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‘Clean Coal’ By Any Other Name

• April 07, 2009 • 8:45 PM

The marketing war between industry and environmentalists over the catchphrase belies a pragmatic truth: Both sides really want the same thing.

A coalition of big-name environmental groups introduced earlier this year a grinning new pitchman for the “clean coal”-debunking crowd. This guy, with a disposition sunnier than even the brightest industry ads he has been designed to counter, wants to spray “clean coal” air freshener all over your living room.

“Is regular clean clean enough for your family?” he asks in a 30-second spot directed by the Coen brothers. “Not when you can have ‘clean coal’ clean!”

The whole scene seems, as it was surely intended, ridiculous. The coal industry is betting its future that it can solder the concepts “clean” and “coal” together, but its opponents have set on an equally powerful PR strategy: Repeat the phrase enough times — and pair it with swirling clouds of black smog — and it loses not only its meaning, but all logic.

“‘Clean coal’,” the narrator continues, “harnesses the awesome power of the word ‘clean’ to make it sound like the cleanest clean there is.”

The commercial, produced by the recently launched Reality Coalition (“in reality, there’s no such thing as ‘clean coal'”), is part of a multimillion-dollar ad war. The coal industry, which last year created the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, has been equally busy priming Americans over the indispensability of coal (about half of all the U.S,’s domestic electricity comes from it) and its evolution over time as clean-er than it once was (“emissions have been reduced by more than one-third” since 1970).

Cleaner than dirty is hardly clean. But then again, “There’s no such thing as clean anything, in terms of the pure sense of the word,” said Richard Axelbaum, director of the new Consortium for Clean Coal Utilization at Washington University in St. Louis. “Everything we do has an impact.”

Even wind farms. The polarizing word “clean,” and all the money that’s being spent to redefine it from both sides, in fact, may be doing the most to confuse people. “Clean coal” refers not to a specific type of coal, but to an emerging emissions-trapping technology. The Reality Coalition rightly points out that such a technology is not currently in use in the U.S., but even that group supports its immediate deployment. Al Gore has called for completely weaning the U.S. off coal within the next 10 years, but many environmental realists say that’s just not possible.

“I think the world of Al Gore,” said Sally Benson, director of the Global Climate and Energy Project at Stanford University. “But I don’t think that was helpful at all.”

As it turns out, the coal industry and many environmental advocates, including members of the Reality Coalition, want essentially the same thing: carbon capture and sequestration technology.

But getting it requires a debate over much more than just semantics.

Capturing the Elusive Carbon
CCS technology captures carbon dioxide emissions, liquefies it and injects it deep into the ground, back to where coal comes from in the first place. The process has four steps — capture, compression, transportation and storage – technology the U.S. possesses right now, as well as currently having enough capacity underground to store hundreds of years’ worth of the liquefied carbon dioxide emissions, but the process has never been combined with the production of electricity on a commercial scale in the U.S. before.

“It is also perfectly true if we had to do this today, if we decided this was the only way we could survive, if we were willing to pay the cost, we could capture carbon dioxide today,” Benson said. “We could absolutely do that.”

George Peridas, a scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Climate Center, explains that this is not like trying to teach a 1-year-old how to walk; this is more like going from jogging to running a marathon. The United States already has the basic skills.

Peridas says the NRDC joined the Reality Coalition, which also includes the League of Conservation Voters, the Sierra Club and the National Wildlife Federation, not because it doesn’t believe the technology is viable, but because it doesn’t trust the coal industry to use it.

“I feel no confidence that this industry is going to embrace carbon dioxide reduction technology when they’ve been extremely reluctant to adopt technology that’s been around for years and years to scrub other pollutants,” Peridas said, referring to grandfathering exemptions under the Clean Air Act addressing sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and mercury pollution.

Peridas also criticized the industry’s “two-faced” strategy of promoting cleaner coal through CCS while also lobbying against legislation that would mandate the technology’s use. CCS would allow the coal industry to play a major role in a more efficient energy economy, but investing in the research and development and building of new plants will be costly — and, at first, not profitable.

Both Benson and Peridas believe the only way to motivate the industry to make the expensive shift will be through carbon-capping legislation.

“You don’t do CCS for the fun of it or because you like capturing carbon dioxide to do it, but because you want to do something on the climate,” Peridas said. “The only kind of world where CCS makes sense is a carbon-constrained world.”

But emissions caps, the industry counters, must be “based upon a reasonable expectation of technology.” Joe Lucas, ACCCE’s vice president of communications, says the coalition believes in what it calls a process of “slow, stop and reverse.”

You don’t change directions on a 100-mph ocean liner by pulling a 180-degree turn, Lucas said.

“You slow the boat, eventually stop the boat, you change the direction of the boat, and then you accelerate in the other direction,” he said. “We believe and support a mandatory federal program to manage carbon emissions that does exactly that.”

At that rate, ACCCE projects the widespread use of CCS technology 10 to 15 years into the future.

