Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

12 July 2008

The Dangerous Illusion of “Clean Coal”

Coal is Carbon
Sequestration is Hard and a Long Way Off
Sulfur and Mercury Pollution Don’t Just Go Away
The Energy Balance is Unfavorable
Safer and Less Costly Alternatives are Available Now
P.S. Art Mirrors Life: Some Comic Relief


I have not concealed my admiration for Senator Barack Obama or my enthusiastic support of his presidential candidacy. Usually, my disagreements with his public positions have been minor. Sometimes, reflection has convinced me of the rightness or justifiability of his positions, as in the recent case of his refusing public campaign financing.

But there are two respects in which I disagree strongly with his current proposals for energy policy. Since energy policy is the pre-eminent domestic issue of our time—a make-or-break matter for our nation—I cannot remain silent.

Like all his public positions, Senator Obama’s energy policy is thoughtful and comprehensive. It addresses so many factors that it’s hard even to list them all. Among them are conservation, wind and solar power, and improvements to our national electric grid to facilitate them. His plan also relates technological and economic improvements sensibly to job creation, strategic independence, and climate-change amelioration.

But the “Energy Plan” outlined on Obama’s website revolves around two main practical approaches. One is biofuels, with emphasis on corn-derived ethanol. The other is so-called “clean coal.”

Both emphases are misplaced. Corn-derived ethanol is less than one-quarter as energy-efficient as the cane-derived ethanol made in Brazil. As I’ve outlined in another post, building a domestic industry or energy policy around it makes little economic or technological sense. Obama should stop pandering to Midwest farmers, drop his support for this wasteful and inefficient technology, and vote to eliminate tariffs on imported cane-based ethanol.

My disagreement with the illusion of “clean coal” is more severe. Because the coal industry’s public relations teams have been building this illusion for some time, debunking it requires some explanation.

The analysis proceeds in four steps. First, burning coal produces carbon dioxide—our chief industrial greenhouse gas. No realistic method for “sequestering” it has ever been demonstrated, and there are good reasons to think that none will ever be found. Second, burning coal produces horrendous sulfur and mercury pollution, which sequestration will merely convert from air pollution to ground and water pollution. Third, coal’s energy balance is terrible. Merely burning it—let alone cleaning it up—requires prodigious amounts of additional energy, the production of which (if from fossil fuels) creates yet more greenhouse gases and yet more pollution. Finally, although no one has even demonstrated the feasibility of “clean coal,” non-carbon-generating alternatives such as nuclear, wind and solar power are all available and in use today, as you read this post. Why not try things we know work first?

The rest of this essay elaborates these points.

Coal is Carbon

Apart from sulfur, mercury and similar “impurities,” coal is a collection of various forms of hydrocarbons. Its use as an energy source depends on its many chemical bonds between carbon and hydrogen atoms. Burning it breaks those bonds, releasing energy in the form of heat. The combustion products are water vapor, which is harmless, and lots (typically more than 75%) of carbon dioxide, a dangerous greenhouse gas. Burning coal also produces carbon monoxide, particulates, poisons such as sulfur dioxide and mercury, and hydrocarbon smog.

The basic point here is simple. Like other fossil fuels, coal provides energy by producing carbon dioxide when burned. From the standpoint of climate change, coal is carbon. The only safe way to use it without increasing global warming is to bury the carbon dioxide that burning it produces, in a process called “carbon sequestration.”

Sequestration is Hard and a Long Way Off

Voters and policy makers need to know two things about carbon sequestration. First, despite intense coal-industry interest and massive governmental research support, it has never been demonstrated, even on an experimental scale. The first real trial failed and is already way over budget. More important, there are solid technological reasons to believe that effective sequestration will be difficult or impossible under most circumstances.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) has one thing going for it. Because it adds a carbon atom to the two oxygen atoms in a normal oxygen molecule (O2), it is heavier than air. If you could put a bunch of CO2 quietly in a big, empty, undisturbed below-ground cavern, it would probably stay there. For example, if you could locate a power plant next to a huge underground limestone cave, like Carlsbad Caverns in southeastern New Mexico, you could probably fill the cave with CO2. When it filled up, you would have to move or decommission the plant, or worsen global warming.

But that’s not what “clean coal” promoters are advocating. That proposal wouldn’t make sense because there are far too few Carlsbad Caverns in the United States to support even existing coal-fired power plants, let alone future ones.

What coal promoters seek is another means of sequestration entirely. They don’t want to fill big, empty caverns like Carlsbad. Instead, they want to use the networks of presumed cracks, crevices and voids left over from oil and gas extraction.

