11:02 AM

The Politics of Clean Coal

As someone with ongoing interests in energy development and its impact on the environment and communities, I've watched the public debate over the future of coal with keen interest, and have even written about it some here.  Granted, I'm not a scientist or engineer, and certainly am not a technical expert in carbon capture and sequestration (commonly known as CCS).  But from a communication and media perspective, it's fascinating to observe the political dimensions of this debate.

So I was interested to read this short article, which appeared in the journal Nature this week.  It's called "Low-cost carbon-capture project sparks interest," and in my view, it's similar to a lot of media coverage of CCS and its more popular but also nebulous cousin, "clean coal."  By that I mean that it seems to hit a note of excitement about the potential for CCS, but when read closely, may reveal nothing about CCS's advancement or potential.

The article details possible advancements made by the Huaneng Group in China, who apparently are capturing CO2 using an already-understood method at this plant:

From Nature

Not a big deal, right?  There is not necessarily anything of note technologically happening here.

Except, of course, that they claim they are also doing it cheaply, much cheaper than anyone else in the world has been able to do it.  And this is a hugely big deal, because right now, CCS is very, very expensive.  Those high costs could keep it from being a useful technology to answer worries over climate pollution.

This strikes me as interesting for a number of reasons.  "Clean coal" is an incredibly politicized technology:  if you say you are for clean coal, you are going to be seen as a dupe of big energy, a fool who believes in magic-bullet technologies, or a manipulator only interested in the status quo.  If you are critical of clean coal technologies, you are uninformed, a naysayer, lacking vision and understanding of technical progress.  This polarization has been exacerbated by ad campaigns from both sides, which have produced the following ads:

At least, that is what the debate looks like from the outside, in general terms.  Of course, CCS continues to garner huge amounts of federal funding; scientific research in CCS proceeds apace; and some demonstration projects are nascent but on their way toward yielding interesting results.  There have been some serious and substantial setbacks that should give us pause, particularly when it comes to the "storage" aspects of CCS.  Check out this story for one such case, where a storage project in Canada seems to be going badly awry.

Stories like the Nature piece on Huaneng, however, are more optimistic.  They suggest that the technology is potentially available, and that we are in a race to get there.  Whether and how those technologies can be shared between nations is another matter.

Furthermore, we are seeing a lot of stories in which China's amazing progress in energy production and extraction (both conventional and renewables) has really got the West worried, and the Nature article has more than a little of this competitiveness narrative informing its reporting here.

But the fact is, there is still enormous uncertainty when it comes to CCS and its future.  Climate change is not waiting for us to develop CCS, nor do we know what unforeseen effects may result from individual CCS projects.  It is also, for the moment, incredibly expensive (at least, it is everywhere but China, apparently).  So whether it will be a promising pathway to explore as we pursue our climate and energy options is anyone's guess.  I'm not terribly optimistic, but that doesn't mean it's not moving forward anyway.

Comments (17)

What the Chinese report is not always accurate. They have a tendency to fudge numbers to make themselves look better. I am still a bit skeptical of their reports.


You're absolutely right. For me, this feeds into the point about competitiveness. If we are indeed in a competition (some might call it a war) with China over energy, then the Chinese have a strong incentive to make things appear a certain way (as do the Americans). It will be interesting to see how this plays out.


Just because the numbers Huaneng Group released seem too good to be true does not mean it isn't a significant advancement in clean coal. If companies like EmberClear are already buying these device they must have seen some concrete evidence that they are worth the cost. Right now with nearly 45% of the electricity generated in America coming from coal, my question is what is going to motivate the US to accepted the cost and make coal cleaner.

That is definitely the question! The answer is probably legislation--there will have to be incentives, or perhaps a small tax on coal in order to spur investment and adoption. But I don't think there is the political will for it now given the shape of the economy and the attitude toward government intervention. One of Obama's key environmental people just resigned, and he's backing way of climate legislation.

It will be a matter of time, then, and maybe it may even take some more serious climate-related events in the US for the reality of climate and our reliance on hydrocarbons to hit home. Will be interesting to see if we have enough time.

I personally have not followed the climate discussion with great detail, and sadly reading this blog post about clean coal is the first time I'm hearing of this. With that being said, speaking strictly from a media perspective, the second video titled "Get clean coal clean!" is extremely more persuasive from the first. As a scientist I never come to an opinion on something without researching and exploring both sides of the argument, but I doubt most American's do so and would be strongly influenced if they only saw the second video.

