Aug 162010
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Late last week, Presidents Obama’s panel to review the use of “clean coal” technology called for an active U.S. government role in promoting carbon capture and storage, or CCS. The panel, comprised of fourteen federal agencies/departments and other stakeholders, recommended that the federal government provide both financial and technical support to forward the use of CCS. Their report did identify issues with the technology, but advised to move forward with federal assistance, including the potential “transfer of liability to the federal government after site closure.”

But news for the coal industry isn’t all good. Oddly enough, while Washington seems to be convinced that the nation can effectively establish a “clean coal” infrastructure, Wall Street is working to curb the use of coal, or at least a large component of its mining.  According to Huffington Post, Wells Fargo recently became the “sixth major bank to curb its financial relationship with coal operators that practice mountaintop removal (MTR) mining.”

So, while the Obama administration is pushing for 10 “clean coal” projects to be built, Wall Street is effectively limiting the spread of environmentally damaging coal mining operations. It’s an odd mix to say the least. It’s certainly important to stop mountain top removal, but the issues surrounding the use of coal go far beyond just its mining. Coal is by far the dirtiest source of energy we have. EPA estimates put average carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions for coal at 2,249 lbs/MWh, which is nearly twice that of natural gas and even a third more than oil.

But, of course, coal also happens to be the least expensive fossil fuel, which is why it accounts for 56% of US electricity generation. So, in its “dirty” form, coal is a cost competitive source of energy, but when harm to the environment is considered, the scale starts tipping in the other direction.

The “solution” advertised for the dichotomy between the two faces of coal, the dirtiest and the cheapest source of energy, is purported to be “clean coal.” This oxymoronic nirvana is supposed to be reached through carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). It’s a great idea: we’ll just pump all that nasty C02 that’s emitted back under ground where it can’t do any harm . . . unless it leaks into the atmosphere, or contaminates the water supply, or causes geological instability. But at least it would be a way to effectively use our cheapest source of energy, right?

No, not really. The problem is that CCS technology is very expensive. In fact, coal power generation using CCS is, quite likely, the MOST EXPENSIVE alternative we have. The CCS technology actually makes the coal-based generation of electricity nearly half-again as expensive as solar. So, a nonrenewable energy source that’s very expensive and carries with it long term storage liabilities so serious that the private sector is unwilling to accept them — why would we even contemplate such an illusory solution?

Because that’s the way we do it in the good old U.S. of A, where protecting vested interests is job #1. In 21st Century America, corporate profits are what drive the engines of government. And the 48-company, American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE) is not about to give up its profits. The $57 billion they pocketed in 2007 may not be enough to fund CCS research, but it sure pays for a heap of advertising and lobbying.

Our nation does need to take into account the thousands of jobs provided by the coal industry across the 27 coal-mining states, but investment in CCS is not the path to take. The U.S. is at an energy crossroads, and investment in alternative sources is needed. That investment can either be directed toward extending the use of environmentally harmful sources or into the creation of renewable green technologies. Existing corporate profits aside, the choice is clear. It’s time to retrain America’s energy job force, redirect our energy investment and spending, and forge a path to energy independence and a clean energy economy.

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