Environment Picture

Is there really ‘Clean Coal’?

Some promising coal technologies are better than the status quo, but rape of mountains is more real than industry’s slick advertising
The image is appealing and strangely unforgettable. It’s simply a bright orange, heavy-duty electric cord, its three-pronged plug fitting easily into a luminously smooth piece of coal. Instantly the entire screen is illuminated in bright, warm, reassuring light. Ah, the wonders of “Clean Coal.” I have to admit, this is one great TV ad.

Coal has come out of the closet. Never a very likeable energy source, coal has long been associated with fouled air, asthma, exploited miners and environmental devastation. For decades it suited the industry’s interests to fly under the radar in public energy debates.

But suddenly there’s a raging debate about coal, America’s number one source of electric energy fuel. More than 150 proposals for new coal-burning facilities—eight of them in Michigan—were on the planning boards in 2007. This new “coal rush” can be explained by huge subsidies embedded in the 2005 Energy Act and a dash to build facilities before anticipated carbon taxes and caps vault the costs of new coal far beyond that of renewable energy.

They may be too late. In February, Wall Street bankers signaled serious reservations about financing coal-burning plants. High costs and an uncertain regulatory future were among the reasons. Proponents of truly clean energy sources—like wind power—were heartened.

The debate, however, is not just a fight between environmentalists and the coal-electric utility coalition. It’s complicated.

Some leading environmental groups are fighting against any new coal burning plant whatsoever. But others, including Natural Resources Defense Council, argue that coal enjoys too much political support for it to be removed from the energy equation; and that we’d be smart to invest in technology known as Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle with Carbon Capture and Sequestration (IGCC/CCS). (See WonkTalk on next page for an explanation of IGCC.) NRDC argues that if we learn to build these plants and sequester the greenhouse gas emissions in geologic formations, we can export this technology to China and slow the rising tide of greenhouse gas from that gargantuan economy.

The Sierra Club and Clean Water Action, MEC member groups and coalition partners, are among those voicing unqualified objection to permitting any new coal burning plants in Michigan, with or without IGCC/CCS technology.
MEC’s current position stops short of an outright ban, but the conditions on our approval of any coal proposal are substantial: Michigan must:
  • Adopt a state energy plan that minimizes electricity demand through aggressive efficiency programs;
  • Fully utilize our indigenous renewable power; and
  • Accept an IGCC/CCS plant only to replace dirty old coal burning plants (not to meet new electricity demand).
A lot is at stake. Capturing or eliminating the carbon dioxide from a single, medium-sized 500-megawatt plant is equivalent to two million SUV drivers switching to Priuses.
As the coal debate rages on, I have a second image fixed in my mind—one that comes from a visit to a friend in West Virginia. It’s of a mountain stripped bare of forests; its crown truncated and smoothed in a way nature never intended.
It’s called mountain top removal—literally blasting the tops off mountains to get at the coal underneath. The resulting rubble is often bulldozed into streams in the valleys below, choking off aquatic life.

The shock of my first encounter with mountain top removal will never leave me. I still feel as if I’d seen a woman, who’d been held down, violated and left to suffer her wounds without cover. For me that image will forever represent the true costs of coal; even though I know that climate change is its greatest threat.

So while MEC will thoughtfully weigh the pros and cons of a complex set of no-win coal options, my personal views will be impacted by the image of that mountain violated, not by the warmly lit TV ad for “clean coal.”
-Lana Pollack, President, Michigan Environmental Council
RELATED TOPICS: climate change
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