Doesn't this whole idea of clean coal and CCS miss the whole point of the current climate situation. Coal is a finite resource, everyone I hope knows that, so shouldn't these coal companies be looking towards future technologies to keep their business moving forward. Seems almost pointless to promote clean coal and CCS, although if the chinese are able to do it this cheaply then I guess it would be beneficial in the short term.

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Our coal reserves are going to last quite a while longer, much longer than petroleum, that is why efficient coal power plants are such a big deal right now. Coal is a finite resource, but I'm not sure short term is quite the word for it. Many company executives are looking for profit while they are in charge, they aren't look 100+ years down the road.

My last comment had a confusing typo, so apparently you can't edit your comments.

I personally have not followed the climate discussion with great detail, and sadly reading this blog post about clean coal is the first time I'm hearing of this. With that being said, speaking strictly from a media perspective, the second video titled "Get clean coal clean!" is extremely more persuasive from the first. As a scientist I never come to an opinion on something without researching and exploring both sides of the argument, but I doubt most American's do so and would be strongly influenced if they only saw the second video.

Dr. Schneider,

I am not terribly optimistic either, and I completely agree that legislation will be a large factor in the overall scheme of things. The global scientific communtiy has recognized that carbon emissions are a problem though! That was step number one. Step number two has also been in the works; solutions to this problem. Many ideas have come and gone, few some have stuck (CCS and Clean Coal), and others are still under investigation (iron fertilization). Now we get to see, as with many other problems, how long it will take until viable solutions are put into action and enforced by legislation, step number three. Sadly, the global community will most likely have to witness much more strife and struggle before this is accomplished. If only we could initiate step number four, produce no carbon emissions, lol.

Instead of burning coal to get electricity, whether its clean or not, we should look at using a much cleaner burning and widely available fuel, natural gas. Coal is primarily made up of carbon. From the basic combustion reaction, all the carbon in the fuel is converted to CO2. Natural gas is primarily made up of methane, which has one carbon atom bonded to four hydrogen atoms. Again from the basic combustion reaction, the one carbon atom goes to CO2, but all the hydrogen is converted to H2O. Much less CO2 is formed, and more H20 is formed which can be condensed out of the flue gas and used else where in the plant.

I believe that clean coal being made in a cost effective manner is huge for all industries and should be pushed forward. Especially with the new electric cars. Of course you aren't using gasoline, but the creation of electricity is often more harmful for the environment than burning gasoline. Cleaner cheaper coal also means cleaner cheaper steel. This will make cars and bridges cheaper and safer. With any luck, that will boost the economy into an overhaul of the old way of dealing with used steel and create a huge bounce back from this recession.


Agreed! Natural gas is much more clean burning. But it is also a finite natural resource, and even though we do produce natural gas here, our imports of natural gas have shot up in the last decade or so. Energy analysts predict these imports will only increase in the coming years. So it's cleaner, but it's subject to nasty price fluctuations and exacerbates the ongoing problem of energy independence.

And, the harder it gets to find natural gas, the more environmentally problematic the technologies needed to extract it.

So, natural gas is important and necessary, but I'm not sure it's a magic bullet for our energy woes, either.

Carbon Sequestration is definitely something that should be researched for the future as stated in the other comments. Cold steel brings up a great point in saying that attempting to generate electricity from fossil fuels often results in worse emissions than burning gasoline or diesel. Energy consumption in the U.S. is high and price fluctuation is present due to the large amount of fuels imported. For an economy based around fossil fuels, carbon sequestration seems to be a good direction of research to help in minimizing emissions in the atmosphere in the future.

I think the main point we should take away from the issue is that we will have to move away from carbon-based fuels. The limited supply and the pollution that results are problems that we will have to eventually come to terms with. The alternative sources of energy are solar, hydroelectric, wind, and nuclear, among a few others. Among these, nuclear seems the most promising to solve our energy problems. The only barrier for this technology is public opinion and government support, which go hand-in-hand.

Taylor, the problem with natural gas is that it is much more expensive to make power from than coal. For this reason natural gas is used to fulfill peak power needs, not providing the base power load. I don't believe that natural gas will fix our problems and agree with Benito in the way that we need to invest more in other alternatives, especially nuclear power.

Also, I think we should continue to use coal. I mean, it is cheap and what else are we going to do with the stuff. If we can make it cleaner than it is a great power source. We just need to not keep all our eggs in one basket.

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