CLEAN COAL: A COLLAPSE OF CHICANERY?

The U.S. Department of Energy has for the second time decided to terminate its financial support of the attempt to demonstrate carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). The concept of “clean coal” depends on the ability to capture and inactivate or permanently store the carbon dioxide emissions and other contaminants otherwise released when coal is burned to produce electricity.

The following undated statement appears at the very bottom of the FUTUREGEN 2.0 page of the federal government’s energy.gov Office of Fossil Energy website under the banner, CLOSEOUT OF FEDERAL SUPPORT.

“Due to statutory restraints under The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the Department of Energy initiated a structured closeout of federal support for the FutureGen 2.0 project in February 2015. Although federal support for the project has ended, FutureGen 2.0 provided tangible benefits and valuable information, particularly with regard to oxy-combustion technology and storage site characterization.”

It is unclear whether, without continued federal support, FutureGen will continue. Of course it was an open question whether “clean coal” would ever be feasible. Retrofitting existing coal-fired power plants with CCS was an expensive proposition from the beginning. Companies burn coal because it can be obtained without paying the health and environmental costs of mining it, and without paying the health and environmental costs of burning it. In other words, we mine and burn coal to produce electricity because our government has structured the energy industry in such a way that it is cheap to do so.

We could choose to make the energy industry pay those health and environmental costs of coal up front, passing the costs on to consumers of the electricity, or we could avoid some of those health and environmental costs by paying to capture and isolate or destroy the carbon dioxide and other pollutants produced from burning coal. Either choice would turn coal into an expensive and likely unaffordable source of energy, not something that would gladden the hearts of the rich industrial giants burning it.

CCS has been sponsored off and on by the federal government since 2003. It is an open question whether or not CCS would ever have been affordable. It is also an open question whether or not the very concept of “clean coal” was anything more than a wistful oxymoron that those in the know knew would never really happen.

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Kaiparowits coal-burning power plant in Arizona, July 2004

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