The Coal Quandary

By Keith Kloor | March 27, 2014 3:44 pm

In the late 2000s, the notion of “clean coal” was widely panned. As Bryan Walsh wrote in a 2009 Time piece:

currently there’s no economical way to capture and sequester carbon emissions from coal, and many experts doubt there ever will be.

Critics in the Guardian and elsewhere dismissed “clean coal” as industry greenwash. But such broad denunciations conveniently ignored the billions of dollars the U.S. federal government (under President Obama) had poured into what is known as carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology. So while the term “clean coal” may well be a misnomer, people should be aware that the U.S. Department of Energy has a slew of projects it categorizes as “clean coal research.”

In a 2010 feature for The Atlantic, James Fallows laid out the rationale for decarbonizing coal: It remained a cheap, abundant and widely-used energy source and will continue to be so “for a very long time.” He also surveyed the state of clean coal technology, which led him to China. Fallows reported:

In the search for “progress on coal,” like other forms of energy research and development, China is now the Google, the Intel, the General Motors and Ford of their heyday—the place where the doing occurs, and thus the learning by doing as well. “They are doing so much so fast that their learning curve is at an inflection that simply could not be matched in the United States,” David Mohler of Duke Energy told me.

Fallows took the idea of clean coal seriously because the Chinese–who rely on coal–were investing hugely in the technology to make it cleaner. And they seemed to be making strides. But as I noted in a 2012 piece for Slate, many people were still snickering:

Chris Rock recently joked on Twitter that “clean coal is kinda like clean porn.” Several years ago, a Washington Post op-ed scoffed: “Never was there an oxymoron more insidious, or more dangerous to our public health.”

Today, some heavyweights in the media are looking past this ridicule and again taking a close look at clean coal. The delicacy of such an effort is obvious in the National Geographic story published in the magazine’s April issue. The author Michelle Nijhuis starts off her piece this way:

Environmentalists say that clean coal is a myth. Of course it is: Just look at West Virginia, where whole Appalachian peaks have been knocked into valleys to get at the coal underneath and streams run orange with acidic water. Or look at downtown Beijing, where the air these days is often thicker than in an airport smoking lounge. Air pollution in China, much of it from burning coal, is blamed for more than a million premature deaths a year. That’s on top of the thousands who die in mining accidents, in China and elsewhere.

The point being, coal is a killer, so let’s not gussy it up with new language and technological enhancements. The important question, Nijhuis writes,

isn’t whether coal can ever be “clean.” It can’t. It’s whether coal can ever be clean enough—to prevent not only local disasters but also a radical change in global climate.

Indeed, that’s an important premise to explore for a story on the progress of “clean coal.”  Read the rest of her piece to find out if that big question can be answered.

Charles Mann, writing in the current issue of Wired, also takes a fresh look at the state of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology. His deep dive feature has a theme similar to the 2010 Fallows piece in The Atlantic, which was framed around the imperative of climate change and the reality of global energy demand. Here’s what we in journalism call the nut-graph in Mann’s piece:

Many energy and climate researchers believe that CCS is vital to avoiding a climate catastrophe. Because it could allow the globe to keep burning its most abundant fuel source while drastically reducing carbon dioxide and soot, it may be more important—though much less publicized—than any renewable-energy technology for decades to come. No less than Steven Chu, the Nobel-winning physicist who was US secretary of energy until last year, has declared CCS essential. “I don’t see how we go forward without it,” he says.

As the title of Mann’s piece indicates, renewable energy in of itself is not considered a viable near-term solution for climate change. (Such was also the position of the 2010 Fallows article.) This will likely sour some greens to Mann’s piece, which would be a shame. For it is a rigorously reported, engaging narrative on the tantalizing promise of clean coal.

My takeaway from the just-published Wired and National Geographic pieces: The race to avert potentially catastrophic climate change while still meeting the world’s surging energy demand is still on.

  • mememine

    Deny this; you remaining climate blame “believers” are exaggerating science’s 32 year old consensus of 95% certainty and nothing beyond “could be” so don’t tell children that science “believes” as much as you “believers” do. The real crime wasn’t just exaggerating a consensus of nothing, it was the very act of trying so hard to believe in this misery for billions of innocent children. Real planet lovers are happy a crisis for the planet was thankfully a tragic exaggeration, all be it committed by you “believers”.

    Former “believers” are better planet lovers. We don’t issue CO2 death threats just to make sure the kids turn the lights out more often.

    • CB

      Scientists have known CO₂ warms planets for almost 200 years, not 32!

      Why haven’t you learned this fact yet?

