03 Jun 2008: Opinion

The Myth of Clean Coal

The coal industry and its allies are spending more than $60 million to promote the notion that coal is clean. But so far, “clean coal” is little more than an advertising slogan.

by richard conniff

You have to hand it to the folks at R&R Partners. They’re the clever advertising agency that made its name luring legions of suckers to Las Vegas with an ad campaign built on the slogan “What happens here, stays here.” But R&R has now topped itself with its current ad campaign pairing two of the least compatible words in the English language: “Clean Coal.”

“Clean” is not a word that normally leaps to mind for a commodity some spoilsports associate with unsafe mines, mountaintop removal, acid rain, black lung, lung cancer, asthma, mercury contamination, and, of course, global warming. And yet the phrase “clean coal” now routinely turns up in political discourse, almost as if it were a reality.

The ads created by R&R tout coal as “an American resource.” In one Vegas-inflected version, Kool and the Gang sing “Ya-HOO!” as an electric wire gets plugged into a lump of coal and the narrator intones: “It’s the fuel that powers our way of life.” (“Celebrate good times, come on!”) A second ad predicts a future in which coal will generate power “with even lower emissions, including the capture and storage of CO2. It’s a big challenge, but we’ve made a commitment, a commitment to clean.”

Photo Credit: ACCCE
In the ACCCE's $35 million advertising campaign, America "plugs" in to a chunk of coal.

Well, they’ve made a commitment to advertising, anyway. The campaign has been paid for by Americans for Balanced Energy Choices, which bills itself as the voice of “over 150,000 community leaders from all across the country.” Among those leaders, according to ABEC’s website, are an environmental consultant, an interior designer, and a “complimentary healer.” Other, arguably louder, voices in the group include the world’s biggest mining company (BHP Billiton), the biggest U.S. coal mining company (Peabody Energy), the biggest publicly owned U.S. electric utility (Duke Energy), and the biggest U.S. railroad (Union Pacific). ABEC — whose domain name is licensed to the Center for Energy and Economic Development, a coal-industry group — merged with CEED on April 17 to form the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE).

They’re bankrolling the “Clean Coal” campaign to the tune of $35 million this year alone. That’s a little less than the tobacco industry spent on a successful fight against antismoking legislation in 1998, and almost triple what health insurers paid for the “Harry and Louise” ads that helped kill health care reform in the early 1990s. In addition to the ads, the “Clean Coal” campaign has so far also sponsored two presidential election debates (where, critics noted, no questions about global warming got asked).

The urgent motive for an ad campaign this time is the possibility of federal global warming legislation. A cap-and-trade scheme for carbon dioxide emissions may come to a vote in the Senate this June. Coal is also struggling to overcome fierce resistance at the state and local level; Kansas, Florida, Idaho, and California have already effectively declared a moratorium on new coal-fired power plants. Nationwide, 59 new coal-fired power plant projects died last year (of 151 proposed), mostly because local authorities refused to grant permits or because big banks withheld financing. Both groups are alarmed about the lack of practical remedies to deal with coal’s massive CO2 emissions.

The coal industry is clearly alarmed, too, if only about its continued ability to do business as usual. In addition to the “Clean Coal” ad campaign, the industry’s main lobbying group, the National Mining Association, increased its budget by 20 percent this year, to $19.7 million. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, individual coal companies will spend an additional $7 million on lobbying. Coal industry PACs and employees also routinely donate $2-3 million per election cycle in contests for federal office. Altogether, that adds up to a substantial commitment to advertising and lobbying.

And the commitment to clean? The scale of the problem suggests that it needs to be big. Coal-fired power plants generate about 50 percent of the electricity in the United States. In 2006, they also produced 2 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide — 36 percent of total U.S. emissions. For a remedy, the industry was banking on a proposed pilot plant called FutureGen, which would have used coal gasification technology to separate out the carbon dioxide, allowing it to be pumped into underground storage. But in January, the federal government canceled that project because of runaway costs. At last count, FutureGen was budgeted at $1.8 billion — with about $400 million of that coming from corporate partners over ten years. That is, the “commitment to clean” would have cost roughly as much per year as the industry is now spending on lobbying and “Clean Coal” advertising.

The business logic of this spending pattern is clear: Promoting the illusion that coal is clean, or maybe could be, helps to justify building new coal-fired power plants now. The tactic is at times transparent: In Michigan recently, a utility didn’t promise that a proposed $2 billion plant would have carbon-control technology — merely that it would set aside acreage for such technology. The proponents of a new power plant in Maine talked about capturing and storing 25 percent of the carbon dioxide emissions, but didn’t say how, and even if they figure that out, the plant would still produce two million tons of CO2 annually.

