Stimulus Plan: Senate Version Adds Funding for Clean Coal

Clean%20Coal.jpgNow that the President’s stimulus bill has moved to the Senate, the clean energy debate is likely to take a different tack, raising the more fundamental issue of what constitutes “clean energy” and who gets to define it. The Senators from West Virginia, Robert Byrd and Jay Rockefeller, both Democrats, have been pushing to get as much funding as possible into the package for “clean coal” programs.
They have managed to tuck in $4.6 billion for coal-related projects to the Senate version of the bill, causing coal-related heartburn for many environmental advocates. The Senate funding is nearly double the $2.6 billion included in a current House version, and has received the blessing of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Among the coal provisions outlined by Byrd:
* $2 billion for “near-zero emissions” power plants designed to capture and sequester carbon dioxide.
* $1 billion for the Department of Energy’s Clean Coal Power Initiative.
* $1.6 billion for carbon capture at industrial plants.
Senator Byrd believes clean coal should get a seat at the table when developing a diverse green energy plan.

Clean, carbon-neutral coal can be a ‘green’ energy. As Congress strives to develop a national energy policy that will break our dependence on foreign oil, it is crucial to ensure that coal, burned in more efficient ways, is part of our nation’s diverse energy mix for the future.

Senator Rockefeller adds:

Advanced coal technologies have to be part of the solution to our nation’s energy independence, and should be included as part of economic stimulus.

robert-byrd-2.jpgOn the other side of this debate, many environmental advocates like the Natural Resources Defense Council believe clean coal is a pipe dream and distracts us from better, cheaper, and quicker solutions. They recently partnered with other environmental groups to launch their Reality Campaign to debunk the clean coal myth. Carbon capture and storage (CCS) has never been tried on a commercial scale, and it could take two to three very expensive (money spent and carbon emitted) decades to get there. The recent 5.3 million cubic yard coal ash spill in central Tennessee further smudged the industry’s image. Whoops.
If you are looking for clear direction on this debate from President Obama, look again. He has given mixed signals when it comes to his stance on coal. As a Senator from a coal producing state, he has found himself at times defending the industry. During his campaign, he pledged to launch public/private partnerships to build five commercial-scale coal-fired power plants that capture carbon. But then in an interview where he discussed his cap and trade proposal, Obama told the San Francisco Chronicle, “If somebody wants to build a coal power plant they can, it’s just that it will bankrupt them because they are going to be charged a huge sum for all that greenhouse gas that’s being emitted.”
So who gets to define “clean energy”? The scientists? Advocacy groups? Legislators? No doubt there is a sense of urgency to pass legislation that moves us forward on climate goals. But in the haste to get recovery legislation passed quickly, will this important debate on clean energy get marginalized? Is it ok to spend $4.6 billion on clean coal if it means so much more gets spent on renewables? Are the special interests still in charge? Or asked another way: Is clean coal Byrd and Rockefeller’s “bridge to nowhere”?

Jim Witkin is a writer and researcher based in Silicon Valley focused on business, technology and the environment. His work has been featured in the New York Times and Guardian newspapers on topics that include: sustainable business practices, clean tech, the environment and next generation transportation technologies. He holds an MBA in Sustainable Management from the Presidio Graduate School. Contact him at

3 responses

  1. I’m not a big proponent of coal, but to those who say it is a waste are unfortunately wrong. There are at least 300 years of coal reserves left, and while solar and other renewable energies are nice, they are far off from totally supporting our nations energy needs. Coal will be around for a while, and the technology to more appropriately handle its extraction and waste are improving. As well, China and India have plans to build hundreds of new coal fired power plants, why not help them make these plants more efficient, safe and equip them with proper carbon sequestration technology? Unfortunately this is much more technologically feasible than politically feasible.
    I suggest “Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America’s Energy Future” by: Jeff Goodell. It provides good insight on the subject.

  2. The debate surrounding clean coal is a distraction, even if the carbon emissions can be captured it still leaves behind decimated mountain ranges and the potential for disasters such as the Tenn. Coal Ash Spill.
    That is why young people, who will be the most affected by inaction on climate change and supporting clean energy, are gathering in Washington DC at the end of the month to continue to build strong public support for immediate, strong climate legislation. Over 10,000 youth will be at Power Shift 2009 and at the capitol lobbying legislators from Feb. 27-March 2. For our future, we need real action now and that doesn’t include the myth of “clean coal”.

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