Even “Clean” Coal Isn’t Really | Vol. 3 / No. 50.3

Photo: Alan Stark, CC BY-SA 2.0

Regardless of what you may think about the state of politics in the United States of America these days (I for one think of it as a raging dumpster fire we try to put out for four long years until some people inevitably destroy all the nearby fire extinguishers and hydrants before relighting the darn thing again) one thing that was said at the debate Sunday night made me feel as though I needed to write a post. That’s because he-who-shall-remain-nameless mentioned “clean coal.”

“There is a thing called clean coal. Coal will last for 1,000 years in this country.”

These are not technically false statements. There is a thing that is called by some in the industry “clean coal,” and if not burned, coal will outlast the country itself. It’s very stable indeed. Only ~1% of coal is the radioactive isotope Carbon-14, and even it has a half-life of nearly 6000 years, so even a lump of pure 14C would still mostly be there after only a thousand years. But that’s of course not what the male presidential candidate meant.

The answer was in response to a question from an audience member about jobs and the energy sector, and the answer was designed to remind the viewers of the male presidential candidate’s previous statements about “bringing coal back.” And in this light, it’s much more challenging to agree with this assertion.

It was already pretty clear in 2012 that even Romney’s “250 years of coal” was a massive overestimate. The plain and simple truth of it is there isn’t 1000 or 250 years of coal. We’d be lucky if there was even 50. And that’s before economics and environmentalism come in. When you put those two together — the fact that actually the amount of CO2 in the air does matter, and that so does money — “clean coal” becomes a serious problem.

That’s not to say it’s a complete fabrication — but in the few examples where it’s been shown to work technologically, it hasn’t been shown to work environmentally. I’ll explain.

The worst examples of “clean coal” are things like Southern Company’s Kemper plant, which is billions over budget and still doesn’t do what it was supposed to — create electricity from coal without adding to the US’s carbon footprint. There’s also FutureGen, which has been killed twice for delays and cost overruns.

But the best example of “clean coal” is set to open soon, and it’s on time and under budget — but there’s a hitch. See, NRG Energy’s Petra Nova project, in Texas, very much is going to open soon, and very much is going to capture the vast majority of its carbon dioxide and stop it from going into the atmosphere. But it’s when economic sneaks in that you start to see the problems.

First, it required $190 million from the Department of Energy which, if you ask me, would have gone a lot further if applied to wind, solar, or into the development of energy storage technologies to allow us to use wind and solar on calm nights. That’s a significant chunk of the $1.04 billion investment to build the plant, and they’ll still need to pay for coal to burn (wind and sun are free, conferring another economic advantageto those green technologies, but I digress). Then of course there’s the other thing they’re doing to make ends meet: selling the CO2.

See, if you siphon off all the carbon dioxide that burning coal creates — and it does create a lot of it — then you’re faced with the problem of exactly what you can do with that CO2. And so they’ve decided to make the plant economically feasible by selling the CO2 to — wait for it — oil producers who’ll pump it into the ground the scrounge the really tricky-to-reach oil out of the bottom of wells.

That’s right: the CO2 that comes from the coal is going to be used to get more oil to burn. Oil that would otherwise stay in the ground. Very clean.

And if that’s not enough, it’s only going to work if the price of oil stays high enough for the drillers to want to buy it. If they don’t, there’s nowhere for the CO2 to go, and you’ve got yourself a regular old dirty coal plant again.

On top of the serious economic and environmental challenges that are going to keep these kinds of plants scarce, there’s also the fact of the increasing roboticization of the mining workforce.

As a response to the decline of coal mining jobs in Appalachia (which is really what the question was about) one thing becomes abundantly clear: “clean coal” is not going to be the answer. As Fortune puts it, the “promise to bring coal mining jobs back to West Virginia is pure fantasy.

“Clean coal” may not be an outright myth, but when the best example of “clean coal” is only dubiously clean, only dubiously economically viable, and won’t bring back coal mining jobs because it won’t ever become widespread, it’s a terrible answer to the question from the debate.


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Richard Ford Burley is a human, writer, and doctoral candidate at Boston College, as well as an editor at Ledger, the first academic journal devoted to Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. In his spare time he writes about science, skepticism, feminism, and futurism here at This Week In Tomorrow.