A squabble about “clean coal” has broken among the presidential candidates. Neither side has leveled with voters.
Democratic vice presidential candidate Joe Biden kicked off the controversy in September when he commented at an Ohio campaign stop that, “We’re not supporting clean coal.” He then had to back track since Barack Obama supports clean coal, as he reiterated in last week’s second presidential debate. Then, at a rally in Scranton, Pa. this week, Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin jumped in the fray saying that, “So whether Joe Biden approves it or not, John McCain is going to develop clean coal technology here in America…”
It’s a lot of hot air about an idea that is unlikely to go anywhere fast.
The “clean coal” debate is about air emissions from power plants that burn coal to generate electricity. Nowadays when the candidates talk about “clean coal,” they’re not talking so much about power plant emissions of particulate matter (soot), sulfur dioxide (SOX) and nitrogen oxide (NOX) so much as they are that great global warming boogeyman, carbon dioxide (CO2). When the candidates say they support “clean coal,” they’re talking about technologies that would capture CO2 emissions before they are emitted into the air and then store them permanently underground. The shorthand for this process is “carbon capture and storage.”
But the technology for simply capturing carbon dioxide isn't ready for prime time and won’t be anytime soon — if ever — on the sort of commercial scale that would need to occur for it to make any sense. The main problem is cost. The most promising technology for CO2 capture is called IGCC (Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle). But the cost of building a power plant with IGCC technology to capture 90 percent of the CO2 generated is 47 percent higher than that for traditional power plant, according to a July 2006 study by the EPA.
Capturing CO2 imposes a cost amounting to about $24 per ton. At the largest U.S. power plant which emits about 25 million tons of CO2 annually, the extra cost would be $600 million per year. For all U.S. coal-fired power plants, which emit a total of more than 2.2 billion tons annually, the cost would be a staggering $52 billion per year. Passing along the capital and operating costs to consumers would raise electricity prices by almost 40 percent according to the EPA. And since the EPA is not known for overestimating costs, the actual cost is likely to be much higher and even more difficult to pass on to consumers.
So it’s no wonder that private investors have shunned IGCC technology, forcing its promoters to rely on government subsidies. But even those are vanishing. Earlier this year, the deep-pocketed federal government pulled out of the FutureGen project — a pilot effort to build and operate the first zero-emissions, coal-fired power plant — because of cost.
Capturing CO2 is hardly the end of the game, however. The gas has to be stored somewhere, after all. But where would you store the approximately 1.2 trillion cubic meters of CO2 produced annually produced by the nation’s coal-fired power plants?
Underground geological repositories, like saline formations and depleted oil and gas fields are being considered. But it’s not at all clear that these potential repositories could reliably hold vast and ever-increasing amounts of CO2 forever without leaking and without polluting surrounding groundwater. CO2 leaching into groundwater would acidify it. Then there’s the possibility of explosion. In August 1986, a natural formation of CO2 under Cameroon’s Lake Nyos exploded killing hundreds of people.
If repositories are identified, we’d need a nationwide network of pipelines to pump the CO2, oftentimes, hundreds of miles from power plants. This would be a massive project that would cost hundreds of billions of dollars factoring in the acquisition of rights of way, construction, operations, maintenance and environmental monitoring costs.
Keep in mind that much energy would be needed to pump CO2 long distances through pipelines which would have to be kept dry to prevent corrosion and leak-free to prevent groundwater pollution requiring expensive cleanup. Rest assured that environmentalists and trial lawyers would be monitoring for leaks.
Past the cost and technical challenges, there’s the public acceptance problem. A July 2008 report from the Congressional Research Service concluded that CO2 pipelines and storage may give local communities much gas.
Even if all the aforementioned problems were solved, perhaps the most daunting obstacle remains — the Greens. One of the most powerful special interest lobbies of our time, the Greens don’t like coal even if it is “clean.” Obama endorser and Natural Resources Defense Counsel attorney Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., for example, says that “there is no such thing as clean coal.” He alleges that the “true costs” of coal include “dead forests and sterilized lakes from acid rain, poisoned fisheries in 49 states and children with damaged brains and crippled health from mercury emissions, millions of asthma attacks and lost work days and thousands dead annually from ozone and particulates.” An e-mail alert from Greenpeace ahead of this week’s final presidential debate called clean coal a “myth” since coal mining “destroys mountains and forests and pollutes America.”
The irony is that coal — which is used to provide about one-half of our electricity — is already burned cleanly and safely in the U.S. with existing pollution control equipment and enforcement of government regulations, regardless of what hysterical Greens claim. There is no credible evidence to the contrary.
So beware of politicians talking about “clean coal” — it’s just another promise they couldn’t keep even if they tried.