Deconstructing “Clean” Coal

By Published On: November 13, 2004

Growing efforts to put coal front and center on our energy stage-in and outside California-have made me increasingly curious about this notoriously dirty fuel removed from mountaintops, surface mines, and deep below the ground. So curious, in fact, that I had to see the fossil fuel up close. After a crash course in safety last month, I donned the requisite heavy boots, coveralls, safety glasses, hard hat, headlamp, and emergency oxygen canister. With three miners in the lead, I along with several other journalists clomped down a dingy hallway to the elevator, which lowered us into the belly of a large coal mine outside Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. We descended 750 feet before squeezing into a mini boxcar that squeaked loudly as it chugged along seven miles of track through dimly lit passages, covered in white rock dust to suppress fires. An hour later, we emerged from our cramped quarters to slog down a dark, muddy, narrow path. Within 15 minutes, we reached our destination: a massive, 1,200-foot-long mining machine operated by a handful of miners working a panel of buttons. Watching the plodding miners go about their business hundreds of feet underground, it is easy to forget how big a role their product plays in the world above. In that dark, dank environment, you feel far removed from coal’s impacts on the people and environment outside. Almost 52 percent of U.S. electricity is coal-fired, and coal pollution is responsible for 37 percent of the country’s carbon dioxide emissions, according to the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. And coal use could grow. Increasing carbon dioxide emissions to our shared atmosphere are bad news. It only gets worse with each new report warning of dire impacts from greenhouse gases trapped in our atmosphere. Just last week, 300 scientists released a report detailing the ramifications of warming in the Arctic, principally from unprecedented amounts of carbon dioxide. Changes include higher sea levels and altered ocean circulation that affects temperatures and precipitation. Another report, by the Pew Center and the University of Texas, highlighted studies associating regional climate change with altered plant and critter habitats and patterns in California and elsewhere in the U.S. While greenhouse gas warnings are taken seriously by many in and outside government, including the Pentagon and insurance companies, coal has been getting a lot of good press. Its selling point is that it is plentiful, domestic, and cheap. Of course, the cost is low only if you exclude the significant environmental and health impacts-near and far-of burning ancient plant rot. But we naysayers are assured by coal advocates who tell us that clean coal is here-almost. Or maybe. Earlier this year, governors in Western states announced a plan to produce 30,000 MW of clean energy, including supplies from less polluting coal. California’s father of deregulation, Dan Fessler, spoke at considerable length during a recent conference about the supposed win-win outcome of using vast coal resources from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming to fuel power plants and heavy-duty trucks. In addition, the Natural Resources Defense Council is urging Southern California Edison to use less polluting coal to keep the large Mohave power plant running. Part of me believes that increasing coal-fired power supplies in the Golden State doesn’t stand much of a chance. For example, the mayor of Los Angeles, facing a tough campaign fight this year, withdrew the city’s investment in a controversial coal project in Utah (Circuit, August 27, 2004). But shrinking supplies and the rising price of natural gas, in contrast to plentiful domestic coal supplies, have me on edge. As do the coal industry’s hefty contributions to President George W. Bush’s reelection campaign. The big question is how “clean” this coal is. “I want to see ‘clean’ defined up front,” said David Maul, California Energy Commission manager of natural gas-a sentiment many of us share. It’s still possible, we’re told, to arrive at environmentally benign coal. The first step involves coal gasification, a technology touted in the 1970s that is making a comeback. The black rock is chemically broken down by high heat and pressure, which gets rid of sulfur and nitrogen oxide emissions. The first coal gasification facility in the U.S. was Edison’s 100 MW Cool Water plant near Barstow, built in the mid-1980s. It was shut down because of its high costs. NRDC is urging that the utility’s controversial coal-fired Mohave plant, where costly pollution controls must be installed to keep the unit running, be partly converted into a 300 MW gasification facility. Edison noted, however, that the proposal is “not suitable for actual funding and development.” Many regulators and engineers agree. A colleague of mine pointed out that renewable power often faces the same cost argument yet is generally accepted because, unlike coal, it is environmentally friendly. But assuming, arguendo, that coal gasification can create coal lite at a reasonable cost, the product is still hazardous to your health-just like smoking Marlboro Lights. (Recently, American Electric Power and Cinergy announced they are considering coal gasification designs.) The big elephant in the coal room is CO2. Unlike sulfur and nitrogen oxides, large volumes of CO2 stay in the environment for about 100 years. Again, advocates insist technology can save the day. The next step to reducing coal’s impact involves the sequestration of CO2-trapping the pollutant and injecting it under the earth. As does gasification, CO2 sequestration sounds very appealing, but doubts loom about whether this complex technology can capture and seal gas in the ground for a century. According to Granger Morgan, head of the department of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, the technology exists and is in use. Oil companies have used trapped CO2 to enhance oil recovery successfully for years. He admits, however, that it is not known whether the gas stays put. “Slow leaks probably aren’t a problem, but a fast burp could be,” Morgan said. In addition, the utility sector lacks experience in this technology. The Bush administration announced it would invest $1 billion to build the first integrated sequestration and hydrogen production research power plant, but no specifics have been released. Further, results of numerous Department of Energy studies on CO2 sequestration will not be at hand for some time. As Pew president Eileen Clausen noted, technologies to capture and store CO2 “are nowhere near prime time.” Hurdles include high costs, limited experience with large-scale geologic storage, and lack of a legal and regulatory framework, as well as questions about property rights where CO2 is stored. While in the coal mine, I was both fascinated and horrified by the wonders of modern technology that ripped huge slabs of coal from the earth in a matter of seconds. But later, coming out into the light and touring areas where the land had subsided a few feet-collapsed homes and dewatered property and creeks born of a sunken water table-I was simply horrified. And in nearby West Virginia, where they blast mountaintops and dump them into waterways, the impacts of coal mining are far worse. Hovering just above it all are the tons of excess CO2 spewed out in the process that harms current generations and those to come. “We are an energy sacrifice zone,” a local activist representing the Citizens Mining Network, in the West Virginia-Pennsylvania region, told me. Maybe, just maybe, coal technology will catch up with our demand for more affordable, ecofriendly power. Our hunger for fuel is a mighty force. We’ve shown we can literally move mountains-or parts of them, anyway-to satisfy our needs. But right now, “clean” coal is an oxymoron.

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