Without carbon caps today, a planned CCS demonstration plant in Matoon, Ill., has been idling for the last year. FutureGen, a joint project of several utilities, was originally estimated at a cost of about $800 million, much of which was to come from the Department of Energy. In early 2008, the DOE under the Bush Administration pulled the funding as cost estimates for the project ballooned to $1.8 billion.

FutureGen appears likely to receive new funding under Barack Obama’s stimulus bill, and the president has talked of investing more than $3 billion in several such “clean coal” demonstration fa
cilities.

But another conflict exists. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., has called FutureGen “the biggest earmark in history” on a scale far greater than the widely mocked Bridge to Nowhere.

And this raises another question: Is a “clean coal” demonstration plant in Illinois pork for the locals or an essential investment for us all?

Pollution Sans Frontières
Outside of the United States, 1.6 billion people live without electricity, a fact often lost in America’s domestic energy debate.

“It’s not like they can’t play Sudoku on their computer, they have no electricity,” said Frank Clemente, a sociology professor at Penn State. An even larger group — nearly half the world’s population — doesn’t have adequate electricity.

“In that context, we need all the power that we can get, and to me that’s the moral issue: to take people out of poverty,” Clemente said. “This whole artificial argument over ‘one fuel is better than another,’ I think that’s all political, emotional.”

Clemente, who co-authored the National Coal Council’s report The Urgency of Sustainable Coal, argues that we need to use every option with the least impact on the environment as possible, and coal with CCS technology is as good a solution as we have, for now.

Clemente also insists in this context that America’s impact on the coal debate is minimal. China built more coal plants in 2007 than Great Britain ever built, and for every proposed plant endlessly debated and then shelved in America, China constructs another dozen. Americans are not used to hearing that their decisions don’t matter, particularly on the topic of global climate change, but that is exactly what Clemente argues. “We’re not important,” he says, matter-of-factly.

The most important thing we could do, he says, is develop CCS technology and give it away to the rest of the world. America will remain a major consumer of the world’s energy, but most of the new consumption — the consumption that will put exponential pressure on the environment as rural parts of China and India move from the Third World to the First — will lie elsewhere.

“Those countries want electricity. They don’t care what Al Gore says, they don’t care what the New York Times says — they could care less,” Clemente said. “They see those as elitist groups that already have electricity, and these people are looking for electricity to get their kids clean water.”

Axelbaum adds that the U.S. must develop an energy policy that we believe is also appropriate for the rest of the world. If we say we intend to go all-nuclear, we must accept that the rest of the world can do the same. Similarly, we can’t build our energy policy on a resource that exists nowhere else.

The idea runs counter to the notion that we must wean ourselves off foreign dependence in favor of a domestic solution.

“If you look at world stability, how to avoid world conflict,” Axelbaum said, “we have to make sure everybody has a source of energy that is readily available to them that they don’t have to fight for.”

Coal isn’t available everywhere, but it is distributed across the globe and in large concentrations in the U.S., China and Russia, among other places. It exists where the biggest users are, and never too far from many others. Specific geologies are required for underground sequestration, but those too exist in many countries, with a few exceptions such as Japan and South Korea.

In this global context, Al Gore’s vision is noble, but so too are the goals of reducing poverty and conflict, two intersections of energy policy that rarely touch the Americans debating it.

The Good, Not the Perfect
For the coal industry, Clemente said, CCS is not a technology, it’s the technology, and the industry has to start urgently treating it as such. For the rest of us, it’s something else.

“I look at it as a bridging technology,” Benson said, “a bridge from here to the future.”

It is a mid-range climate-change solution to get this country through the next 50 years until it can learn how to make liquid fuels from solar power and store wind power when it’s not windy outside.

The NRDC hasn’t given up on that world in its embrace of CCS. It is merely melding environmentalism with realism at a juncture when the climate can ill afford saying no to any solution. It’s a growing strategy embodied in movements like the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, which includes unlikely allies like the Environmental Defense Fund and Alcoa, and the Nature Conservancy and ConocoPhillips.

“We would love to do away with coal all together, but we realize it comes with significant economic and political challenges,” Peridas said. “And from the point of view of a global warming campaign, I don’t think it’s a wise strategy to count on the complete abolition of coal use.”

The Reality Coalition’s TV spots don’t entirely make that clear, but that is in part because the debate has shifted away from how to mitigate coal’s emissions to whether or not we can call that process “clean.”

Clemente likens the digression to any number of intractable standoffs in Washington between Democrats and Republicans.

“They’re so entrenched in their positions that they can’t come to agreement on anything, and the same kind of thing is happening in the energy field,” he said. “You have people who are totally opposed to renewables, then you have a whole group of people totally opposed to coal. You have extremists screaming on both sides.”

If we could get through this next transition phase into a world where we use coal because we have to, but capture its emissions because we can, the screaming could ease. Until, of course, it comes time to get off coal all together, but that’s a marketing war for another decade.

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Emily Badger
Emily Badger is a freelance writer living in the Washington, D.C. area who has contributed to The New York Times, International Herald Tribune and The Christian Science Monitor. She previously covered college sports for the Orlando Sentinel and lived and reported in France.

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