Actually making coal clean would be hugely expensive. In this country, most research focuses on coal gasification, which aims to remove CO2 and other pollutants before combustion. But only two power plants using the technology have actually been built in the United States, in Indiana and Florida, and the purpose of both was to capture sulphur and other pollutants. Neither takes the next step of capturing and storing the CO2. They also manage to be online only 60 or 70 percent of the time, versus the 90-95 percent uptime required by the power industry. In Europe, researchers prefer post-combustion carbon capture. But the steam needed to recover CO2 from the smokestack kills the efficiency of a power plant.

Since neither technology can be retrofitted, both require the construction of new coal-fired power plants. So instead of reducing emissions, they add to the problem in the near term. And the question remains of what to do with the carbon dioxide once you’ve captured it. Industry has had plenty of experience with temporary underground storage of gases — and researchers say they are confident about their ability to sequester carbon dioxide permanently in deep saline aquifers. But utilities don’t want to get stuck monitoring storage in perpetuity, or be liable if CO2 leaks back into the atmosphere. In any case, data from demonstration storage projects won’t be available for at least five years, meaning it will be 2020 before the first plants using “carbon capture and storage” get built. If predictions from global warming scientists are correct, that may be too late.

A better strategy, argues Bruce Nilles, director of the Sierra Club’s National Coal Campaign, is conservation, with a cap-and-trade system driving overall emissions down by two percent a year over the next 40 years. At the same time, he says, utilities need to increase their reliance on wind and solar power, supplemented by natural gas. Nilles thinks this may already be happening. In Colorado, Xcel Energy, which generates 59 percent of its power from coal, recently shelved a proposed 600-megawatt “clean coal” power plant; it’s now seeking to develop 800 megawatts of new wind power by 2015.

Finally, industry and environmentalists together also need to figure out a funding mechanism for research to make “clean coal” something more than an advertising slogan. (One possibility being debated in Europe: Instead of giving away cap-and-trade emissions permits to industry, auction them off, with some of the revenue going to research.) Nilles is also holding out for a “clean coal” technology that can be retrofitted on existing plants.

But nobody expects coal to give up dirty habits easily. Some coal advocates are already trotting out one dire study by M. Harvey Brenner, a retired economist from Johns Hopkins University. It takes a hypothetical example in which higher-cost alternative energy sources replace 78 percent of the electricity now produced by coal — leading to lower wages, higher unemployment, and the death of 150,000 economically distressed Americans per year. (In another scenario described by Brenner, 350,000 Americans die annually because they did not show coal the love.) Only a spoilsport would add that the study was paid for by the coal industry and that the article appeared not in a peer-reviewed journal, but in a trade magazine. Someone from ACCCE is probably already on the phone. “BURN COAL OR DIE” is a little crude as an advertising slogan. But the clever folks at R&R Partners can no doubt polish it into something that will make “Harry and Louise” want to get up and dance.

POSTED ON 03 Jun 2008 IN Business & Innovation Business & Innovation Climate Energy Policy & Politics Africa North America 


Finally, someone is explaining the "clean coal" PR blitz and giving the real story behind it. Thanks to Conniff for looking into this and telling it like it is.
Posted by Rob Brown on 04 Jun 2008

Carbon dioxide is a product of combustion and not of coal gasification. Carbon dioxide sequestration, therefore, is done after the combustion process and not before as you state: (...for a remedy, the coal industry was banking on a tech which would have used coal gasification to separate the carbon dioxide, allowing it to be pumped into underground storage.)
Posted by Plural_Media on 08 Jun 2008

I am shocked (but shouldn't be surprised!) at the audacity of the coal lobby, and the PR firms that lie for them!

Thank you and Yale for this great article and web magazine that will bring the truth to the masses!!!
Posted by Rodger Tishman on 09 Jun 2008

The only clean coal is that which stays in the ground!
Posted by mlukes on 18 Jun 2008

Thanks for the excellent article. I wish this article could be made into some kind of 30 minute show on pbs. There has beed a movement to renewable resources but it has been slow and full of obstacles. The auto industry did the same thing when they killed the electric car in the early 90's. Now it seems that the coal industry is on the same track. I read that it is possible to get a solar farm going in less time and money than other forms of power. So much energy and money is being spent on keeping coal alive and if that same money was spent on other resources it would definitley bring out positive change.
Posted by moosquito on 04 Aug 2008

