What is 'clean coal,' anyway?
Call it a hat trick: The phrase "clean coal" turned up in all three debates, with both McCain and Obama supporting it.
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But when you watch those ubiquitous television commercials that the ACCCE puts out, it's clear that they're not always just talking about cutting out the sulfur. Sometimes these ads mention emissions that contribute to climate change, and coal produces more of these emissions than any other fossil fuel.Skip to next paragraph
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And so now we arrive at the latest definition of clean coal – "zero greenhouse-gas emission coal."
Industry groups say they can achieve this by capturing the carbon dioxide produced by the burning coal and pumping it underground. This so-called carbon-capture-and-storage, or CCS, technology has been succesfully tested on a small scale, but it has yet to be proven economically viable. Citing rising costs, in February the Department of Energy pulled the plug on an ambitious CCS project, the $1.8 billion FutureGen power plant in Matoon, Ill.
One leading management consulting firm, McKinsey & Company, said in a recent report [PDF] that CCS technology will not be economical until 2030. That will most likely be too late to help avert catastrophic climate change.
Critics of CCS point out that the energy required to capture and sequester emissions will erase many of the efficiency gains made in recent decades.
But even if CCS technology does prove feasible, it does not mean that using coal will have no impact on the environment, because you still need to dig it out of the ground somehow. For much of the coal in Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia, and Tennessee, this means mountaintop removal, that is, clearing a mountain’s summit of all topsoil and vegetation, blasting off the top with explosives, and dumping the debris into a nearby valley. To call mountaintop removal "clean" would be to wreak its equivalent on the English language.
Despite the rhetorical slipperiness, both candidates promise to pursue clean coal assiduously. On his campaign website, McCain promises to spend $2 billion annually on clean coal technology (he doesn't define the term, but he has talked up CCS technology elsewhere), which he then hopes to commercialize and sell to China. Obama's site says that his administration's Department of Energy will enter into public-private partnerships to build five FutureGen-style CCS plants.
What the United States decides to do with its vast coal reserves will profoundly impact the future. Currently, coal accounts for about 50 percent of human-caused atmospheric increases in carbon dioxide. As oil peaks, coal is poised to fill the gap. Coal will determine the future levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, and consequently the temperature of the planet. And much of it happens to be buried under swing states.