The Myth of Clean Coal

Can coal be clean? Congressman Nick Rahall (D-WV), who has proposed legislation to subsidize “clean coal,” says it can. He thinks the answer to foreign oil dependence is right here at home, buried in West Virginia’s ancient mountains. He envisions $35-a-barrel oil produced from a homegrown resource: abundant coal. With very little prompting, Rahall will tell you that with coal-to-liquid technology we can “revolutionize our way to a new energy era.”

Greenhouse gas emissions won’t be a problem, he says, because the new plants Rahall’s legislation envisions would sequester the carbon dioxide (CO2) so it never reaches the atmosphere. The resulting liquid fuel, he says, will be cleaner than required by the Environmental Protection Agency’s strong Tier II standards.

Sound good? There’s more. Coal executives will tell you we have enough of this fossil fuel in the ground to last up to 450 years, though the National Academy of Sciences recently downgraded that to a mere 100 years. But the coal is all ours. “Imagine a world where our country runs on energy from Middle America instead of the Middle East,” says Peabody Energy, the world’s biggest coal company and a major player in the Southeast.

Coal state politicians have proposed a patchwork of bills that would, among other things, offer billions of dollars in loans for liquid coal plants, support research and insulate coal fuel from price shocks. But even with a very effective lobby, getting this legislation through Congress has so far proven difficult. What’s going on? The money would be well spent if it helps us achieve clean energy independence, right?

Alas, the dirty secret is that “clean coal” is anything but. The process involves heating coal to 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit and mixing it with water to produce a gas, then converting the gas into diesel fuel. Although the industry-sponsored Coal-to-Liquids Coalition says that CO2 emissions from the entire production cycle of liquid coal are “equal to, or slightly below, those of conventional petroleum-derived fuels,” its claims are based on a single federal study, now six years old.

Nick Rahall is all for coal-to-liquid.

Jim Presswood, federal energy advocate of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) says, “Liquid CO2 emissions are twice as much as emissions from conventional petroleum-derived fuels.” He says that even if CO2 emissions are sequestered as part of the process, at best liquid coal would be 12 percent worse than the gasoline equivalent. As some environmentalists have put it, liquid coal can turn any hybrid Prius into a Hummer.

The Washington Post editorialized, “To wean the U.S. off of just one million barrels of the 21 million barrels of crude oil consumed daily, an estimated 120 million tons of coal would need to be mined each year. The process requires vast amounts of water, particularly a concern in the parched West. And the price of a plant is estimated at $4 billion.”

Jim Preswood, NRDC and Erich Pica, Friends of the Earth are not.

The technology to sequester carbon is largely theoretical, and the plants to liquefy it are mostly in South Africa. But even if the process was perfected and burning coal produced zero emissions, liquid coal would still be far from clean.

There are many coal states, however, and their politicians will continue to advance their cause. Erich Pica, director of domestic campaigns at Friends of the Earth, says that several amendments that would have subsidized coal-to-liquid technology were stripped out of the Senate version of the energy bill, but supporters from both parties are very determined to put them back on the table. “It’s an uphill fight for us,” Pica says. “Supporters of coal-to-liquid have an aggressive, proactive agenda and many opportunities to get things done.”

The flipside of the coal lobby’s empty promises and ready cash (the Bush campaign secured $530,560 from coal companies and electric utilities in the 2000 cycle, reports EarthJustice) is the harsh reality of mountaintop removal mining (see main story). This now-standard practice in the Southeast coalfields is efficient only in delivering coal companies windfall profits. It has left an incalculable toll in shattered lives, permanently destroyed environments and polluted groundwater.