If It Sounds Too Good to be True ...

Someone needs to tell President-elect Barack Obama that his promise to invest in so-called “clean coal” technology is really nothing but a pipe dream.

Throughout his campaign for president, Obama endorsed clean coal, saying during a campaign stop in New Hampshire in October that the nation needs to “find a way to stop coal from polluting our atmosphere without pretending that our nation’s most abundant energy source will just go away.”

“That’s why we must invest in clean coal technologies that we can use at home and share with the world,” he said, according to the Rocky Mountain News.

His commitment, though he has said little about it since his election, has not waned, his transition Web site,, promising to “develop and deploy” clean coal technology.

Clean coal, however, is a mirage–which is the point of a new advertising campaign by the Reality Coalition, a project of the Alliance for Climate Protection, the Sierra Club, National Wildlife Federation, the National Resources Defense Council and the League of Conservation Voters.

Maybe you’ve seen the ads: A man playing a blue-collar worker at an energy plant talking about the wonders of clean coal, leading the viewer through the plant to the place where the magic happens. Then he opens the door onto an open field, a desolate plain, saying this is where it all happens. “Amazing,” he says, shouting over the nonexistent machinery.

The ad sums up the false promise of clean coal, which author Jeff Biggers summed up rather succinctly in the Washington Post earlier this year.

“With the imaginary vocabulary of ‘clean coal,’ too many Democrats and Republicans, as well as a surprising number of environmentalists, have forgotten the dirty realities of extracting coal from the earth,” he wrote. “Pummeled by warnings that global warming is triggering the apocalypse, Americans have fallen for the ruse of futuristic science that is clean coal. And in the meantime, swaths of the country are being destroyed before our eyes.”

Biggers is talking about what might be described as tangential costs—the destruction of coal-producing areas and the people who work the mines. Extracting coal will remain a deadly pursuit, no matter what kind of technology is devised for cutting down on polluting emissions.

And that’s without determining whether coal emissions can be cleansed. While there are some arguments in favor of developing some form of cleaner coal—replacing coal with another energy source will be difficult—coal remains “the dirtiest of all fossil fuels, and not easy to clean,” according to Charles Q. Choi, writing on Live Science.

Plus, it is expensive, as Barbara Freese at the Union of Concerned Scientists explained to Choi.

“You’re taking an inherently very polluting fuel, with each pollutant posing myriad problems, and solving each with different technologies, and that keeps adding up in terms of cost,” Freese said.

And that would push up costs to energy consumers–including poor residential customers.

“It could easily increase the cost of energy from a pulverized coal plant by two-thirds to three-quarters, ‘way more than any of the other technologies needed to control the other pollutants,’ Freese said.”

In the end, the cost to the environment will be higher than any benefit that so-called clean coal technology generates, because–as Freese says—“you’re depending on a nonrenewable resource for energy, and one that’s notoriously destructive on the environment when it comes to mining it out.”

Faulty technology could result in “carbon dioxide leaking into the atmosphere, and that undermines the whole point of capturing it in the first place,” Freese said.

“There’s also the risk that leaks from pipelines or storage facilities carrying the concentrated gas can be fatal,” Freese said. “Dissolved carbon dioxide is also acidic, and if it migrates into groundwater supplies it can carry toxins with it, poisoning the water.”

And yet, we continue to hear about the potential of clean coal to save the planet.

Brad Jones, for instance, touts clean coal as a major component of the nation’s effort to balance “the country’s voracious need for megawatts while balancing the generation of that power against environmental stewardship and the pocketbook concerns of average Americans.” That’s not surprising, of course, given Jones’ role as the West Region communications director for the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity—a coal industry lobbying group.

In a December op-ed that appeared online at the Denver Post, Jones said that the “ideal (energy) portfolio will maximize the inherent attributes of nuclear, natural gas, biofuels, hydro-electric and renewable sources like wind and solar, while minimizing the inherent flaws of each,” with “our most abundant and reliable domestic energy resource, coal,” anchoring the mix.

“By investing in new technologies,” he wrote, “America’s vast coal reserves can help secure our energy future, keep energy costs affordable, create good, high-paying jobs for American workers and continue our steady progress on reducing emissions and protecting the environment.”

It’s difficult to argue with that — we do need investment in new technologies, as well as in conservation and proven alternatives like solar and wind — but we shouldn’t fool ourselves. We are at least two decades away from some form of carbon-capture technology — a fact that seems absent from the current debate.

Former Vice President Al Gore, speaking on National Public Radio in December, said the clean-coal promise is allowing the coal industry to continue building “all these incredibly dirty and dangerous polluting coal plants,” which  he calls “the principal cause of global warming,” on the assumption that there is a magical solution just around the corner.

There isn’t. And we can’t wait the 20-plus years it may take—and I emphasize may—to make the coal industry’s dream a reality.

Hank Kalet is a poet, journalist and online editor for the Princeton Packet newspaper group in central New Jersey. E-mail See his blog, Channel Surfing, at

From The Progressive Populist, Jan. 1-15, 2009

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