The Clean Coal Myth: On Film

The U.S. still draws half its electricity from dirty, coal-fired power plants.
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A new documentary produced by the Center for Investigative Reporting tackles the myth of "clean coal." It's called Dirty Business: "Clean Coal" and the Battle for Our Energy Future. There are books on the subject, most notably one called Big Coal by Rolling Stone Contributing Editor Jeff Goodell. Goodell's investigative work inspired Dirty Business, and he's the narrator in the film, relating over the dismal scene of destroyed mountaintops and coal mines that he"ll never forget his first experience viewing a mine. "It's like the first time you look into a slaughterhouse after a lifetime eating hamburgers," he says. The film takes issue with the fact that half the U.S. energy supply is still drawn from dirty coal, and details the reasons for the near-inaction on moving, in any significant way, toward serious renewable energy. The documentary takes viewers from China to Saskatchewan, Kansas to West Virginia, Nevada to New York.

It's not enough to tell people that "clean coal" is an oxymoron—it's something that needs to be shown. Few of us have traveled to coal mines, seen mountains being blown up or enormous trucks hauling tons of coal across ravaged, blackened land. We may have viewed coal-fired power plants from afar, but likely not up close, where the heavy sooty smoke pouring upwards in constant streams—as depicted here—would give us pause the next time we flip on a light switch. There are many reasons to resist a coal-powered electricity future: it puts the U.S. at the mercy of unstable nations; it presents a terrible danger to miners (as evidenced so poignantly in Chile); and it is a leading cause of global warming, hastening the planet's demise. But our coal dependency, as Dirty Business explains, is also preventing us from moving forward energy-wise. And the argument that we can make coal "clean" is a well-funded PR strategy to keep coal in the picture, instead of pushing forward technological advances in renewable energies like wind and solar, and designing the smart grid infrastructure to support them.

SOURCE: Dirty Business