West Virginia Blue:: Does “Clean Coal” make economic sense?

An excellent post by Clem Guttata over at West Virginia Blue. The short answer to the question is Hell No, coal aint economical and its tearing up our mountains, time to move on!

Does “Clean Coal” make economic sense?

by: Clem Guttata

Sun Dec 13, 2009 at 18:08:43 PM EST

By Clem GuttataI posted a version of this diary at DailyKos on Saturday morning. Thank you to everyone who engaged in a constructive dialogue on the topic there and on Facebook over the weekend.

If you’re not really sure what “Clean Coal” is, that’s easily forgiven. Clean Coal has meant a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Many decades ago, one enterprising company sold “clean coal” that burned with less smoke in your home heating furnace. Today, the term usually refers to carbon capture and storage (CCS) or coal-to-liquid fuel (CTL).

The Obama administration and leading figures in Congress are still pushing for tens of billions of dollars of investments in “cleaner coal.” With a pause in consideration on the energy and climate change legislation, it’s a good time to ask… just what we would we get in return for that investment?


For those who like to cut to the chase, here’s the short answer. Carbon capture and storage is risky and expensive. Coal to liquid only makes sense if you ignore carbon emissions or if expect we’ll lose access to foreign sources of oil. But, read on. There’s another major challenge you probably aren’t aware of.

As a starting point, read what James B. Meigs writes in Popular Mechanics, “The Myth of Clean Coal: Analysis”

Sadly, although it might make little economic or scientific sense, the political logic behind clean coal is overwhelming. Coal is mined in some politically potent states-Illinois, Montana, West Virginia, Wyoming-and the coal industry spends millions on lobbying. The end result of the debate is all too likely to resemble Congress’s corn-based ethanol mandates: legislation that employs appealing buzzwords to justify subsidies to a politically favored constituency-while actually worsening the problem it seeks to solve.

The Meigs piece is good at laying out the basics of carbon capture and storage, but an even more detailed look at the economics is provided by Richard Heinberg, writing for the Solutions Journal. (All emphasis in quotes is mine.)

The “clean coal” argument runs like this: America is brimming with cheap coal, which provides almost half our electricity and is the most carbon-intensive of the conventional fossil fuels. The nation will need an enormous amount of energy over the next few decades, but renewable sources just aren’t ready to provide all-or even the bulk-of that energy. Meanwhile, preventing catastrophic climate change requires that we stop venting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. It is possible to capture and store the CO2 that would otherwise be emitted from burning coal, and elements of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology are already in use on a small scale. Put all of these factors together and the case for government funding of research and development of “clean coal” seems strong.However, several recent studies of US coal supplies suggest that much that we think we know about coal is wrong. If these studies are correct, the argument for investing in “clean coal” becomes tenuous on economic grounds alone. These studies call into question the one “fact” that both pro-coal and anti-coal lobbies have taken for granted: that the US has a virtually limitless supply of cheap coal.

Back in April, Democrat Rep. Nick Rahall (WV-03), spoke to this unpleasant truth. He noted “the state’s most productive coal seams likely will be exhausted in 20 years.” The backlash from in-state coal interests was strong. Rahall has not spoken about coal supplies since, and for that brief moment of truth his consequence is a coal-industry funded primary challenger.

USGS Chapter H Figure 11 on Flickr

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