Clean coal? No such thing.
November 4, 2008
As health professionals and people concerned about the health and safety of our planet, we want the new president to prioritize a clean environment and significant reductions in global warming gases. That's why we're concerned about so-called "clean coal." Coal is inherently unclean and unhealthy, from the deadly pollutants it emits to its huge discharges of carbon dioxide, the prime cause of global warming.
The coal industry is pressing for permits to build dozens of new coal-fired power plants. They claim that a technology called carbon capture and storage, or CCS, could trap the CO2 gas from burning coal, compress it until it turns to liquid, transport it via pipeline, and inject it a mile or more underground where it would be stored… forever.
However, the technologies and infrastructure to do that still have to be fully tested, proven, scaled up, and retrofitted to existing plants -- a process that will take years and be hugely expensive. That's the gist of a report released recently by the United States Government Accountability Office (GAO), Congress's watchdog agency. The report found a host of "key barriers to CCS deployment," including
"(1) underdeveloped and costly CO2 capture technology and (2) regulatory and legal uncertainties over CO2 capture, injection and storage."
That's not all.
"Key technological barriers include a lack of experience in capturing significant amounts of CO2 from commercial-scale power plants and the significant cost of retrofitting existing plants that are the single largest source of CO2 emissions in the United States."
Shall I go on?
"Regulatory and legal uncertainties include questions about liability concerning CO2 leakage" -- not, of course, that the industry suggests that would ever happen -- "and ownership of CO2 once injected."
Other questions we would add:
- What's the cost of building the immense pipeline infrastructure that would be needed to transport liquid CO2 from every coal-burning power plant in the country?
- What are the health implications of a massive CO2 leak from underground storage?
- Finally, how much sense does it make to invest billions of dollars in the R&D and build-out of CCS, when it keeps us chained to mountaintop removal mining, toxic pollutants, poisonous post-combustion wastes, and a finite coal supply? Why not just invest our billions in wind, solar, and other non-carbon-based alternatives?
In the meantime, as PSR says, "Clean coal is a dirty lie."
Environment & Health Program Manager