If the CO2 is "sequestered" at the power plant, where will the industry put it? If it is solidified or frozen somehow, it would not fit in the mines and open pits from whence it came. More than 2 tons of CO2 is produced through the burning of one ton of coal. The Montana government has just refused to allow the coal industry to simply point the exhaust underground (a recent industry proposal) as this would pollute the ground water. Capturing, processing , storing and protecting the captured CO2 appears more difficult and costly than the entire mining and burning process. It is more than a moon-shot to solve this one.
Posted by Universlman on 13 Nov 2008

Be ready to be proven wrong. Clean coal is not a myth. Bixby Energy Systems will soon be launching their revolutionary technology. This technology produces a pipeline quality natural gas from coal. There are no carbon emissions. So nothing to bury underground as with CCS. They don't burn the coal, they "super heat" it so they don't emit mercury and sulphur in to the atmosphere. Oh, you ask what is the by product. It's a high quality activated carbon which Bixby then converts to oil, diesel fuel, jet fuel, etc. using their liquefaction technology. This technology is here and working. America be ready for jobs, energy independence, clean energy, and no more dependence on foreign oil.
Posted by Greg on 06 Dec 2008

This article shows how hypocritical people are. As a freight conductor for a Class 1 railroad in Eastern Kentucky, coal is obvious a very important commodity for my employment. I do agree that there are things that can be done to help with the enviroment to provide a better, cleaner planet to live on but, it all boils down to this. We are a coal-burning society. Do you enjoy the electricity that you use everyday in your home? Do you enjoy the gas you have in your car to drive to work? Do you enjoy the clothes that you wear everyday? All of these are in one way or another a byproduct of coal. And considering that there is no other means to which to provide this energy to us in the demand that we use it, it doesn't look like coal will be going anywhere anytime soon.
Posted by Aaron on 08 Dec 2008

I heard Bixby is working on a water fueled car too..
I think it'll be released at the same time as they
clean coal.

Let's try green renewable sources...

Posted by alberto on 25 Dec 2008

Obama used "clean coal" as a slogan, supports labor and the closure of the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository. What a decietful political tool we have in our president-elect! A coal industry shill.
Posted by Will on 26 Dec 2008

Regarding the sludge spill in Tennessee does anyone know if any clean coal was involved?
Posted by Universlman on 06 Jan 2009

How does one HEAT all that coal to carbonize then gasify it? Maybe by.... burning coal?!?

Coal is fossil plant material. Bring it to the surface and oxidize it by any means (including natural weathering) and you get CO2. Leaving it in the ground and using some form of solar power (sun, wind, wave, wood) or tides or geothermal is the only way not to let loose the fossil carbon. Same goes for oil, gas and methane hydrates. The easiest way to sequester fossil carbon is to leave it in the ground undisturbed.

Ride a bike or walk for a change. Spend some time in the dark.
Posted by Cliffy on 02 Feb 2009

I am a retired mechanical engineer. Clean coal was being promoted way back when I was an undergraduate student in the late 1950's. All the promises I read about then have now been updated and repackaged for the 21st century. But the conversion of coal from a dirty to a relatively clean fuel was uneconomical during my youth and continues to be so today. Any new money that is being spent trying to achieve this elusive goal will do as much good as shoveling it into the furnace along with the coal. As the old song goes: "When will they ever learn?"
Posted by Howard Gage, phd, pe on 08 Jun 2009

Unfortunately, whether or not clean coal is a reality, it needs to be one. China is committed to powering its economic growth with coal, as evidenced by the new plants set to come on line. The long term threat of global warming is not as great of a concern to the PRC as a short term slow down in economic growth — that could spell the end of the Party.

And, even less excusable, the US appears as though it will be using coal powered plants for a while — thanks in part to the comically vile aforementioned companies.

Is there much hope of creating a technology that will allow plants to be retro-fitted in order to reduce CO2? In addition to moving forward with solar and wind developments, it seems as though such a technological development is necessary.
Posted by Michael Svetich on 06 Sep 2009

"Clean Coal" is a joke...coal is dirty by nature, or have we not learned that fact by now?...this campaign is a slap in the face and a step backwards in all our current technology today. This campaign needs to be shot down quickly so the U.S can continue its work on other methods that's not going to hurt our environment or our us. Supporters of this campaign need to wake up and smell the roses...oh wait, you won't be able to with the "clean coal" emissions looming over our lands, get real.
Posted by Peter K on 14 Oct 2009

I don't think that it's the CO2 that the coal produces that is the problem. It is all the other crap in it like sulfur. Burnt sulfur isn't to environmentally friendly.

