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Clean Coal Myths

By Eytan Krasilovsky
December 28, 2008
File under: Carbon Emissions, Climate Change, Electric Sources


Watching TV lately there are mixed messages regarding the very abundant and cheap non-renewable resource, coal. Coal, originally plant matter, is geologically stored carbon. This formerly atmosphere-biosphere carbon was stored hundreds of millions of years ago in geologic sediment.

One set of TV commercials would have the viewers believe that coal is now pollution free and climate change friendly. The other camp of commercials tries to cleverly debunk that claim.

A few facts about coal and the way we use it are needed to get to the center of this issue.

1. The US and the world use a lot of coal making it the largest source of energy in the world. Likewise coal use is the largest source of greenhouse gas carbon dioxide.
2. There are many types of coal stored beneath the earth’s surface but all release pollutants when burned. In the US all of these pollutants are now regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency to protect human and environmental health.
3. When coal emissions are not regulated, human and ecological health of vast regions suffer enormously (China effectively turned off huge areas of coal electricity production during the Olympics this summer to improve air quality).
4. Coal uses a lot of clean water
5. Coal is plentiful and cheap.
6. The extraction of coal from the earth is polluting and hazardous to humans and the environment.
7. Experts expect coal use to continue and expand in the coming decades.

With that in mind, the coal industry has set out to sway public opinion using insincere techniques and claims. Coal is not clean but the immediate negative effects (smog, mercury, heavy metals) to human health and the environment can be minimized with government regulation. Technologies to capture and store the greenhouse gases emitted by coal burning are in their infancy and by all accounts are a long way from effectively mitigating coal’s massive contribution of greenhouse gases to global climate change. Even with these technologies to store the carbon and clean the smokestacks, coal extraction remains an environmental problem in itself.

TV has shown us that both sides can generate slick advertising and confound the public. The “clean coal” buzzword has even been used by President-elect Obama. How will coal fit into the Obama Presidency’s green initiative? I hope at a minimum, the massive government investments that would be needed to make coal carbon storage a reality don’t outweigh investments in clean and green renewables.

Additional Information:
Excellent report detailing how the world is committed to coal:

Credible information about the advances and limits of carbon storage and sequestration from coal emissions:

The Government Accountability Offices recent report on the topic:

The counterpoint in the media to the coal industries efforts:

Click here to learn more about the Cap and Trade system.

Comments (6) Email Link
  1. Clean Coal Energy
    January 23, 2009 4am UTC

    There is no such thing like clean coal…But pump the CO2 back down into the earth into geologically stable one part of the clean coal technology..and is a solution for global warming..

  2. Geoff
    February 13, 2009 2pm UTC

    i have to agree- I don’t know how we can be sure the CO2 won’t bubble up at some point in the future.

  3. Clean Coal Energy
    February 16, 2009 5am UTC

    Frankly speaking burning coal is still the leading source of global warming pollution

  4. Immadashellandnotgoingtotakeitanymore
    February 27, 2009 4pm UTC

    If you feel that way, trade in your cars for bikes and get rid of everything electronic in your house, including the computer you wrote your comments on.

  5. Donald Wead
    April 9, 2009 11am UTC

    If you believe there is anything “CLEAN” about processing Coal,you nead to drive through a area where coal is being processed!Actually you need to walk through the processing area! IF! You will be alowed to get close enough to see what their processing involves where it comes out of the groung!

  6. Dr Doug L. Hoffman
    October 7, 2009 10pm UTC

    The search for ways to reduce carbon emissions has led to government grant money for schemes ranging from promising to wacky. Recognizing that there is no currently viable replacement for fossil fuels, with the possible exception of nuclear power, the US and other countries with large coal deposits are desperately looking for ways to continue burning coal without incurring the wrath of nature or the IPCC. Clear evidence of the seriousness of this effort is evident in this week’s special edition of Science, dedicated to carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology.


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