Clean Coal: Wave of the Future or Empty Rhetoric?

German CCSThrough rustic images of America and a call for technological ingenuity, "clean coal" media advertisements became pervasive across the United States this year.

The coal industry promises an abundant and cheap energy solution that also protects the environment. Yet the clean coal solution to climate change is not currently economical, leading many environmentalists to criticize the advertisements as deceptive.

To shed some light on the clean coal debate, the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, reviewed how much the industry is actually spending on climate change solutions. The study found that the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity - 48 coal and utility companies - is investing $3.5 billion into projects that capture and store emissions, including many projects that have yet to begin.

In order for coal to remain an energy option in a warming world, international observers say the research funding for carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), the leading clean coal technology, must increase. Otherwise, greenhouse gas emissions are expected to rise to levels of irreversible damage if the current rate of coal burning continues.

"[Coal companies] use ‘clean coal' as if it's a magic wand: wave it and coal emissions will go away," said Daniel Weiss, the center's director of climate strategy. "They're claiming this is the solution, but they're not investing very much in the future."

A Political, Financial, and Rhetorical Feud

The industry group quickly countered the study with a U.S. Department of Energy list of more than 80 projects that capture, monitor, or mitigate carbon emissions.

The list's only completed CCS project, however, is a North Dakota natural gas plant that pipes emissions to Canada, where they are used to push oil out of the ground. Researchers are closely monitoring the project in hopes that it will help further other CCS efforts. 

The coal industry prefers a more general definition of "clean coal," including any coal-fired power plant that features higher energy efficiency and emits fewer pollutants such as soot and sulfur dioxide.

In addition to fueling a terminology debate, the coal industry lobbied, effectively, to prevent federal legislation this year that would have capped U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and required utilities to include more renewable energy sources in their energy portfolios, Weiss said.

"For all of the industry talk about CCS, their strategy is to delay any binding emissions until CCS is ready," Weiss said in phone conference with reporters. "If they have their way, it will be a very long time from now."

The study also compared the companies' 2007 profit, $57 billion in total, to their CCS research. "For every $17 that goes to their pockets, $1 goes into solving global warming," Weiss said.

Meanwhile, the coal coalition spent some $50 million on its clean coal campaign this year, up from $15 million in 2007, a spokesman said.

The companies are not required to dedicate more resources to CCS technology. When project costs are shared with the U.S. government, at least 20 percent of the cost must be covered by industry, which the companies have so far followed, according to Bob Kane, an Energy Department technical advisor for carbon management.

Current Funding "Nowhere Near Enough"

International agreements will likely influence greater CCS investments. The world's eight largest industrialized nations, the G8, agreed this year to establish 20 CCS demonstration projects by 2010 [PDF]. The United States said it would sponsor at least half.

The G8 asked the International Energy Association to assess how these targets could be met. It concluded in October that, "current CCS spending and activity levels are nowhere near enough to achieve the G8 goals." In addition to the base costs of CCS power plants, $20 billion is needed for near-term demonstrations, the report said.

The U.S. government has already dedicated at least $1.9 billion to CCS projects, according to Weiss's study. Further funding requests stalled in Congress this year. 

U.S. President-elect Barack Obama supported "clean coal" during his presidential campaign, calling for "five ‘first-of-a-kind' commercial scale coal-fired plants with carbon capture and sequestration." Congress also may include CCS funding in the massive stimulus package that will be debated early next year.

Elsewhere, the European Union agreed this month to fund 12 pilot commercial CCS plants with proceeds from carbon trading, part of an agreement to reduce emissions 20 percent by 2020. Germany launched a 30 megawatt pilot CCS coal-fired power plant in September - the world's first.

Kurt Waltzer, carbon storage development coordinator with the Boston-based Clean Air Taskforce, said at least $100 billion of research and development is necessary to meet the G8 CCS targets and to slow the increasing levels of global greenhouse gas emissions, especially from China.

"There needs to be a significant amount of federal and private money on the table," Waltzer said. "We need to realize CCS is necessary for the climate. And if coal wants to survive, they need CCS as well. In a sense, we're all in the same boat."

But many environmentalists do not embrace the still unproven technology. Bruce Nilles, director of the Sierra Club's national coal campaign, said that the notion of "clean coal" still does not address the environmental damage caused by coal extraction. Last week, for instance, 2.6 million yards (2.4 cubic meters) of lead-laden coal waste spilled onto homes in rural Tennessee, one of the worst coal accidents in U.S. history.

"There is a campaign of disinformation saying there is such a thing as clean coal," Nilles said. "It simply doesn't exist."

Ben Block is a reporter with the Worldwatch Institute. He can be reached at bblock@worldwatch.org.

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