I think that hydrogen converters are a great method of producing energy and plus they burn trash without pollution.

Posted by Wheel Bearings on 05 Nov 2009

The technology on clean coal is so far advanced that if you incorporate the sequestering technology we could wind up with zero pollution.

There is info for all that truly desire to know the truth, the denial is factored in thanks to those who back the Utility company's that don't desire to spend the money necessary to get things working properly.

The Utility company's as I write my coments are poluting the atmosphere and have been for years, when will it stop?
Posted by Frank on 25 Nov 2009

"Clean coal" will be brought to the forefront in 2010. There are new technologies that will be able to convert coal to synthetic gas without significant relases of CO2 and that will not require sequestering.

A combination of technologies are needed including wind, solar, improved coal technologies and others. Does anyone believe hooking an electric car into the grid results in no pollution? Coal fired power plants still power our electricity. Converting these plants to cleaner coal technology is important as it will significantly reduce emissions of CO2, sulfur, mercury and other harmful emissions. I do not believe any technology provides zero emissions as you still must fabricate the materials and construct the facilities which all result in emissions.

Development of more localized power systems is the key to reduction of emissions. Coal is only one component but must continue to be developed in a "clean" way as no matter what we say the fact remains that many countries in the world will continue to use coal. These clean coal technologies must be used to reduce emissions and I think you will find significant announcements on this during the next year.

Posted by Mike on 09 Jan 2010

It amazes me that the chorus of "it cannot be done" experts expects everyone to be satisfied with its conclusions. The difficulty with such articles and their respectable authors is that they do not know that much; they do not know everything. One is reminded of Einstein's response when more than 20 prominent scientists agreed that Einstein's theories were absolutely impossible, he replied "If even one of them could show me where I am wrong, I might be dissuaded. But none of them has." What has happened to the open mind which is supposed to be emblematic of scientists? We should be engaged by what we do not know, not denying it. Thank you

Posted by Alan on 30 Jun 2010

Wonderful article. Very well written. Everyone should read this. Thanks for taking the time to put it together.

Posted by William Burke on 30 Jul 2010

Imagine a "clean coal" expert and supporter would have confused coal-gasification and CCS, the article would have been very criticized for that. This article instead opposes "clean coal" and the huge mistake breezes through. This reveals how biased is public opinion and, in a way, justifies the communication efforts of the coal industry...

Posted by Anto on 28 Sep 2010

Does anyone realize that for every megawatt of so called clean energy (wind and solar) that is produced at very high construction costs another plant of conventional design needs to be built to provide energy when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow. That is the effect of building two power generating sources and using only one at a time. Wind energy is only effective 35% of the day or night. Solar is 40% of our 24 hours at best. The rest of the time we will be burning something. With solar and wind your energy bill is going to double. Get used to that.

We will need economical clean coal. There is such a thing. Converting coal to gas by the Bixby or other processes is not a myth. People are working furiously to commercialize these technologies that do exist.

An intelligent mind is an open one. Do your own research and find out the truth. It does exist.

Posted by Randy on 03 Dec 2010

I understand the message you are trying to send to us.. i am just not getting why others are trying to still say the oil is 'clean'!?

Posted by Jessica Baker on 14 Feb 2011

We have a creaking and groaning national electrical grid that is dependent on vast generating stations fueled mostly by coal and nuclear power.

Seems to me that we have many cleaner, simpler alternatives that provide enough energy density (solar, for example) to digging up coal and either burning it or super-heating it.

The jobs argument for sticking with coal is about as wafer thin as the jobs argument for relaxing EPA regulations controlling smoke-stack emissions and particulates. Its not the planet we will do irreparable harm to - it will simply achieve some other kind of atmospheric and climatic balance - just as it is doing today. But what our policy-makers and elected representatives fail to grasp is this; that future re-balancing may well not include conditions that enable our species to exist.

Posted by Philip Allsopp on 28 Feb 2011

Coal is not clean. (Coal industry Lie)

Fracking is not safe. (Natural Gas Industry Lie)

Posted by Peter Hans Frohwein, Huntsville, Ala on 14 May 2011

Comments have been closed on this feature.
richard conniff ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Richard Conniff, a 2007 Guggenheim Fellow, is at work on a book about the discovery of species. He is a National Magazine Award-winning writer, and his articles have appeared in Time, Smithsonian, The Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine, National Geographic, and other publications. A frequent commentator on NPR's Marketplace, Conniff is the author of six books, including The Natural History of the Rich: A Field Guide and Spineless Wonders: Strange Tales of the Invertebrate World.



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