Mr. President, There is No Such Thing as Clean Coal

President Obama recently authorized $1 billion for FutureGen, a public-private partnership aimed at operating the world’s first coal-fired, near-zero emissions power plant. FutureGen’s operation is focused on curbing carbon emissions generated from the burning of coal for electricity. In the scenario offered by proponents of “clean coal” emissions are captured and stored within the earth, rather than being released into the atmosphere. Construction on the Illinois based plant will begin in Spring 2011.

Proponents of this “clean” coal plan are overlooking several critical factors that continue to make coal a very BAD IDEA. Let me count the ways.

Coal’s damaging side effects are not limited to the combustion of the fuel source. The extraction process leads to polluted waterways, deforestation, erosion, leveling of mountains, species destruction and damage to human health. Did anybody in the Obama camp happen to catch the 2010 Science article, where some of the country’s top-notch scientists called for a moratorium on mountaintop removal based on the damage to ecology and human health? No, didn’t read that one? I didn’t think so.

The health and safety implications of coal mining alone could warrant a moratorium, even without factoring in the devastation to Nature. According to the aforementioned publication, disease and death rates are higher around surface mining areas, even when other factors, such as smoking, are factored out. As mining increases, so too do the ill health effects. Areas with surface mining report lower birth rates in infants and increases in percentages for children born with physical abnormalities. According to the CDC, 12,000 coal miners died from black lung disease between 1992 and 2002. These effects happen well before the energy makes it to the power plant. Coal does not have to be burned to be dangerous.

To sequester and monitor the carbon, FutureGen will bury the CO2 by sending the remnants from the plant to the storage site via a 10-16” pipe. According to FutureGen’s website, “…the CO2 will be compressed into liquid-like state known as a supercritical fluid, which is like a liquid, before being transported for injection into the ground. It will then be delivered to the target storage formation at a depth greater than 3,000 feet…”.

Sounds like a big landfill.  Actually, it makes me think of slurry ponds. Coal slurry ranks right up there with mountaintop removal in terms pure environmental ugliness. Slurry is coal refuse and water; waste which is derived from the cleaning of the coal at the tipple after it is removed from the earth. Slurry is comprised of a long range of chemicals & minerals, including acrylamide, and about 52 other items none of us can pronounce. What do they do with the slurry? Often put it in a retention pond then cover it with earth. Just like a landfill. So-called clean burning of coal at a “clean” power plant will do nothing to mitigate the issues surrounding slurry.

We have a projected deficit of $1.26 trillion  for FY 2011, down a little from the $1.6 trillion for 2010. In such times, is spending money on a resource that is proven to be poisonous and finite, really the best course of action? One billion dollars towards an unproven technology that keeps us married to a filthy and dangerous fuel-is that really the best we can do? Mr. President, when I voted for you this was not the change I had in mind.

Full Disclosure:

My father has been a coal miner longer than I have been alive. My grandfather too spent most of his life in a mine. I have visited tipples in the rural part of Kentucky where I was born and have seen “reclaimed” slurry ponds. My father coughs every morning from the combination of Camel cigarettes and black lung disease and has coal permanently imbedded in the lines of his fingers. There is nothing clean about coal and no amount of fancy technology or lobbyist induced over-spending is going to change that. We can do better than this.

Leslie is a Sustainable MBA student at Green Mountain College. Study interests include sustainability, social responsibility and the power of corporate and non-profit partnerships to bring about positive change. Other areas of interest include social media, fundraising and public policy. She holds a Certificate in Nonprofit Management and is certified in the Global Reporting initiative for Sustainability Reporting. Additionally, she holds an MA in Organizational Management and a BS in Leisure Management. On the rare occasions when she is not studying, she enjoys writing, reading, running, nature walks and yoga. She hopes to use her skills, talents and education to make a positive impact with an environmentally and socially conscious organization. Feel free to connect with her on LinkedIn.