Clean Coal is a nice image used by politicians to win votes in coal producing states. It exists only in the minds of hopeful politicians and marketers of coal and coal-burning plants. Excerpts from Ben Elgin’s article in Business Week magazine are below.
With coal-rich swing states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia critical to the Presidential race, both Barack Obama and John McCain have endorsed the idea that coal is well on its way to becoming a benign energy source.
The catch is that for now—and for years to come—"clean coal" will
remain more a catchphrase than a reality. Despite the eagerness of the
coal and power industries to sanitize their image and the desire of
U.S. politicians to push a healthy-sounding alternative to expensive
foreign oil and natural gas, clean coal is still a misnomer.
Environmental legislation enacted in 1990 forced the operators of
coal-fired power plants to reduce pollutants that cause acid-rain. But
such plants, which provide half of U.S. electricity, are the country’s
biggest source of greenhouse-gas emissions linked to global warming. No
coal plant can control its emissions of heat-trapping carbon dioxide.
All the talk relates to the idea of separating CO2
from the coal-burning process and burying it in liquid form so it won’t
contribute to climate change.
Corporations and the federal government have tried for years to
accomplish "carbon capture and sequestration." So far they haven’t had
much luck. The method is widely viewed as being decades away from
commercial viability. Even then, the cost could be prohibitive: by a
conservative estimate, several trillion dollars to switch to clean coal
in the U.S. alone.
Then there are the safety questions. One large, coal-fired plant generates the equivalent of 3 billion barrels of CO2 over a 60-year lifetime. That would require a space the size of a major oil field to contain.
Companies seeking to build dozens of coal-fueled power plants across
the country use the term "clean coal" liberally in trying to persuade
regulators and voters. Power giant Dominion (D)
describes a proposed plant near St. Paul, Va., expected to generate
electricity by 2012, as having "the very latest in clean-coal
technology." What the unbuilt facility actually possesses to address
global warming is a plot of land set aside for CO2-removal
technology—once it is invented and becomes commercially feasible. The
plant design will accommodate the technology, says Jim Martin, a
Dominion vice-president. These steps, he says, "may actually spur more
research on carbon capture and sequestration."
The Presidential candidates will walk a fine line on the issue.
Senators Obama and McCain support legislation to address global
warming. But "coal is rich in some strategic states that are key to
winning the Presidency," notes Eric Burgeson, an energy lobbyist and
former McCain adviser.
In all, some 118 electoral votes are in play in the top 10
coal-producing states—44% of the 270 needed to win the election. That
likely will fuel plenty of speechifying.