Clothesline in Winter

Clothesline in Winter

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Big Coal Pulls the Plug on “Clean Coal”

In this morning’s news, we read that a major American utility is cancelling the country’s most prominent effort to capture CO2 from a coal-burning power plant. 

Stacks at WV's Mountaineer plant
American Electric Power has decided to table plans to build a full-scale carbon-capture plant at Mountaineer, a 31-year-old coal-fired plant in West Virginia, where the company has successfully captured and buried carbon dioxide in a small pilot program for two years.  (Read more here.)

We all knew (didn’t we?) that this would happen.  I predicted it last October in a post on the cleverly-named “Clean Coal” ads.  Carbon capture has been the centerpiece of this huge advertising campaign.  We’ve all seen them on TV: “Clean Coal; America’s Power.”

Here’s the typical ad copy: “I believe in the future,” declares an elderly woman, with the refrain picked up by a bright young man.  They are joined by other actors telling us that they also believe – in protecting the environment, in energy independence, in technology, and in limiting greenhouse gases.  But then comes the core advertising message:

Coal industry's $40 million "Clean Coal" add campaign
New technology permits us to affordably limit greenhouse gas emissions from America’s most abundant fuel: Coal.”

Last October, I posted a blog to clear the smog away from this cheery – and deceptive – message.  In brief:

Coal is the dirtiest fuel on the planet.  The burning of coal emits more sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, mercury, particulates and CO2 than any other fuel.
Carbon capture isn’t being used for commercial-scale electric utility plants anywhere in the world. Not one of 600 U.S. coal-fired commercial-scale electric power plants captures and stores any significant amount of CO2
Electricity from coal with carbon capture is not cheap at all.  According to the U. N. panel, carbon capture and storage costs would increase the cost of electricity from a new coal-fired power plant by up to 91%.
But the coal industry is spending $40 million on the “Clean Coal” ad campaign, plus another $30 million per year on lobbying, to keep the “Clean Coal” fig leaf in place. 

With carbon capture, coal energy costs more than most renewables
The Clothesline Report warned that not one coal company would ever invest in commercial-scale carbon capture unless carbon pollution came with a price tag.  I had no idea my point would be proven so quickly.  Congress has killed all efforts to include the cost of environmental pollution from coal-burning.  (We pollute now for free! Someone else pays later, or elsewhere.)

And now, with their political backers assuring that they’ll never have to pay for their pollution, the coal industry has killed their poster-child cleanup project.

With the loss of the nascent clean coal project, U.S. technology companies have lost their chance to develop commercial technology to capture carbon. (Read here about remaining U.S. carbon capture projects.)  In a few years, when the ravages of climate change make climate-denial impossible for even the most cynical coal-funded politicians, we’ll have the chance to start this again.  And we’ll be able to buy the technology, no doubt – from the Chinese.

In the meantime, do you think the coal industry will rename their ad campaign?  How about this: “America’s Power: Let the Kids Pay the Consequences.”

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.

J. Elwood

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