The Road Ahead

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The Clean Coal Myth

By Clean Energy Compression

Apart from natural gas, the most prominent “bridge fuel” being touted right now with potential for widespread application, is clean coal. The idea is that, since most developed economies depend so heavily on coal for their energy production, why not focus on cleaning up coal instead of developing brand new technologies that have not been tested on a large scale?

On the face of it, the idea sounds good. Unfortunately, the reality is much less attractive.

The problem is that, from an environmental standpoint, coal is simply the dirtiest fuel source being used right now. Here’s just a short list of its negative environmental effects:

  • Global warming through emission of multiple greenhouse gases
  • Air pollution from toxic smog
  • Water pollution through direct disposal of waste into rivers, lakes, etc.
  • Destruction of land through above-ground mining practices
  • Fly-ash waste left in landfills until they leach or blow away
  • Community health risks to those living near coal mining areas

Which of these issues does “clean” coal seek to address? Only the first one, and nowhere near effectively.

The truth is, the “clean” in clean coal is largely a reference to the recent reduction in sulfur dioxide emissions due to modern coal processing technology. That’s it. Obviously, a reduction in sulfur dioxide is a good thing, but hardly enough on its own to label coal “clean”, now is it? No wonder environmental research Dr. Ozzie Zehner says that “[Saying coal is clean is] like claiming to have done the dishes after just washing one fork.”

These days, the definition of clean coal has been expanded slightly to include the potential for carbon sequestration technologies, which are supposed to contain CO2 emissions before they leak out into the atmosphere. Unfortunately, such technologies are currently still extremely limited in application and cannot be deployed on a large enough scale to offset the many negative effects of coal.

At the end of the day, the idea of clean coal, at least in its current form, seems to be nothing more than a blatant attempt at greenwashing. If we’re serious about reducing our carbon emissions and other environmental impacts, it would be wise to cut down our dependence on this dirtiest of fossil fuels.

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