Big Coal and its cohorts envision a "clean coal technology" future fueled by liquifying and gasifying coal, capturing the carbon emissions and injecting them underground.
But scientists and environmentalists say "clean coal" does not exist; it is a misnomer and an oxymoron. The National Resources Defense Council says that using the term "clean coal" makes about as much sense as saying "safe cigarettes." The extraction and cleaning of coal inevitably decimate ecosystems and communities.
Nationwide there are grandiose plans for more than 100 new coal-fired power plants, but they all hinge on being able to sell the public and legislators on outfitting and funding these new plants with carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology. This process siphons off or "captures" carbon dioxide before it can escape into the atmosphere, contributing to acid rain, smog and warming the planet. The sequestered carbon would then be pumped and stored underground.
But is it really possible to bury our daily CO2 emission? Australia’s renown physicist, Karl Kruszelnicki, who is running for public office on the Climate Change Coalition ticket, told the Sydney Morning Herald on Nov. 1, "One cubic kilometer of CO2 to get rid of every day? It’s not possible! But they don’t tell you that that’s what they’ve got to get rid of. They make reassuring noises that they’re spending millions looking for underground caverns. But I’m here to tell you that they’re not going to find it … The point is that they can only store 1,000th of 1 percent, not all their daily output."
Not only do we not have the capacity to store all the CO2 we produce, but the technology isn’t there yet. The coal industry acknowledges that CCS is 15 years away, but continues to promulgate the myth of "clean coal technology" and guide generous government subsidies to themselves and to West Virginia universities, assigning valuable research money to dirty technology. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s 2007 report "The Future of Coal" stated that "there is no standard for measurement, monitoring, and verification of CO2 distribution. Duration of post-injection monitoring is an unresolved issue."
In other words, Big Coal is betting on a pipe dream with an entire ecosystem at stake. Adding CCS to plans for the more than 100 proposed coal-fired power plants on the drawing board would increase operating budgets by 50 percent to 80 percent. And the gasifying and liquifying of coal into syn-gas and diesel would create potential emissions twice as carbon-rich as petroleum-based gasoline or natural gas. If Big Coal gets its way, the U.S. Air Force will cruise the skies on liquid coal fuel — spewing dangerously concentrated CO2 into our fragile atmosphere, and we’ll be building more polluting plants based on false promises from an outlaw industry.
Exacerbating the water crisis
To many observers, the next natural resource wars will be waged over water, not oil or coal. People in the United States are waking up to the reality of a looming water crisis, but the coal industry is still advocating for a technology that is part of the problem, not the solution.
The U.S. Department of Energy stated in December 2006 that the demand for water to produce coal conversion fuels "threaten our limited water supply." Coal conversion — gasification or liquefaction — requires an absurd amount of fresh water. Each new integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) or coal to liquid (CTL) plant will require millions of gallons of fresh water every day. And these new plants will require even more coal.
Big Coal’s proposed plans will require a large increase in coal extraction — at least 15 percent more, though some reports quote as high as a 45 percent increase in coal production would be necessary to fuel "clean coal technology." The surge in demand for coal would be met with a surge in mountaintop-removal coal mining, which means more water pollution. Mountaintop-removal mining and the chemical cleaning of coal also threatens Appalachian headwater streams, which are the drinking water source for the southeastern United States — an area that has endured frightening water shortages this year in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina.
The coal-to-liquid plants that coal state politicians like Gov. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Gov. Ernie Fletcher of Kentucky are scrambling to site in their states would have one consequence that many observers underestimate or ignore: the increase in production of coal sludge — one of the least known and least regulated toxic wastes in the United States — a direct threat to water supplies.
Coal sludge, laden with heavy metals found in coal and released during extraction, like arsenic, chromium, cadmium and mercury, has been pumped underground in West Virginia for decades, with scant regulatory oversight. The sludge has intercepted underground water tables, from which mountain communities draw their drinking water. Coal sludge also contains carcinogenic chemicals like floculants, which are used to process coal.
In West Virginia, the second-largest coal-producing state in the nation, more than 470 mountaintops have been blown apart, 800 square miles of the most diverse temperate hardwood forest razed and replaced with more than 4,000 valley fills and 675 toxic coal sludge ponds. By 2012, the U.S. government estimates that we will have destroyed 2,500 square miles of pristine Appalachia. Currently there are over 107 trillion gallons of coal slurry stored or permitted to be stored in active West Virginia "impoundments."
