What Is This Clean Coal You Speak Of?

President Obama speaks of “clean coal.” So does his energy secretary, Steven Chu, and a host of senators from Democrat John Kerry to Republican Lindsey Graham. But don’t let the cozy-sounding, alliterative buzz phrase fool you: Clean coal is a myth.

That’s the conclusion of James B. Meigs, who looks at the science, technology, and politics behind clean coal in a Popular Mechanics analysis and is unswayed:

Coal will never be clean. It is possible to make coal emissions cleaner. In fact, we’ve come a long way since the ’70s in finding ways to reduce sulfur-dioxide and nitrogen-oxide emissions, and more progress can be made. But the nut of the clean-coal sales pitch is that we can also bottle up the CO2 produced when coal is burned, most likely by burying it deep in the earth. That may be possible in theory, but it’s devilishly difficult in practice.

Meigs picks apart the reasons why the technology known as carbon capture and sequestration, or CCS, is still a slim hope: It’s expensive, it’s energy-intensive, and, most important, it’s completely unproven. “It is a dangerous gamble to assume that it will become technically and economically feasible anytime soon,” he writes.

Why, then, are so many politicians slinging the phrase “clean coal” around so liberally? Because of, um, politics, Meigs explains:

Sadly, although it might make little economic or scientific sense, the political logic behind clean coal is overwhelming. Coal is mined in some politically potent states–Illinois, Montana, West Virginia, Wyoming–and the coal industry spends millions on lobbying. The end result of the debate is all too likely to resemble Congress’s corn-based ethanol mandates: legislation that employs appealing buzzwords to justify subsidies to a politically favored constituency–while actually worsening the problem it seeks to solve.

Many green news outlets and commentators have debunked the “clean coal” fallacy, the normally apolitical Coen brothers mocked it in a faux ad (above), and Michael Bloomberg recently took a rhetorical and financial swipe at it with a $50 million gift to the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign. But to see it roundly smacked down in a science-minded mainstream newsstand publication like Popular Mechanics is yet another sign that our collective denial about coal may be coming to an end.

You might even compare it to the end of an affair, as the title of the new interactive video series Coal: A Love Story does. Stephen Lacey at Climate Progress calls the video “must-watch journalism” and “one of the best pieces of storytelling I’ve seen on energy.” See one of the vignettes here and watch the full series at Powering a Nation:

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