I say “presumed” because no one knows what underground oil and gas fields look like after commercial extraction is complete. A single well rarely serves an entire field. Usually there are numerous holes from past drilling, plus all the subsurface cracks, crevices and voids that nature made. Subsidence often follows extraction, creating new cracks, crevices and voids, some of which may reach the surface or come close enough to permit gas outflow. In addition, unknown quantities of oil and gas, whose extraction is economically infeasible, remain below.

Into this complex mess coal promoters propose not just to deposit CO2, but to blast it in under high pressure. They need high pressure to keep backflow from impairing the combustion reaction or electricity-generating process.

But how much pressure they need is unknown. As the first subsurface void fills up, machinery may have to push all the remaining CO2 through a tiny crack or crevice in order to reach the next void(s). Doing that, far underground, may require enormous pressure, whose generation wastes energy. High pressure also increases the chance that the CO2 will escape through a random crack or crevice and defeat the purpose of sequestration.

Do you begin to see why carbon sequestration is hard?

No one but a fool declares absolutely that something cannot be done. Human ingenuity is infinite and often prevails. But some things are so difficult as to approach the impossible. The world’s smartest scientists and engineers have been working on nuclear fusion (as distinguished from fission) for over forty years and counting. They have collaborated in and among the United States, Russia and what is now the European Union for decades, all without success.

Carbon sequestration is about as hard as nuclear fusion, not so much in theory as in practice. Every abandoned oil or gas extraction field has its own characteristics—a unique underground web of cracks, crevices, voids and residual oil or gas that determines how hard sequestration will be and whether it is feasible at all. Because of these uncertain and highly variable complexities, relying on carbon sequestration as a general solution to global warming is a fool’s gamble.

Sulfur and Mercury Pollution Don’t Just Go Away

As I’ve outlined in a separate post, coal is the dirtiest fuel known to humankind. It is far dirtier than the dried animal dung used as a cooking fuel in much of the third world.

The reason coal is so dirty is its many “impurities,” particularly sulfur and mercury. When coal is burned, the sulfur in it becomes sulfur dioxide, which forms sulfuric acid when combined with water vapor, rain, or water. The result is so-called “acid rain.”

At one time acid rain destroyed crops, forests, lakes and streams throughout the upper Midwest and east coast. It took comprehensive government regulation, plus expensive “scrubbers” in coal-plant stacks (whose installation the coal industry vigorously resisted), to remove enough of the sulfur to bring acid rain down to acceptably destructive levels. The process of remediation took most of two decades and is still ongoing.

What would happen if the coal-burning effluent were pumped underground, rather than being released into the atmosphere? No one really knows. Probably the effect would be more localized but more concentrated. Local groundwater would almost certainly become more acidic, with local effects similar to those of acid rain.

For communities whose local aquifers contacted the sequestration field, the results would not be pretty. Among other things, more acidic drinking water would make modern plumbing hazardous. Much of modern plumbing is copper, and copper ions are poisonous. They don’t leach out into neutral or alkaline water, but they would into acidic water produced by contact with coal-generated sulfur dioxide. So a sequestration-derived increase in groundwater acidity might force local people to stop using tap water for cooking and drinking and buy more expensive bottled water instead.

Mercury presents similar dangers. Right now, as I write this post, coal-fired power plants are releasing mercury into our air, which finds its way into our streams, rivers, lakes and oceans. Its original concentration is generally too low to harm humans directly. But biological systems increase its concentration as it moves up the food chain, usually in the form of methyl mercury. Near the top of the food chain—in certain shellfish and large finny predators like tuna—it reaches concentrations dangerous to human health. That’s why the EPA advises pregnant women to avoid eating certain shellfish and fish, including tuna. It’s also why a recent scare dissuaded sushi eaters from bluefin tuna, once a staple of high-quality sushi. All this threat to health comes from burning coal to generate electric power.

What happens when the mercury goes underground, rather than into the air? Again, no one knows. There are no tuna underground to concentrate the methyl mercury. But what would happen to local streams, rivers and lakes and the aquatic life in them? What would happen when rivers flow to the sea? Would the same poisoning effect occur, perhaps concentrated by rivers that flow near power plants? Nothing but serious, long-term (and expensive) scientific study could answer these questions.

As this brief analysis shows, the formidable engineering challenges of making sequestration work at all are just the beginning. After winning that battle—in decades, if ever—coal promoters would have to contend with legitimate inquiries and complaints about increasing groundwater acidity and mercury pollution. As the engineering problems succumbed to the onslaught of human ingenuity, political challenges and NIMBY opposition would only just begin.

