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December 29, 2008
Clean Coal? There’s No Such Thing
Tennessee last week, a reminder that for every energy source, there is a
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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