Clean Coal: Is anyone buying it?

Carbon sequestration (or carbon capture) technology, while still untested on a large scale, is being pursued in the U.S. in response to an increase in both coal combustion and environmental activism.  According to the Department of Energy (DOE) the original plan to build the first American plant in Mattoon, IL, called FutureGen, was put in motion by the Bush Administration in 2003. The DOE scrapped the plan in 2008, later choosing to focus on “retrofitting” of existing power plants to house “clean coal” technology. The city of Linden, N. J. has rejected the construction of four or five similar facilities. These plants also would have injected the gas underneath the ocean floor.

Carbon capture and sequestration has worked, or at least, has been implemented elsewhere. The injection of carbon dioxide deep into the earth underneath layers of rock was initially a method of enhancing oil extraction. The method has exhibited success in northern Europe in recent years, purely as an environmental protection measure. In 1991, Norway was the first country to implement a tax on carbon dioxide emissions, paving the way for the largest carbon dioxide injection operation in the world, sending the greenhouse gas deep below the North Sea.

Norway's Sleipner carbon cature wells in North Sea (

The initial failure of “clean coal” in the U.S. can be blamed on skepticism about the new technology.   A global market for capped carbon credits (“cap and trade”) has been politicized and ridiculed as “cap and tax,” “radical,” “fairy tale,” and “economic suicide.”

Activist groups such as the “Reality” Coalition argue and even the coal industry admits there has never been a watt of electricity produced from “clean coal” in the United States.
In December 2008, the “Reality” Coalition, consisting of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Alliance for Climate Protection, the Sierra Club, the National Wildlife Federation, and the League of Conservation Voters, launched a large advertising campaign against “clean coal.” The coalition enlisted the Oscar-winning directors Joel and Ethan Coen to create a commercial lampooning the technology as imaginary.

Environmentalists don’t hide their disdain for what they see as an untested and unnecessary technology that would prolong the agony of humanity’s dependence on coal. Groups like these want to abandon the use of coal entirely, says Nikki Tourigny of the environmentalist group the Beehive Design Collective. At an environmentalist rally in Madison, Wisconsin a spokesperson for the Sierra Club stated that two goals of the group’s “Beyond Coal” campaign were to get coal and oil company money out of politics and also to aggressively cut the profits of those companies by 50 percent in 10 years.

Clean coal is a dirty lie,” said Tourigny.

Coal meets 50 percent of the U.S. demand for electricity, according to a 2009 U.S. Energy Information Administration Annual Energy Review. The abundance of coal in the U.S. has driven industry since the very beginning of the Industrial Revolution and has kept the price of it low, currently at $2.25 per million Btu according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (that’s the amount of energy required to heat five tons of water by 100 degrees Fahrenheit, for the same price as a cup of coffee).

The supply of and demand for coal are not in question (at least not for another 50-100 years). It’s the other aspects of a coal-based economy make environmentalists shudder.  What is the real benefit? The cost analysis? What if the gas escapes? Is more investment in coal really what we need?

Transportation of coal is now more expensive than the coal itself,” said Susan Stratton, executive director of the Energy Center of Wisconsin.

The rejection of “clean coal” in New Jersey is partially due to the price tag being 20% higher than that of a standard coal plant.

“This  is despite the possibility that forthcoming federal legislation in the U.S. might set a generous price for carbon dioxide sequestered by facilities,” says Joann Held, former air director for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and current C.E.O., Air Toxics Analysis Services.

As for the Illinois carbon sequestration project, the U.S. department of energy announced FutureGen 2.0 in August.  If and when it becomes operational, the $1.3 billion dollar project is expected to keep 1.3 million tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. The main new site is in Morgan County, IL with other potential sites in the state including Mattoon, the original FutureGen site.


About Joe Doolen

I am a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's School of Journalism and Mass Communication. My aim is to write on science and international issues with a focus on environmental policy and justice. Topics range from local and domestic politics to international communications and culture, and anything cool about science really!!
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4 Responses to Clean Coal: Is anyone buying it?

  1. Liked the commercial; powerful stuff.

    This post conjures up an interview I conducted with a physical plant official on why some of his facilities still depended on coal-powered boilers rather than those powered by natural gas. The county even offered to channel natural gas from matter decaying in a landfill to the boiler in order to make the switch from coal to natural gas. Though I understand the volume of gas wouldn’t be enough to meet the facility’s demands, why not show the public you’re open to looking into more eco-friendly options?

    He replied that coal will always be cheaper, and the facility will always do what’s cheapest. Until the price of coal or people’s attitudes change, this will continue to be an extremely contentious area.

    I try to understand both sides of this issue, but I was always weary of the potential long-term health consequences of coal dependence.

  2. Eric V says:

    Thanks for the good information. This is one part of the energy debate I’m pretty weak on. One thing I always conjure though is, what happens if all that C02 leaks out in some massive eruption. I suppose though that’s no worse than the looming threat of massive amounts of methane sublimating from underneath the ocean.

    And it makes you think why they didn’t just coin the term, clean’er’ coal.

  3. Very interesting article, Joe. I didn’t know much about the coal side of energy efforts, and it seems there are various points of debate. (Aren’t there always in issues like these?) It does seem like a slippery slope to depend on another resource where those making the money from it can have such influence in politics.

  4. Jenny S says:

    Good analysis, Joe! I think it’s good to add more to the conversation out there about the myth of “clean coal” to try and combat misconception. In general, I don’t think the public understands energy issues as well as they probably should.

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