The Energy Balance is Unfavorable

Policy makers today are getting much more sophisticated about energy. They no longer want to know just the price of electricity at the plant. They also ask about so-called “external” cost factors. These include the cost of preparing and transporting the fuel, the cost of remediating environmental damage, and additional cost burdens on other sectors of the economy, such as the increased costs of health care for pollution-caused disease and the increased cost of corn syrup caused by increasing demand for corn to make ethanol.

Two things about coal’s external costs are clear. First, there are so many of them that they are hard to calculate precisely. Second, collectively they are huge. If you consider just the effect of CO2 on global warming, they include climate change, increasingly severe storms, deaths and disease due to heat waves, the northward march of tropical diseases, the extinction of countless plant and animal species, the potential for mass displacement of human refugees due to increases in sea levels, and the increasing prevalence of agricultural “dust-bowl” catastrophes like the one that hit Oklahoma in the 1930s.

Sequestration might avoid or ameliorate these effects—if it ever could be made to work. But the energy balance will be fighting amelioration all the way.

Since coal fields seldom coincide with oil or gas fields, siting a power plant near an abandoned oil or gas extraction field requires transporting coal from mine to plant. That takes additional energy. Preparing coal for cleaner burning by removing impurities or partially burning it takes additional energy. Running scrubbers to remove sulfur and mercury takes additional energy, as does manufacturing, transporting, installing and maintaining them and their replaceable chemically active elements. Pumping effluent at high pressure into underground crevices for sequestration takes additional energy. And remediating deleterious effects on groundwater acidity, mercury pollution, and global warming takes additional energy.

If coal or another fossil fuel supplies all this extra energy, burning it just puts more carbon and pollutants into the environment. If carbon-neutral sources provides the extra energy, they waste energy that could have been used for a directly productive purpose.

The energy balance of coal is highly unfavorable because its safe use requires so much extra energy to transport it, prepare it for safe burning, remove and bury its effluents, and remediate its adverse environmental and health effects. No rational engineer would propose such an uncertain, complex and inefficient process if better alternatives exist.

Safer and Less Costly Alternatives are Available Now

Coal is a terrible energy source. Even today, after policy makers dragged the coal industry kicking and screaming toward cleaner (and more expensive) technology, it is by far the worst stationary source of air pollution. As you read this post, burning coal is exacerbating asthma and other respiratory diseases, especially among the poor, minorities and other vulnerable populations who have no choice but to live near coal power plants and steel mills. Coal has caused acid rain throughout our northeast, which we are only now beginning to control after decades of effort. It is filling our seas and oceans with fish we can’t safely eat and slowly degrading our aquatic biosphere. And it now threatens, through global warming, to change forever the planet on which we evolved and must live.

Coal is cheap only if you ignore all the horrendous effects that burning it produces. Its only real advantage is that lots of it lie in our own and friendly (Canadian) hands. But using it long term for any significant portion of our electric power would be a Faustian bargain that only the devil would win.

Things might be different if “clean coal” or coal sequestration were a reality today. But neither is. Both are distant promises that may be decades away or may never come to fruition at all.

Meanwhile, we have completely viable and proven alternatives involving none of coal’s huge external costs. Windmills and solar panels are available today, off the shelf. All they require for use is political will, perhaps augmented by start-up subsidies like those the fossil-fuel industries enjoyed for decades (and still do).

Nuclear energy is also available today. France uses it to produce close to 80% of its electric power. France has never had a nuclear accident and now has the cleanest skies of continental Europe.

These proven and ready technologies—nuclear, wind and solar—produce no air pollution and no greenhouse gases. Along with conservation, they should be the centerpieces of any rational energy policy. But they appear as “also rans” in Obama’s plan. In the long run that misplaced emphasis could be disastrous to our national environment, our national security, and our planet.

In his posted Energy Plan, Senator Obama is skeptical of the future of nuclear power because of questions about the safe storage of nuclear waste. “Our government,” he says, “has spent billions of dollars on Yucca Mountain, and yet there are still significant questions about whether nuclear waste can be safely stored there.”

But coal has much more serious safety problems. Without successful sequestration, our unfettered use of coal could lead a global race to the bottom that will almost certainly destroy our local environment and (through global warming) our planet. And there are “serious questions” whether sequestration will work at all.

