/19/coal-company-

  5. grumpypilgrim says:

    Uncle B writes: "Don’t burn gas, don’t go to work, Don’t burn coal, Don’t shave, don’t do anything, until a starving, shivering, hungry, sick world calls us back and appreciates what we do!"

    The U.S. comprises about 5% of the world's population and consumes about 25% of the world's resources. Accordingly, it seems to me that most of the rest of this planet's population (i.e., the remaining 95% of humanity) would get along just fine without our consumption.

  6. Erich Vieth says:

    Where did I ever write "don't shave"? People like Uncle B have their energy-irresponsibility-detectors set to high sensitivity.

    I agree with you, Grumpy. There is a whole lot of energy waste we can stop before we ever get to essentials like shaving. And America is leading the pack in energy waste. It's nothing to be proud of and it is becoming ever more clear that this wasting of our limited energy resources is a national security issue. Plain and simple. When oil doubles in price again, those countries that have taken meaningful steps to prepare for that day will still be humming along but the American economy will grind to a halt. All of those abandoned SUV's sitting on the side of the highway. All of those people stuck out in the suburbs. Energy-wasting factories and office buildings that we can no longer afford to use.


  7. grumpypilgrim says:

    One other dirty little fact about coal of which most people are unaware: coal-fired powerplants actually release *more* radioactive waste into the environment than do nuclear powerplants. It happens because radioactive elements exist naturally in coal, so are released up the smokestack when coal is burned. It's not a large quantity, but it is more than comes out of nuclear plants.

  8. Erich Vieth says:

    More information on coal, namely the fantasy of "clean coal." http://www.thisisreality.org/#/?p=facility

  9. Erich Vieth says:

    There's no clean coal, and other facts about coal, per :This is Reality": http://action.thisisreality.org/details

  10. Erich Vieth says:

    There's no such thing as clean coal.

    "Clean coal is a dirty lie," says environmentalist Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who calls President Barack Obama and other politicians who commit taxpayer money to develop it "indentured servants" of the coal industry.

    "Clean coal is like healthy cigarettes, it does not exist," says former Vice President.

    And consider this short video.

  11. Tony Coyle says:

    One of the biggest problems with carbon sequestration, is that CO2 is relatively stable. Plants need catalysts (chloroplasts) plus lots of light and water to capture carbon from CO2. Chemical sequestration needs energy and catalysts (or similar) to capture the carbon.

    Organic sequestration is theoretically feasible, but even the most efficient algae cannot convert more than a fraction of the CO2 pumped out by a modern power plant (A 'typical' 500MW plant will generate between 9000 and 14000 TONS of CO2 per day) That translates to a LOT of algae!

    The biggest challenge with organic sequestration, is that the resultant algal mass is almost a perfect feedstock or biofuel. Tempting as this is, using the algae in this way simply delays the addition of the CO2 to the atmosphere (it can lower the effective cost of the fuel, however).

    Unless the CO2 is sequestered chemically in sub-sea, or subterranean deposits, the net effect of burning coal is an increase in atmospheric CO2.

  12. Erich Vieth says:

    More proof that there is no such thing as clean coal, and that the Bush Administration was hiding yet more scientific data:

    People who live near near sites used to store ash or sludge from coal-fired power plants have a one in 50 chance of developing cancer, according to a just released government report kept from the public for seven years by the Bush Administration.

    The data, compiled by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2002 and released Thursday by the watchdog groups Earth Justice and the Environmental Integrity Project, suggests that environmental contamination from the storage sites could last for a century or longer.

    Coal ash, also known as fly ash, is the waste produced by burning coal. The nation’s power plants produce enough ash to fill 1 million railroad cars a year . . .


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