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December 29, 2008

Clean Coal? There’s No Such Thing


From Tennessee last week, a reminder that for every energy source, there is a trade-off.


During the presidential campaign, every time President-elect Barack Obama talked about energy, he mentioned “clean coal.” In debates, in campaign stops, whenever the topic of how America would keep the lights on, he made West Virginia coal miners happy.


The term “clean coal” is cleverly designed. It’s supposed to seduce people into thinking that coal – the dirtiest source of energy we have – can be scrubbed and made as clean and fresh as a sunny spring afternoon.


Unfortunately, it’s winter, which means cold and precipitation. And it appears that both of them contributed to last week’s spill of coal ash in Tennessee.


The rupture created a flood of coal ash slurry, the size of which grew as officials learned the extent of the spill. It turns out that the spill is at least three times bigger than originally thought.


There isn’t any immediate reason for concern, health officials said. You’d have to actually eat the coal ash for the heavy metals and other toxins in it to actually do any damage.


The danger comes later, when homeowners return and clean the muck out of their houses. The mess will be gone, but the dangerous chemicals in the coal ash slurry could easily leach out and into the soil. There, it’s not a far thing for it to work its way into local groundwater sources.


If you’re looking for a silver lining to a terrible environmental disaster, it’s the timing. Next month, when Barack Obama takes office, one of the biggest issues he’ll grapple with is energy. The United States today stands at a critical moment in history – it can either move forward and find new and innovative ways to produce energy, or it can return to the glory days when the sun never set on the British Empire by continued reliance on coal. With much of America’s energy production rapidly aging, doing nothing isn’t an option.


The last few months, coal and energy producers have attempted to put lipstick on the coal pig. They’ve pitched new and innovative ways to clean up coal’s image, almost all of which have involved finding ways to address the problems of coal’s waste released into the air.


Just as you can’t put lipstick on a pig, there is no clean way to burn coal. None of the ways proposed to address coal’s emissions have been made to work anywhere on the kind of large scale necessary to meet the nation’s energy needs, and none of them begin to approach the issue of what to do about the solid waste.


Solid waste helped give nuclear energy a bad name in the United States (although cost overruns, constant design changes and the uncertainty of return on investment killed the industry), and environmentalists rightly say that going nuclear means finding some long-term solution to the waste. The same ought to apply to coal plants, since if the nation is to build a lot more of them, it will mean an increase in the amount of waste that will be created.


The Obama Administration could simply answer the question by not allowing any more traditional coal-fired plants to be built. The authority to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant was handed to the Bush Administration by the U.S. Supreme Court, and the Obama Administration could overturn some of the enforcement rules that have prevented the enactment of a climate change policy. It could be that President Obama’s approach to coal emissions is to let America’s coal-fired power plant fleet die of old age.


On the other hand, there are those words from the campaign trail. If the new president makes good on his promise to pursue clean coal, the question ought to necessarily be broadened to all coal-associated waste, not just the stuff that comes out of smokestacks.


© 2008 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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