Clean Coal is a Myth

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.

Link: The Dirty Truth About Clean Coal.

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.

Democracy, Politicians, and War

Another wake up call from Atanu Dey, who continues to aim economic intelligence at the leaders of the world’s largest democracies. He wants us to see the light before it is too late. I fear we’re on the razors edge now.

Atanu (India) and I (US) both live in countries where we can criticize the leaders without persecution. We both want free societies to survive and prosper. Acknowledging a problem is the first step to a solution.

Link: Your Vote for My Money

A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until a majority of voters discover that they can vote themselves largess out of the public treasury.
– Alexander Tytler

Some numbers are well beyond human comprehension. We can talk glibly about millions and billions of this or that but we cannot intuitive grasp what they actually mean. Evolution has equipped us with fine brains but those brains never needed to deal with thousands — leave alone millions — of anything. So we have to do some mental gymnastics to get a fleeting glimpse of what very large numbers represent.

Here’s a way of realizing how large millions, billions, and trillions are relative to a thousand. One thousand seconds passes in less than 17 minutes. A million seconds takes around 13 days. A billion seconds takes a bit over 31 years. We humans live for something between 2 and 3 billion seconds. A trillion seconds is over 31,688 years. We don’t really know what thousands of years mean, of course. Human civilization is not a trillion seconds old.

The US war in Iraq has been estimated to cost around $3 trillion. That is, $3,000,000,000,000. Details are in Joseph Stiglitz and Linda J. Bilmes’ new book, “The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict.” See The Cold Price of Hot Blood in Salon for more on that. The total cost globally could well be over $6 trillion.

…It is the very nature of democracy that creates the perverse incentives for the politicians to implement policies that help themselves at the cost of immense harm to the country. Those who make the policies enjoy the indirect benefits of the policies — votes from specific groups — without paying any of the costs.

There is another asymmetry. The direct beneficiaries of the policies naturally have a concentrated interest in voting for the politicians. The costs are diffuse and poorly understood by the rest of the population. So while they bear the costs, they do not connect it with the policies and the politicians.

In the final analysis, a country is only as rich or as poor as its collective wisdom allows it to be. The politicians can be expected to make those decisions that are good for them, just like you and I make self-interestedly rational decision in our daily lives. However, we get to play with whatever little money we have; the politicians can play with billions and trillions that do not belong to them. So they are understandably less careful with billions than we would be with our few thousands.