Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Isn't "Clean Coal" An Oxymoron?

The federal government today asked that the current EPA standard of not requiring fish protection devices at older power plants be upheld by the US Supreme Court. The News Journal picked up the AP story and published it this afternoon. The original can be found here, but a more detailed account of the issue is on CNN Money.

It seems that the EPA, until a court spanking last year, was allowing old coal-fired power plant to conduct their own cost-benefit analysis before deciding whether or not to implement changes and upgrades in accordance with federal clean water laws. Basically, the EPA was only forcing changes on plants that could prove that the changes would be good for business. The number of plants falling into that category? Zero.

Of the 554 older coal power plants that are at issue, one of the worst--according to the national Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) and the Lewes-based Citizens for Clean Power (CCP)--is our own Indian River plant near Millsboro. That's it up there. In fact, these pro-environment groups have gone so far as to start an online petition calling for the plant's cleanup.

I don't know about the level of "dirtiness" of our local plant, but I certainly know that coal-fired power plants are a nasty business in general. They produce ash and slag that contains mercury and PCBs and other nasty chemicals that get concentrated in pits around the plant site and then leach into the soil and water. Ever wonder why you can't eat more than a few ounces of local catfish every year? Thank your neighborhood coal power plant for that one. The fine dust created when coal is burned also creates problems for people with athsma and COPD, and a 2004 study of coal-fired plants estimated that up to 24,000 people per year are given the gift of shorter lives as a result of fine particles around coal plants.

I know, I know, right now you're saying "But I like lights and TV and hot water! Can't we have a nice natural environment AND electricity?! Pretty please?"

Ok, maybe you didn't say the "pretty please" part.

Well, the current proposal by both the outgoing and incoming administrations is to phase in a new technology called "clean coal." What is it? Well, according to our handy-dandy Wikipedia:

Clean coal is an umbrella term and public relations term used to promote the use of coal as an energy source by emphasizing methods being developed to reduce its environmental impact. These efforts include chemically washing minerals and impurities from the coal, gasification (see also IGCC), treating the flue gases with steam to remove sulfur dioxide, and carbon capture and storage technologies to capture the carbon dioxide from the flue gas. These methods and the technology used are described as clean coal technology. Major politicians and the coal industry use the term "clean coal" to describe technologies designed to enhance both the efficiency and the environmental acceptability of coal extraction, preparation and use, with no specific quantitative limits on any emissions, particularly carbon dioxide.

So wow! We can have our coal and eat fish too! Or can we? The Wikipedia article goes on to say:

It has been estimated that commercial-scale clean-coal power stations (coal-burning power stations with carbon capture and sequestration) cannot be commercially viable and widely adopted before 2020 or 2025. This time frame is of concern to environmentalists because, according to the Stern report, there is an urgent need to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. The concept of clean coal is said to be a solution to climate change and global warming by coal industry groups, while environmental groups maintain that it is greenwash, a public relations tactic that presents coal as having the potential to be an environmentally acceptable option. Greenpeace is a major opponent of the concept because emissions and wastes are not avoided, but are transferred from one waste stream to another.

If clean coal really isn't all that clean, then why is our incoming administration including it in its list of sustainable energy sources? I suppose that fact that it doesn't use foreign oil is a reason. I suspect, though, that this may be a safe bet on a final middle ground between the forces of "stay the course" and the forces of treehuggery, and politicians always like to point out how they were right all along...so including this among the list of greener things like wind and solar seems like a politically strategic move.

Ahhhh....politics. I understand. That's the game. But keep this in mind: while you all are playing your little Washington game, we're all getting cancer and emphysema, you jerks! How about you quit your smarmy "straight talk" for awhile and substitute a little straight action?


Leo said...

Nice post and I can't say I disagree, but what sort of "straight action" do you propose?

Anonymous said...

Thank you LSD. And yes, it is. From the moment they blow up the mountains and sludge is dumped into the streams to the moment LSDers breathe the toxic refuse as they stroll along the Rehoboth Beach when the winds are right. Leave it in the ground and give it the toxic last resort status it deserves.