Energy. Environment. Economy.

As Election Nears, A New Debate Over ‘Clean Coal’

Imagine a chart tracking U.S. greenhouse gas emissions since 2005.  Do you imagine a line heading up, or down?  It’s down actually.  Emissions are decreasing, thanks to the weak economy, more use of wind and solar power, and the sudden influx of cleaner burning natural gas.

So where does that leave Pennsylvania’s former energy titan, king coal?  If you’re watching TV or riding down the turnpike, you’ll notice the coal industry is working hard to polish its reputation.

These billboards dot Pennsylvania’s roadways.

Remember “clean coal”?   Before natural gas from U.S. shale formations created a glut of cheaper, cleaner burning fuel, the idea of clean coal was all the rage. It made a comeback during last week’s presidential debate, when Mitt Romney said, “And by the way, I like coal. I’m gonna make sure we’re going to be able to burn clean coal.”

So what does Romney mean when he says clean coal? Not what Obama means. And not what Pennsylvania’s former governor Ed Rendell meant when he was in office. Before Rendell became a shale booster, he was a huge fan of clean coal.

He still is. I caught up with him at a green energy conference in Philadelphia recently and asked him about the dream technology that was supposed to turn the dirtiest source of air pollution into a clean and abundant source of energy that would last for 200 years.

“Clean coal is not a myth,” said Rendell. “We can capture carbon during coal production and we can sequester it. We can sequester it in abandoned coal mines, in empty wells, dry wells. What needs to be done is to find a way to do that in an economically feasible way.”

Susan Phillips / StateImpact Pennsylvania

A woman checks out the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity's mobile classroom at the York County Fair, September 2012.

And so far, that’s a pretty tall order. Rendell defines clean coal as “carbon capture and sequestration.”  The goal of carbon capture and sequestration is to grab the carbon dioxide before it gets sent up a smoke stack into the atmosphere, and instead, capture it and inject it deep into the earth where it can’t escape.  President Obama is also a big fan of this experimental technology.

The Department of Energy spent more than $5 billion for carbon capture and sequestration research and demonstration projects since 2008. About half of those dollars came from the economic stimulus package. But so far nothing has born fruit and researchers in the field predict carbon capture is still decades away.

Industry has a different definition of clean coal, which Romney agrees with. When the industry, and Mitt Romney, talk about clean coal, they’re talking about scrubbers, or any technology that currently works to remove a portion of coal’s harmful air pollutants like sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxide, or fine particulates. Those pollutants are known to cause asthma, bronchitis and heart attacks. These are all part of a program that the DOE calls “clean coal technology.” But scrubbers don’t remove carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas.

‘Clean Coal’ Or No Coal?

The coal industry says the president is waging a war on coal. That’s because the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has proposed rules that would limit emissions from new power plants. Natural gas powered plants could easily meet those standards. But coal-fired plants would not, unless they employ carbon capture and sequestration, which again is very expensive and years away from implementation.

That’s why Romney says Obama’s “clean coal” means “no coal.” It’s not that the industry opposes carbon capture and sequestration technology. It’s just that they worry it won’t be economically viable in time to meet the EPA’s new standards. The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity launched a new ad campaign attacking Obama and the EPA.

The ACCCE is also traveling around the country to swing states with an RV that demonstrates its version of clean coal, which are those technologies currently in use. At the York Fair in September, right next door to the world’s smallest horse, and across from the fairground’s livestock barn, the group parked its mobile classroom.

Will Wrobleski took fair-goers on a tour of the ACCCE’s clean coal demonstration. Wrobleski pointed out sample metal screens that collect air pollutants, and a subsequent byproduct, gypsum, which is used to make dry wall.

On one side of the RV was a model of a coal-fired plant in Tampa, called the Polk Power Plant.

Susan Phillips / StateImpact Pennsylvania

Will Wrobleski with the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity takes fair-goers through their mobile classroom.

”Clean Coal technology is an American success story,” said Wrobleski. “Here, this is actually a picture of a plant in Tampa similar to this model over here, it’s called an integrated coal gasification combined cycle plant. And this is one of the cleanest coal-fired power plants in the country.”

The U.S. Department of Energy put up half the money needed to complete this expensive demonstration project in Tampa, which the DOE says removes almost all of the sulfur and nitrogen oxide that normally escapes into the atmosphere. But it does not remove carbon dioxide.

