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Politicians of all stripes like to tout the benefits of clean coal, a catch-all phrase for a host of technologies aimed at reducing the environmental impact of coal. But while the alliteration sounds nice in a campaign speech, “clean coal” is more myth than reality.
Beyond the technological hurdles, it’s critical to remember that coal is dirty in a whole host of ways—from the moment it’s pulled out of the ground to the moment we use it to turn on the lights. Here are a few reasons to raise an eyebrow at the promise of clean coal:
1. The technology doesn’t exist yet. Few technologies exist today that actually make coal cleaner. Take carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), wherein power plants trap carbon emissions and then bury them deep in the ground to keep them from reaching the atmosphere. China has gotten a lot of press from investing heavily in CCS research, but at this stage it’s just that: research. Other solutions, from gasifying coal to scrubbing out toxic minerals, are even further from real world use.
2. Even if the technology was there, the numbers don’t add up. The larger reason clean coal has not been a breakout technology is that it’s just not economically viable. In general, most polluters pollute because it’s cheaper and easier than spending money to make their operations environmentally friendly. The coal industry is no different. All current ideas about clean coal technology are expensive. They’re expensive to research, expensive to install, and companies won’t make more profit for all that money spent. Economists just don’t think the numbers will ever work to make clean coal technology thrive on its own in the free market.
3. That means we’d need government action. The coal industry doesn’t pay for the environmental damage they cause: we do (with taxes) for clean up and health problems from pollution. It’s a classic example of why we need the government to intervene and to make companies pay for the messes they create. We know it works. Power plant scrubbers, which successfully curbed acid rain, were only installed nationwide thanks to a legal mandate.
We could incentivize reducing pollution through a carbon tax or adopt a cap-and-trade system. But not only is Congress generally unwilling to take up big issues or pass many laws, climate is near the bottom of Republicans’ priority list. Meaning, while coal gets pollution subsidies, no one gets help cleaning up.
4. Burning coal produces lots of carbon emissions. This is the easy one. Of all the fossil fuels, coal is the worst for climate change, emitting 1.3 times more carbon pollution than oil and twice as much as natural gas, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency emissions calculations. Coal burning contributes one-third of the U.S. total carbon emissions.
5. Burning coal creates other kinds of deadly pollution. Beyond carbon emissions, burning coal produces lots of other toxic chemicals and particles that harm human health, including soot and smog, a leading cause of asthma. In 2011, Earthjustice found that smog causes an estimated 35,700 premature deaths every year and 2.7 million missed school and work days. While some clean coal technologies target these health hazards, there’s no guarantee whatever clean coal technology gets adopted will have any impact on these toxic and dangerous pollutants.
6. The coal industry produces industrial waste too. In 2008, a large retainer pond operated by a coal processing facility ruptured, spilling 1.1 billion gallons of toxic coal ash into the community of Kingston, Tennessee, eventually covering 300 acres of surrounding land. A similar disaster happened again outside Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 2011 when a We Energy coal ash pond ruptured and 2,500 cubic yards of coal ash spilled into Lake Michigan.
These disasters are a reminder that burning coal isn’t the only problem: every step of the coal production process creates pollution and waste that harms the environment. Clean coal, generally, promises little, if anything, in the way of addressing these other impacts.
7. Mountaintop removal mining. Among the most controversial and tragic mining methods is mountaintop removal, a practice dating from the 1970s where companies use dynamite to literally blow the tops of mountains in Appalachia, not only destroying a landscape 500 million years in the making, but gumming up freshwater streams and even sending massive boulders careening down mountainsides and into communities. Clean coal technology doesn’t even pretend to fix mining processes like this that have huge environmental impacts.
8. Mining coal is dangerous and unhealthy. Beyond harming the environment, coal mining is a dirty and dangerous process for workers. Large scale disasters, like the explosion in West Virginia’s Upper Big Branch Mine in 2010, grab headlines and spotlight the dangers miners face every day. But beyond these catastrophic events, coal mining is a devastating profession for personal health. Small, dark and dusty mines leave lifers with severe back problems and cancers that often end careers and lives too early. A study identifying the least healthy places in America found that the top four were in coal country. Grundy County, Virginia, an area dependent on coal, was dubbed the sickest town in America, with more than 20 percent of people living on disability, many from mining related injuries.
9. Clean coal doesn’t address the coal plants we have now. Even if clean coal became the norm for new electricity generation tomorrow, that doesn’t address the hundreds of existing coal-fired power plants already in operation. Lots of proposed technology would likely necessitate an entirely new processing system. That does nothing to impact emissions from what we’ve already built. If we want to fix what we’ve already got, we’ll need to rely on activists, like the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign that’s helped close nearly 200 dirty power plants, not clean coal technology alone.
10. Coal is still finite. No matter how much we sanitize coal, the simple truth is we can’t make more of it. Coal may be, as the World Energy Institute describes, the “most abundant” of fossil fuels, but it’s not endless.
Rather than invest significant research and design efforts into finding technology to make a dirty, dangerous energy source less so, it makes much more sense to work toward improving the successful and growing renewable energy technologies already on the market. Wind and solar power are not only truly clean and renewable resources, their industries are growing exponentially as they become price competitive with pollution subsidized fossil fuels.
Achieving real clean energy means letting go of a legacy of fossil fuels and putting our hopes in new, truly clean sources.
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