      If the climate crisis is exaggerated, name a single previous point in Earth’s history polar ice caps were able to withstand levels of CO₂ as high as we have today.

      If such a point existed, why hasn’t a single person been able to name it?

      • JH

        “name a single previous point in Earth’s history polar ice caps were able to withstand levels of CO₂ as high as we have today.”

        You’re livin’ in it!

        • CB

          “This morning” does not count as a previous point in geological history.

          How could you possibly be too stupid to understand that?

          Try again: Name a single point before 1750CE that polar ice caps were able to withstand levels of CO₂ like we have today.

          If polar ice caps can withstand levels of CO₂ so high, why can’t you find a single example of a time that they did?

          If you were interested in your own self-preservation, why haven’t you bothered looking?

          • JH

            “If polar ice caps can withstand levels of CO₂ so high, why can’t you find a single example of a time that they did?”

            Because ice caps only form when there are large land masses near the poles, and when these large land masses are near the poles the natural production of CO2 falls dramatically? :)

            “How could you possibly be too stupid to understand that?”

            Maybe you missed the joke. Ever think of that?

          • CB

            “Because ice caps only form when there are large land masses near the poles”

            The extensive sea ice that used to cover the Arctic ocean says, “HUH!?” o_O

            “Maybe you missed the joke. Ever think of that?”

            Maybe I did. Explain to me what is humourous about suicidal ideation.

            If this isn’t what you suffer from, why is there still no point in time in your post?

          • JH

            “suicidal ideation.”

            LOL!!! :)

          • CB

            Yes, what is humourous about self-destructive tendencies?

            Why do you find them funny?

          • JH

            “Yes, what is humourous about self-destructive tendencies?”

            It’s humorous that you believe in what doesn’t exist.

          • CB

            What is the thing I believe in that doesn’t exist?

            Be specific.

          • JH

            LOL! :)

          • CB

            So you’re backing up your claim with laughter?

            Is that nervous laughter?

            What besides mental illness might be keeping you from sharing the ideas in your little head?

          • JH

            “If you were interested in your own self- preservation, why haven’t you bothered looking?”

            Oh I’ve looked. And because I AM interested in both my self preservation and the preservation of modern society, I strongly oppose carbon controls.

            You will too when you grow up.

          • CB

            … and what did you find?

            Did you find an example of polar ice caps persisting with levels of CO₂ like we have today?

            Did you think the agriculture you depend on for survival doesn’t depend on those polar ice caps?

      • JohnM

        If you are so certain then why claim the argument is about the uncontentious point that CO₂ is a greenhouse gas rather than about the feedback effects?

        A doubling of CO₂ produces about 1 degree of warming (other effects ignored). Feedback such as changes in albedo are claimed to increase this up to 6 degrees of warming (some claim even higher). Feedback is the major part of the increase and so, the important part of the argument. Why are you trying to misdirect people?

        • CB

          lol! Did you think there was an argument about climate science?

          The argument long ago stopped being about climate science. It is now about what would cause so many people to willfully ignore threats to their well-being. I say it’s suicidal ideation.

          What do you think?

          (…and yes, Climate Deniers do deny that CO₂ causes planetary warming. They do it all the time.)

          • JH

            LOL for sure. You’ve missed the entire argument in climate science.

          • CB

            Okay, so explain it to me.

            If there really were an argument amongst climate scientists, isn’t this something you should be able to do?

          • JH

            The potential for CO2-driven warming to cause significant problems for society depends entirely on the magnitude of feedback amplification.

            From the perspective of “self-preservation” (as you put it), there is only one question: how large are the feedback effects from CO2-driven warming?

            At the moment, the answer appears to be “not all that large”. In other words, while warming will continue, it won’t be significant enough to cause major social disruption.

            If there is any serious cause for social concern, it’s that nutter AGW activists will succeed in enacting policies that slow economic growth and development, especially in the developing world.

            Economic growth leads to lower population growth, better living conditions and better environmental stewardship. It’s the only way forward, and it’s the only thing that ever has or will improve society.

          • Kyle Mitchell

            Debate essentially ended with the most recent IPCC report. Now is the time for action.

          • JH

            “Now is the time for action.”

            LOL!!! :) Maybe you should read that report.

          • CB

            Does the report name a single previous point in Earth’s history polar ice caps were able to withstand levels of CO₂ like we have today?

            If you’re such a skeptic, why would you take the IPCC at face value? Why wouldn’t you think they aren’t being cautious enough?

            If we aren’t headed on a path to complete polar meltdown and sea level rise of 246 feet, why can’t you name a point in Earth’s history ice caps were able to withstand levels of CO₂ so high?

