The Dirt on Clean Coal: Looking Beyond the Alternative Fuel Hype


We’re all eager to find a viable solution to reduce greenhouse emissions without ruining the economy, but coal probably ain’t it right now.

Clean coal is nothing but “a joke,” according to Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune. And the reasons to believe him are compelling, turning ex-coal hopefuls like me against this apparent fraud in the alternative-fuel biz. And despite ample buzz surrounding the idea of clean coal as a pristine energy source, prominent nature defenders such as Greenpeace shun the pursuit of coal as an answer to our climate-change problem. Looking beyond the hype, it’s pretty easy to see why coal’s squeaky-clean image is only a facade.

Here’s the theory behind clean coal: Coal is the dirtiest form of energy that exists, but by limiting emissions you can reduce the pollution. To achieve this, you can “scrub” away noxious impurities like sulfur, which causes acid rain when burned, and then build plants that capture greenhouse gasses as the coal burns in order to prevent them from entering the atmosphere. Another option is to avoid coal combustion altogether in favor of a gasification process that uses oxygen and steam, no burning required.

This all sounds pretty good, right? Unfortunately, environmental experts smell a wolf in sheep’s clothing. First of all, the technology for carbon capture and gasification simply isn’t there, despite billions of dollars worth of research. Brune notes that the capturing process we’re working on is too expensive, uses massive amounts of energy and requires the construction of new plants just to trap the emissions from existing ones—not exactly efficient. Plus, the very act of mining coal is highly destructive, often involving the removal of entire mountaintops. Not cool.

The truth is that coal has powerful lobbyists spending tens of millions of dollars to convince us and Congress that clean coal is the answer, says Greenpeace. Lobbyists run alluring ads on TV during prime viewing times, omitting the fact that coal burning produces mercury contamination in addition to air pollution, literally spewing carcinogens. Coal already produces about half of our electricity, which is the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the country.

The good news is that we don’t have to look far for better alternatives. Brune endorses natural gas as a “bridge fuel” until we find a better solution—which could even prove to be coal if we discover safe and effective extraction and burning options. As plentiful as natural gas is in the United States, this option makes sense until technology catches up with our needs.

Smaller-scale renewable options also work well for certain communities. The Natural Resources Defense Council pushes wind energy, solar energy, hydropower, geothermal energy and offshore tidal energy where they’re possible. Farmers can even produce energy using gases from animal waste—I assume they remove the smell.

With all the options out there, clean coal just doesn’t make sense right now. With luck, technology will find a way to make coal sustainable; but until that happens, we’re better off looking elsewhere to solve our energy needs.

image: gynti_46