‘To Call It Clean Is Absurd’

That’s why environmentalists hate the term “clean coal.” Joe Minott runs the Clean Air Council, a Philadelphia-based environmental group. Minott says there is no such thing as clean coal.

You can do a lot to reduce emissions,” says Minott. “So certainly a modern plant today using all the very expensive controls will produce a lot less sulfur dioxides, oxides of nitrogen and even mercury than a plant would fifteen or twenty years ago. But to call it clean is absurd.”

While the coal industry points the finger at Obama and new environmental rules, Minott says the real threat to coal is cheap natural gas.

“And the coal industry doesn’t have a clear path on how to compete with natural gas,” says Minott. “So it’s a lot easier to blame the President or the EPA or even crazy environmentalists. When in fact it’s the marketplace that is their enemy.”

So are environmentalists like Minott getting behind natural gas? No.

They point to research, still somewhat controversial, that suggests methane leaks from natural gas production wells, do more to cause global warming than carbon.

Minott would like to redirect the billions of dollars invested in carbon capture technologies, to renewables sources of energy like wind and solar.

But that money may be heading in yet another direction. Carbon capture researchers say the research dollars are now shifting focus toward ways to create cleaner burning natural gas.

The stakes are high. Remember the good news about greenhouse gas emissions heading down? A new report issued this month says to expect that trend to reverse itself.

Climate Central predicts greenhouse gas emissions will start to increase once the economy starts recovering, and natural gas prices start rising again. And this could nudge the door back open for King Coal.


  • truth

    idiots, unicorns and butterflys, he must live in a shack with no electricty.

  • Patrick Henderson

    While coal is, in fact, burned cleaner today than ever before in our nation’s history, Mr. Minott (whose organization acts as if it has a monopoly on the term “environmentalist”) fails to realize the other very and equally important attributes of coal in Pennsylvania. It is domestic. It is abundant. It is affordable. Its development in Pennsylvania – which we have done safely for decades – accounts for thousands of direct jobs and countless other indirect jobs. These are dollars kept right here – in Pennsylvania – not exported overseas to import some distant nation’s energy resources.
    Moreover, this access to affordable, domestic and abundant coal has enabled not only Pennsylvania – but indeed our nation – to build a middle class, and to raise the quality of life for millions of citizens. It’s enhanced our national security and energy independence.
    No nation will develop and use its coal resources more safely and with more respect for the environment than the United States. Elected leaders who recognize this – and celebrate these realities rather than apologize for them – best serve the interests of Pennsylvanians.
    Patrick Henderson, Energy Executive
    Office of Gov. Tom Corbett

    • Joe Minott –Clean Air Council

      Mr. Henderson is right on each point he makes (except that the Clean Air Council acts as if it has a monopoly on the term environmentalist). This does change my premise that there is no such thing as clean coal. Coal from extraction to being used as a fuel source has real and severe environmental impacts. We can still meet Mr. Henderson’s goals of Pennsylvania job creation and energy independence by making investments in energy efficiency, solar and wind. This should be our highest priority. Furthermore, we should be able to discuss these issues with no name calling. Are you up for the challenge Mr. Henderson?

  • Eric Jones

    There are two reasons coal is suffering lack of demand today. First, the EPA MACT rules are pushing electricity generators to close coal fired plants rather than upgrade their scrubbers and second, natural gas is currently less expensive per btu than coal. Coal will have its place as an energy source when its cost per btu becomes attractive again. It will become even more attractive if carbon sequestration technologies can be developed to capture the CO2 emmisions from burning it. I do believe that natural gas (methane) is currently more harmful to our environment as a green house gas than the carbon emitted from burning coal. Methane shrinkage from the well head to the end user is anywhere from 7% to 15% depending on how it is measured and who is measuring it. Alternatives such as wind and solar can offset some today’s carbon emmisions but we’re not going to reverse the environmental effects of burning fossil fuels until they become more expensive to acquire than alternatives and, until new technologies shrink the carbon footprint of manufacturing current alternative energy sources (these sources become more efficient). So our world is in store for more of the effects of climate change that is directly linked to carbon emmissions for the forseeable future, short of some miracle new technology. Enjoy the weather!

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