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The Clean Coal Myth: Part One- What is Coal and How Is it “Clean"?

written by: Niki Fears•edited by: Niki Fears•updated: 8/28/2009

Understand what coal is, how it forms, and what the techniques are for clean coal technologies.

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    We have all been hearing the propaganda spouted by candidates in both of the major political camps and by radio and television ads funded by the coal industry all pushing and praising the new solution to our energy problems called “clean coal". One of the biggest problems with this is, simply put, there is no such thing as clean coal. In this three part series entitled “The Clean Coal Myth" we evaluate the technologies that are utilized in “clean coal", look at the impact that this will have on the industry, the environment, and global warming, and explore the inherent dangers that make coal a very dirty business.

    What is Coal and Is it Really Abundant?

    We hear the slogans a lot about the abundance of coal and the potential of “clean coal" but to begin to understand this issue we must know what coal actually is and evaluate the “abundance" claims. Coal is the result of plants becoming trapped by a sludge of water and mud that prevents oxidation from occurring which prohibits normal decomposition of the plant matter. Buried under heavy layers of rock over time in which it is exposed to temperatures and high pressure, this matter eventually turns into what we call coal.

    This process takes millions of years in order for coal to form. Given that we are consuming around 1.4 million tons of the black stuff every year it does not take a math whiz to figure out that this is a limited form of energy. With such an excessive rate of consumption over the past few decades the truth is that this is not the “abundant" and endless resource that many on the “clean coal" band wagon are trying to claim that it is.

    What is “Clean Coal"?

    “Clean coal" technology refers to methods of reducing the pollution emitted by coal plants. They do this by using chemicals to filter out some of the more harmful properties of coal through a type of method often referred to as “chemical washing" as well as efforts to capture and store the green house gas emissions that result from burning the coal. Using these methods for their claim of “clean coal" is what the industry is using to fuel the campaign of an “abundant, affordable, and clean" energy source.

    This approach has a number of problems including that it ends up taking more energy, making the plants less efficient, and the cost of building new “clean coal" plants or retrofitting existing plants is rather pricey. And of course, we should realize that big business is not the one that is going to eat that additional cost, it is going to be passed on to the American consumer making energy bills even higher than they already are. And to fully equip all existing and new plants with “clean coal" technology will take ten or more years.

    But to spite the enormous cost and lengthy process, in the end will it make coal a clean and environmentally friendly source of energy? In essence, can we really have clean coal?

    Is Coal “Clean"?

    Coal, which is comprised mostly of carbon and hydrogen, also possesses many polluting elements such as sulfur, making it a very dirty and polluting source of energy. What the “clean coal" proponents are pushing involves using various chemicals to filter out some of these toxins and to use equipment on the smoke stacks to help capture the polluting emissions from the power plants and store that material underground. Even when these techniques are employed successfully they only help to reduce some of the emissions, but they do not completely eliminate them. This means that even the so called clean coal is still polluting our communities and the air we breath while further contributing to the problems of global warming. Coal is; after all, a fossil fuel. In fact is the most polluting of all the fossil fuels even surpassing petroleum and it is one of the leading factors in global warming. Reducing some of these emissions will not change the fact that coal is still the largest contributor of carbon dioxide and other green house gases into our atmosphere. The release of carbon dioxide and methane into the air is not only fueling the problems of global warming but it is also polluting the communities around the plants and factories that utilize coal which can effect the environment and the health of those around them.

    While reducing some of these emissions means that coal might not be making the same impact as it did previously, it is still creating huge problems. It is kind of like trying to say that someone who is only drinking ten glasses of vodka a day instead of twelve is now sober. That does not make any more sense than the myth of clean coal.

The "Clean Coal" Myth-Looking at the Dirty Business of Coal

Is coal really the clean abundant energy source that the propaganda says that it is? This three part series will take a look at coal, the "clean coal" techniques, and the dangers that make coal a dirty business.
  1. The Clean Coal Myth: Part One- What is Coal and How Is it “Clean"?
  2. Health Issues for Coal Miners and In Some Cases - Death
  3. Why Storing Carbon Dioxide Underground Can Not Work