Selling ‘clean coal’


in Economics, Politics, Rants, Science, The environment

Milan Ilnyckyj in The Manx pub

In the spirit of the laughable ads from the Competitive Enterprise Institute, there is a new offering from the coal industry. The strategy seems to be shifting from “there is no reason to believe in climate change” to “anything that would harm the fossil fuel industry would cause unacceptable harm to consumers.”

‘Clean coal’ will always be a non-sensical statement, given the environmental damage done by coal mining, the toxic emissions, and greenhouse gasses. Even with carbon sequestration, coal will be a dirty way of generating power. Furthermore, it seems unlikely that coal in combination with carbon capture and storage will be a source of cheap energy. As the cancellation of FutureGen due to cost overruns suggests, clean coal isn’t cheap.

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

. June 2, 2008 at 10:26 am

Nice way of life. Shame if something happened to it.
Posted by David Roberts at 1:27 PM on 31 May 2008

. June 2, 2008 at 1:29 pm

Richard Heinberg: Coal in the United States

“Because the US has the world’s largest coal reserves, it has sometimes been called “the Saudi Arabia of coal.” It is the world’s second-largest coal producer, after China, but surpasses both the number three and four producer nations (India and Australia) by nearly a factor of three.

Wood was this nation’s primary fuel until the mid-1880s, when deforestation necessitated greater reliance on abundant coal resources. Coal then remained America’s main energy source until the 1930s, when it was overtaken by oil. Today coal fuels about 50 percent of US electricity production and provides about a quarter of the country’s total energy.

The US currently produces over a billion tons of coal per year, with quantities increasing annually. This is well over double the amount produced in 1960. However, due to a decline in the average amount of energy contained in each ton of coal produced (i.e., declining resource quality), the total amount of energy flowing into the US economy from coal is now falling, having peaked in 1998. This decline in energy content per unit of weight (also known as “heating value”) amounts to more than 30 percent since 1955. It can partly be explained by the depletion of anthracite reserves and the nation’s increasing reliance on sub-bituminous coal and even lignite, a trend that began in the 1970s. But resource quality is declining even within each coal class.”

. June 2, 2008 at 1:37 pm

” The cost of producing coal is related to the price of oil. Consider the case of Massey Energy Company, the nation’s fourth-largest coal company, which annually produces 40 million tons of coal using about 40 million gallons of diesel fuel—about a gallon per ton (the company also uses lubricants, rubber products, and explosives, all made from petroleum or natural gas). If the price of diesel goes up one dollar, this translates directly to $40 million in increased costs; indirectly related costs also climb.

These costs and prices need to be seen in proportion: while coal generates half of America’s electricity, in effect providing much of the essential basis for all economic activity within the country, US coal industry revenues are only about $25 billion—one-tenth those of WalMart. “

Sarah June 2, 2008 at 3:04 pm

Alas, if the electorate & consumers are fundamentally ignorant of science and moreover do not care, then emotive soundbite politics will win out. I wrote to the UK PM & Transport Secretary yesterday calling for them to promote a transition away from cars instead of reducing car taxes; maybe we should all start writing to governments calling for them to promote renewable energy instead of insisting we navigate between the Scylla and Charybdis of coal and nuclear.

. June 2, 2008 at 4:22 pm
Milan June 2, 2008 at 6:15 pm


In the past, I think governments usually stumbled through the process of technological development: never guiding it and rarely understanding it. Even if most of the policy incentives to be created take the form of things like a price on carbon, asking governments to achieve a transition like this is asking them to do something big and new.

Hopefully, it will prove possible to resist the allure of the short term ‘solution’ and the efforts of various groups to manipulate outcomes that favour them.

Sarah June 3, 2008 at 1:11 am

I don’t know that state intervention in technology is big and new – after all nuclear power in the UK was all about government efforts & employees. Perhaps the problem is that we’ve privatised the power sector & that it is harder to drive new technology by incentivising the private sector than it is by direct state provision.
In some cases (eg. the system for selling power to the grid in BC, which is based around the minimum you can guarentee to provide) just changing the current restrictions on alternative power sources such as wind would be a big help.

. June 3, 2008 at 10:43 am

Where, Oh Where, Have the CCS Projects Gone?

By John Geesman on FutureGen

Two dispatches from the carbon capture theater of the Green Energy War’s climate front make clear that to describe current efforts as being at a standstill might be wildly optimistic.

The Bush Administration’s cancellation of FutureGen in January was a highly publicized fiasco. “Perhaps worse,” says the New York Times, “in the past few months, utility projects in Florida, West Virginia, Ohio, Minnesota and Washington State that would have made it easier to capture carbon dioxide have all been canceled or thrown into regulatory limbo.”

. June 3, 2008 at 11:22 am

This paragraph restates the heart of why conservatives hate climate science. It requires action by government, which, for conservatives, is the same as socialism (again, except when it comes to government action on behalf of the nuclear and fossil fuel industries, which is good ol’ capitalism).

. June 3, 2008 at 1:21 pm

Rio Tinto Says U.S. Must Spend Billions for Clean-Coal Devices

By Jim Efstathiou Jr.

June 2 (Bloomberg) — Rio Tinto Group and U.S. utilities are urging the government to spend $20 billion on a technology they say has the best chance for eliminating pollution linked to global warming.

“The energy companies are lobbying Congress to help create devices that can trap carbon dioxide from coal-fired power plants and bury the gas in underground caverns. Environmental groups, labor unions and members of Congress from coal states say pilot projects won’t begin without U.S. support that is unlikely to come this year…

As the Senate today begins debating the first U.S. curbs on greenhouse gases blamed for climate change, coal companies say they won’t provide most of the money for capture-and-storage technology. The industry has spent “tens of millions of dollars,” on development, and it’s too costly for companies alone to finance, said Rio Tinto Chief Executive Officer for Energy Preston Chiaro.”

. June 9, 2008 at 5:12 pm

The primary function of the proposed new coal-fired power plants in Nevada, as elsewhere, seems to be as a dagger in the chest of renewable energies, by removing the need for them, keeping renewables in their place as boutique, inconsequential competitors. In addition, the coal plants eliminate any need to restructure utility regulations such that utilities could make more money by encouraging energy efficiency, rather than by selling more energy.

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