"Clean coal" is not an actual invention, a physical thing – it is an advertising slogan. Like "fat-free donuts" or "interest-free loans."
Several years ago, in Gillette, Wyoming, I fell into a long conversation with the vice-president of alarge American coal company about coal's public image problem. Gillette is inthe center of the Powder River Basin, the epicenter of the coal boom in America, where 60 foot seams of coal lay just below the surface.
This vice president, who did not want his name to appear in print, was deeply concerned about coal's future and expressed frustration with environmental attacks on coal, suggesting that it was all a problem of perception: "People don't like coal because it's black," he told me.
"If it were white, all our problems would be solved."
Whenever one of those slick ads for "clean coal" pops up on CNN, I think about that conversation in Gillette. The $35 million "clean coal" campaign, spearheaded by a coal industry front group called American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (formerly known as Americans for BalancedEnergy Choices), is nothing less than a nationwide effort to paint coal white.
And to the coal industry's credit, they're doing a pretty good job."Clean coal" is touted by Republicans and Democrats alike as the solution to America's energy troubles.
The logic is simple: America has lots of coal. We are a technologically advanced society. Ergo, we can clean up coal. What's the problem?
Well, here's one: "clean coal" is not an actual invention, a physical thing – it is an advertising slogan. Like "fat-free donuts" or "interest-free loans," "clean coal" is a phrase that embodies the Bush-era faith that there is an easy answer for every hard question in America today. We can have a war in Iraq without sacrifice. We can borrow more than we can afford without worrying about how we'll pay it back. We can end our dependency on oil by powering our SUVs with ethanol made from corn. And we can keep the lights on without superheating the climate through the magic of "clean coal."
Here's another: mining and burning coal remains one of the most destructive things human beings do on this earth. It destroys mountains, poisons water, pollutes the air, and warms the atmosphere. True, if you look at it strictly from the point of view smog-producing chemicals like sulfur dioxide, new coal plants are cleaner than the old coal burners of yore. But going from four bottles of whiskey a week down to three does not make you clean and sober.
Of course, the "clean coal" campaign is not about reality – it's about perception. It's an exercise in re-branding. Madison Ave. did it for Harley Davidson motorcycles and Converse shoes. Why not Old King Coal?
It's not a difficult trick – just whip out some slick ads with upbeat music and lots of cool 21st century technology like fighter jets and computers. Run the ads long enough, and people will believe.
But the real goal of the campaign is not simply to re-brand coal as a clean and modern fuel – it's to convince energy-illiterate TV viewers that the American way of life depends on coal. The ads remind us (accurately) that half the electricity in America comes from coal, then shows images of little girls getting tucked into bed at night or Little Leaguers playing ball under the lights.
The subtext is not simply that, without the electricity from coal, the lights will go out and your family will be plunged into darkness. It's that, without coal, civilization as we know it will come to an end. As one utility industry executive asked me while I was reporting Big Coal, "Have you ever been in a blackout? Do you remember how scary it was?"
From the coal industry's point of view, this is a brilliant way to frame the argument. If the choice is, coal or chaos, they win. This framing also disarms environmental arguments – yes, it's too bad that mountaintop removal mining has destroyed or polluted 1200 miles of streams in Appalachia and that the Environmental Protection Agency projects a loss of more than 1.4 millionacres – an area the size of Delaware – by the end of the decade.
But hey, if it's a choice between losing flattening West Virginia and keeping our lights on, good-bye West Virginia!
That's a false choice, of course.
The coal industry may not want to acknowledge it, but we're living in the 21st century now. We have indeed figured out other ways to generate electricity besides burning out 30 million year old rocks. And with each passing year, those alternatives are getting cheaper and smarter.
Wind is already less expensive than coal in many parts of the country, and so is large-scale solar thermal. Google is exploring enhanced geothermal. The creaky old electricity grid will soon morph into a system that looks more like the internet, driving big gains in efficiency and allowing for real-time pricing of a kilowatt of power.
This does not that mean we can shut down coal plants tomorrow. But it does mean that coal is no longer the engine of civilized life as it has been since the industrial revolution.
Big Coal is best understood as a beast of inertia, pushed along by hundreds of billions of dollars worth of heavy metal infrastructure, and kept on track by an army of lobbyists, and our own ignorance of what goes on behind the light switch.
That may be changing.
Even seven year-olds know that the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, especially carbon dioxide, is warming the planet. Coal is by farthe most carbon-intensive of fossil fuels, with roughly twice the carbon content as natural gas.
Right now in the U.S., there is no financial cost to dumping CO2 into the atmosphere. That’s likely to change during the next administration. Big Coal is fighting for loopholes and safety valves to keep CO2 costs low, because if legislation passes that actually puts a serious price on CO2, coal's reign as a "cheap" energy source is officially over.
Big Coal believes they have solution for CO2. It's called carbon capture and storage. In most scenarios, capturing and storing CO2 from coal involves building a new kind of power plant that uses heat and pressure to gasify the coal, instead of burning it. In these new plants, the CO2 can be removed, compressed into an oil-like fluid, then injected underground in abandoned gas and oil wells or deep saline aquifers.
Big Coal says that capturing and storing CO2 from these new coal plants is a slam-dunk technology -- but one that's not quite ready for prime time yet (capturing CO2 from existing combustion coal plants, while possible, is expensive and cuts the electricity output of the plant by as much as 30 percent).
Of course, Big Coal has always been better at touting new technology than actually deploying it. Yes, there are serious questions about how much it will cost to build new coal plants that can capture and store CO2, how soon will it happen, and whether or not the technology can scale up quickly enough to really make a difference. But it's not technology that's holding back CCS. It's politics. Without a price on carbon, there is little incentive to do anything serious about CO2 emissions from coal plants. Indeed, for Big Coal, the game now is not to prove that carbon capture and storage is a viable technology. It's to use the expense and complexity of it as leverage in negotiations over climate legislation.
Meanwhile, the need to reduce CO2 emissions grows more urgent every year. As NASA climatologist James Hansen has repeatedly pointed out, continuing to burn coal the old-fashioned way is a sure-fire way to melt Greenland and turn Miami into an aquarium.
In the end, the "clean coal" campaign is about using the tools of the 21st century to keep us locked in the 19th century. Like other greenwashing campaigns, it's about using the iconography of sexy technology and down-home Americana to maintain the status quo.
These campaigns always pretend to offer inspiration about we can do in America if we set our minds and hearts to it, but in fact the real message is what we can't do: we can't power America without coal, we can't keep our lights on without destroying Appalachia, and most important of all, we can't pass meaningful carbon legislation without wrecking the American economy.
This is why the false promise of "clean coal" is dangerous.
The goal is not to solve our problems, but to perpetuate our addiction. In one ad, the narrator even adopts the feel-good language of substance abuse and recovery: cleaning up coal is a "big challenge," he explains,"but we've made a commitment – a commitment to clean."
After decades of stoking the engines of denial and obfuscation on global warming, it's nice that Big Coal wants to be a good citizen. But just because your pusher decides to shower and shave, don't delude yourself into thinking that he cares about your welfare.
His real goal is to keep you hooked.
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