The total mechanization of coal extraction epitomized by mountaintop removal/valley fill coal mining has buried thousands of miles of vital headwater streams and pumped previously mined lands full of sludge. The coal industry says that it has "elevated" some streams — after they’ve buried them upstream — relocating them and "repurposing" them into chemical spillways called National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) streams.
Coal sludge, the waste by-product of the chemical cleaning of coal in preparation for shipping to market, is initially put into surface ponds, but eventually this chemically concentrated, puddinglike waste leaches into the groundwater. In southern West Virginia, where the largest seams of coal lie, whole communities have been poisoned over years by mining waste that has contaminated their drinking water.
Coal sludge is a disaster waiting to happen, like the 2.8 billion gallons of toxic sludge that stand behind a 325-foot, leaking, unsound dam of slate, 400 yards from the Marsh Fork Elementary School in Sundial, W.Va. Or Brushy Fork in Boone County, W.Va., one of the largest coal sludge dumps in the world, holding back 9 billion gallons of coal waste.
Sludge is also injected underground into the sprawling abandoned mine works of decades past. Coal sludge is turning up in the water in Mingo County, W.Va., where documentation of this practice stretches back for more than 30 years. Residents of Mingo County have suffered catastrophic illness after the toxic sludge breached the local aquifers that feed home wells. More than 650 of these residents have signed on to a massive class-action lawsuit against the offending coal company, Massey Energy.
Pursuing "clean coal technology" will cause an increase in the production of coal and toxic coal waste, which contains dangerous levels of arsenic, barium, cadmium, coper, iron, lead, manganese and zinc. In some cases, there are no standards by which to measure contaminants because some have never before been found in drinking water.
While scrubbers on smoke stacks have cleaned coal-fired power plant emissions considerably, the cleaning on the combustion end causes the processing of coal for market to be exponentially dirtier. The coal going to market is cleaner-burning today, with lower sulfur and mercury content, but these dangerous elements are left behind in the coal sludge and in drinking water.
The dirty truth about "clean coal"
The environmental destruction caused by mountaintop-removal coal extraction is just one of many reasons to immediately transition out of coal. A plethora of substantial hurdles for the alternative coal industry include technological uncertainties, billion-dollar budgets, lack of project partners willing to invest in coal, growing concern about carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants, uncertainty about future environmental regulations, rising constructions costs and an array of water contamination issues.
But, we’ve been here before. In response to the energy crisis of the 1970s, the U.S. government invested $15 billion in a failed attempt to jump-start the coal-based synthetic fuel industry, including the infamous 1.5 billion syn-fuel plant in Beulah, N.D. In the end, the ’80s era attempt at coal gasification and liquefaction failed miserably because of volatile oil prices bankrupting the nascent industry, leaving taxpayers with a $330 million loss.
The newborn West Virginia Division of Energy — formed to put a better face on coal — would like to institutionalize all possible manifestations of coal production. The state agency says it would like to surround coal extraction sites and the coal-fired power plants with "additional advance coal opportunities" like the "production of ammonia nitrate from coal, as well as nitrates for fertilizer."
These processes require the same copious amounts of water as CTL and IGCC plants. WVDoE’s outline for an energy future goes hand in hand with what mountain people call the declaration of a "National Sacrifice Zone" fueled by a plan to depopulate the coal-rich region of the southern mountains. A similar strategy was publicly declared when the federal government found uranium under Native American lands in the Four Corners area in the 1970s. In the end, the uranium was deemed more important than the land and the people; vast regions of Native American lands were declared "National Sacrifice Zones," and people were forced from their homelands.
Massey Energy’s CEO, Don Blankenship, recently suggested the idea of a far-reaching coal industrial complex upon releasing a statement regarding the purchase of vast parcels of coal lands, increasing Massey’s reserve holding to 100 million tons in northern Appalachia. "This region is becoming increasingly important to the coal and energy industry, and this transaction will enable us to take advantage of the growth in demand for northern Appalachian coal," he said. Massey’s newly acquired coal lands are in West Virginia, across the Ohio River from Meigs County, Ohio, where a notorious cluster of coal-fired power plants are concentrated.
And momentum is building in the region. At a coal-to-liquids conference in Beckley, W.Va., in August this year, U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller sent word to the crowd saying, "We need the equivalent of the Apollo and Manhattan Projects that would provide billions in federal funding for research and development so that the best and brightest engineers and scientific minds can tackle carbon capture sequestration and CTL development."
It is time to stop the momentum and break our coal habit. Instead we need an Apollo and Manhattan project to replace coal with solar, wind and geothermal, or our kids will be stuck cleaning up after the dirtiest energy industry. Coal companies are notorious for leaving their mess behind.