            Why are you babbling unsupported nonsense about feedback loops and economic growth instead?

            How do you expect an economy to thrive under 246 feet of water?

          • JH

            “Why are you babbling unsupported nonsense about feedback loops and economic growth instead?”

            Because feedback loops are what controls temperature, and economic growth is what controls human well being.

          • CB

            Money controls well-being!?

            Can you eat money?

            Hmmmmm…

            If “feedback loops” are a stronger driver of Earth’s temperature than CO₂, name a single previous point in Earth’s history that “feedback loops” caused polar ice caps to form with levels of CO₂ like we have today.

            Why haven’t you done that already?

          • JH

            Thanks for the laughs! :)

            jh

          • CB

            What was humourous about what I said?

            What’s the point of expressing your opinion at all if you refuse to explain it?

          • Kyle Mitchell

            The report makes it clear that humans the main factor in global warming, and have been since 1950. They recommend immediate action to avoid the worst effects of global warming. The research cited in that report ialso ncreases the level of certainty to about 95% on many of the issues. Thankfully policy isn’t made based on the uneducated opinions of climate change deniers who got suckered in by the big oil companies and the scientists they have in their pockets.

          • JH

            “Thankfully policy isn’t made based on the uneducated opinions of climate change deniers who got suckered in by the big oil companies and the scientists they have in their pockets.”

            I’m even more thankful policy isn’t controlled by AGW nutters.

          • CB

            I’m glad Kyle brought this up, because I think it’s an important point.

            There is an argument that Climate Deniers are being mislead by fossil fuel company propaganda, but I don’t think this really explains the kind of mentally ill behaviour most Climate Deniers exhibit.

            I think Climate Deniers are suffering from a self-destructive mental disease.

            How could you possibly be as stupid as you’re pretending to be?

            If you didn’t suffer from self-destructive urges, why aren’t you able to calculate the likelihood of something that would affect you so profoundly?

            Give me another explanation for your behaviour.

  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    Acid mine drainage is neutralized and stoppered with Bayer process aluminum red mud. Two problems, one solution. Thermodynamics demands “carbon capture” and sequestration consume at least 30% of energy generated by any combustion power plant. /_PV = energy, 101.325 J/liter-atmosphere. Real world inefficiencies make that ~50%. All sequestration reservoirs are warmer than 31 C, CO2’s critical temperature. They will all leak.

    Massively plant gene-gineered forests (better RuBisCO, more lignin) and sequester carbon as wood frame dwellings. Swap lies for profits.

    http://www.climate4you.com/images/MSU%20RSS%20GlobalMonthlyTempSince1979%20AndCO2.gif

  • Raymond Del Colle

    it is time to make the big switch from fossil fuels to renewables … “Temperatures and sea levels are rising faster than many models said they would. If anything, climate models underestimate future change.” http://clmtr.lt/c/EVM0BaX0cMJ

    • JH

      “Temperatures and sea levels are rising faster than many models said
      they would. If anything, climate models underestimate future change.”

      Except that they aren’t and they don’t.

      Models have to overestimate temp to reproduce Arctic ice melt; hence, the causes of Arctic ice melt aren’t properly represented in the models.

      The time to make the “big switch” will be when renewables are cost competitive.

  • Viva La Evolucion

    I believe that “clean coal” as a method of energy generation is similar to GMO herbicide tolerant crops as method of weed control – in that they are both examples of high tech science being used to improve the way we either produce energy or kill weeds. But neither can genuinely be called “clean”, as clean coal results in burning of millions of tons of coal per year, just as herbicide tolerant crops result in spraying of millions of tons of herbicide every year. I would say they are both a step forward, but I don’t consider either of them a long term solution. I am more interested in scientific research that involves more environmentally friendly, sustainable, and long term solutions to problems like energy and weed control.

    • JH

      No energy source will ever be “clean.”

      Large solar developments, for example, are more damaging than oil fields to existing habitat. They permanently destroy large chunks of habitat, while oil fields are a) temporary; and b) have very localized impacts.

      • CB

        How might a solar panel on an existing rooftop “permanently destroy large chunks of habitat”?

  • JH

    Mann has a good piece, but the multiple repetition of unlikely climate disaster scenarios gives it a bit of a cartoonish edge.

    • CB

      … and why would you think climate disaster is unlikely?

      If you understand polar ice caps have never before in Earth’s history been able to withstand levels of CO₂ so high, why would you expect them to today?

  • Dante Alighieri

    By all means, coal should be readily available, for the homes, schools, and businesses of those who think it can ever be “clean”, Dickens and Twain Love this earthbound foolishness.

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Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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