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A squabble about “clean coal” has broken among the presidential candidates. Neither side has leveled with voters.
Democratic vice presidential candidate Joe Biden kicked off the
controversy in September when he commented at an Ohio campaign stop
that, “We’re not supporting clean coal.” He then had to back track
since Barack Obama supports clean coal, as he reiterated in last week’s
second presidential debate. Then, at a rally in Scranton, Pa. this
week, Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin jumped in the
fray saying that, “So whether Joe Biden approves it or not, John McCain
is going to develop clean coal technology here in America…”
It’s a lot of hot air about an idea that is unlikely to go anywhere fast.
The “clean coal” debate is about air emissions from power plants that
burn coal to generate electricity. Nowadays when the candidates talk
about “clean coal,” they’re not talking so much about power plant
emissions of particulate matter (soot), sulfur dioxide (SOX) and
nitrogen oxide (NOX) so much as they are that great global warming
boogeyman, carbon dioxide (CO2). When the candidates say they support
“clean coal,” they’re talking about technologies that would capture CO2
emissions before they are emitted into the air and then store them
permanently underground. The shorthand for this process is “carbon
capture and storage.”
But the technology for simply capturing carbon dioxide isn't ready for
prime time and won’t be anytime soon — if ever — on the sort of
commercial scale that would need to occur for it to make any sense. The
main problem is cost. The most promising technology for CO2 capture is
called IGCC (Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle). But the cost of
building a power plant with IGCC technology to capture 90 percent of
the CO2 generated is 47 percent higher than that for traditional power
plant, according to a July 2006 study by the EPA.
Capturing CO2 imposes a cost amounting to about $24 per ton. At the
largest U.S. power plant which emits about 25 million tons of CO2
annually, the extra cost would be $600 million per year. For all U.S.
coal-fired power plants, which emit a total of more than 2.2 billion
tons annually, the cost would be a staggering $52 billion per year.
Passing along the capital and operating costs to consumers would raise
electricity prices by almost 40 percent according to the EPA. And since
the EPA is not known for overestimating costs, the actual cost is
likely to be much higher and even more difficult to pass on to
So it’s no wonder that private investors have shunned IGCC technology,
forcing its promoters to rely on government subsidies. But even those
are vanishing. Earlier this year, the deep-pocketed federal government
pulled out of the FutureGen project  — a pilot effort to build and operate the first zero-emissions, coal-fired power plant — because of cost.
Capturing CO2 is hardly the end of the game, however. The gas has to be
stored somewhere, after all. But where would you store the
approximately 1.2 trillion cubic meters of CO2 produced annually
produced by the nation’s coal-fired power plants?
Underground geological repositories, like saline formations and
depleted oil and gas fields are being considered. But it’s not at all
clear that these potential repositories could reliably hold vast and
ever-increasing amounts of CO2 forever without leaking and without
polluting surrounding groundwater. CO2 leaching into groundwater would
acidify it. Then there’s the possibility of explosion. In August 1986,
a natural formation of CO2 under Cameroon’s Lake Nyos exploded killing
hundreds of people.
If repositories are identified, we’d need a nationwide network of
pipelines to pump the CO2, oftentimes, hundreds of miles from power
plants. This would be a massive project that would cost hundreds of
billions of dollars factoring in the acquisition of rights of way,
construction, operations, maintenance and environmental monitoring
Keep in mind that much energy would be needed to pump CO2 long
distances through pipelines which would have to be kept dry to prevent
corrosion and leak-free to prevent groundwater pollution requiring
expensive cleanup. Rest assured that environmentalists and trial
lawyers would be monitoring for leaks.
Past the cost and technical challenges, there’s the public acceptance
problem. A July 2008 report from the Congressional Research Service
concluded that CO2 pipelines and storage may give local communities much gas .
Even if all the aforementioned problems were solved, perhaps the most
daunting obstacle remains — the Greens. One of the most powerful
special interest lobbies of our time, the Greens don’t like coal even
if it is “clean.” Obama endorser and Natural Resources Defense Counsel
attorney Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., for example, says that “there is no
such thing as clean coal.” He alleges that the “true costs” of coal
include “dead forests and sterilized lakes from acid rain, poisoned
fisheries in 49 states and children with damaged brains and crippled
health from mercury emissions, millions of asthma attacks and lost work
days and thousands dead annually from ozone and particulates.” An
e-mail alert from Greenpeace ahead of this week’s final presidential
debate called clean coal a “myth” since coal mining “destroys mountains
and forests and pollutes America.”
The irony is that coal — which is used to provide about one-half of our
electricity — is already burned cleanly and safely in the U.S. with
existing pollution control equipment and enforcement of government
regulations, regardless of what hysterical Greens claim. There is no
credible evidence to the contrary.
So beware of politicians talking about “clean coal” — it’s just another promise they couldn’t keep even if they tried.