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.

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.”

In the ACCCE’s $35 million advertising campaign, America “plugs” in to a chunk of coal. ACCCE

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.