In contrast, most of the “serious questions” about nuclear power relate to solid radioactive waste, which is much more easily contained than gaseous pollution. An extremely unlikely leak of radioactive material from Yucca Mountain might potentially threaten groundwater serving the small town of Amargosa Valley, formerly known as Lathrop Wells. In 2000, it had 1,176 people. With crude oil at $145 per barrel, our imports of more than ten million barrels per day are costing us more than $1.45 billion dollars every day. With that kind of money, we could relocate every single person in Amargosa Valley to a place of their choice, anywhere in the world, and buy each one a $1.3 million mansion. Families of four could live in a $ 4 million estate. Instead, we allow the NIMBY fears of this tiny community to block an important element (waste disposal) of a nuclear-power program that could help secure our energy independence, eliminate a large fraction of the horrendous coal pollution now in our skies, and make a big dent in global warming. Go figure.


I have tremendous respect for Senator Obama and his staff. I would not presume to compare my political judgment with his or theirs. They may have made a political decision that they must pander to corn farmers, the coal industry, and irrational popular fear of nuclear power in order to win the general election. If so, I defer. Not much good will happen unless Obama wins.

But it seems equally plausible that Obama’s skewed energy policy is a rare instance of insufficient thoughtfulness on his part. The overemphasis on corn-based ethanol and coal may reflect the importance of corn farming and coal mining in Illinois, Obama’s home state.

As president, Obama will lead the entire country and (with respect to pollution and global warming) the planet. So even as a purely political matter, he can no longer afford to take a parochial view.

Insofar as engineering and economics are concerned, the primary foci of his posted energy policy are just plain dumb. It is coal, not nuclear power, that presents the clearest and most present danger to human health and the environment, in both the short term and long term. It is coal sequestration, not safe nuclear energy, that is the riskiest technological gamble. I’ve outlined the nuclear side of the equation in two early posts, one on nuclear power and the other on the avoidable risk of nuclear-plant terrorism; I won’t repeat the lengthy analyses here.

“Clean coal” is not a technology. It is a slogan cooked up by the coal industry’s public-relations teams. There is no such thing as “clean coal” technology and no imminent promise of achieving it. There is only preliminary and ongoing research. We ought to continue that research, but its successful conclusion is a highly risky gamble.

In contrast, nuclear power is no gamble at all. France already has an entire nation running mostly on it, cleanly and safely. We could, too.

As for wind and solar power, they too deserve much greater emphasis. Obama’s current policy relegates them to afterthoughts. But unlike “clean coal,” windmills and solar panels work right now, off the shelf. The problem is not producing them, but producing enough of them quickly enough. Demand vastly exceeds supply—a problem that good economic and tax policy could ameliorate.

As I’ve described in an earlier post, we have enormous resources of wind and sun in our country, most of which are unknown to our political leaders. Former oilman and corporate raider T. Boone Pickens—hardly an idealist or fuzzy-headed environmentalist—apparently agrees. All we would need for maximum exploitation (besides reasonable start-up subsidies) is good batteries.

To his credit, Obama’s existing policy proposes modernizing and upgrading the national electric grid, in part to distribute wind and solar power. It also repeatedly mentions plug-in hybrids as a transportation solution. But it neglects the batteries that could make plug-in hybrids and wind and solar power practical solutions on a massive, national scale.

Today we are spending more than twice per day on foreign oil what we have spent, on the average, per day on the war in Iraq. Even John McCain promises to end the war soon (although probably not as soon as Obama). But our insane daily outlay for foreign oil—$1.45 billion and rising with the price of oil—will continue until we get our energy policy right. Not much good can happen while we incur that level of persistent national waste.

So I think Obama’s energy policy needs an overhaul. It needs to make the transition from the parochial concerns of Illinois farmers and coal miners to those of a nation and a world sorely burdened by disastrous energy and environmental policies that have continued far too long. It needs to set aside politics and focus on engineering and economics. In short, it needs to work by the numbers. If Obama can’t provide such a policy and implement it as president, even his extraordinary political skill might not save us from our current economic, social and military decline, or our planet from environmental destruction.

P.S. Art Mirrors Life: Some Comic Relief

After such a complex and important subject, some comic relief may be helpful. The following show how much art mirrors life, and how much energy policy weighs on the public mind:


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  • At Sat Jul 12, 01:56:00 PM EDT, Blogger pastormike said…

    I am not very impressed with Obama's Energy Plan - If you can even call it a plan>>?? I like the boon pickens plan, I signed a petition asking Obama to at least give his plan serious consideration. You can sign the petition at http://www.theobamaplan.com

    I had never heard of tboon pickens till about a week ago. I think I like the plan, I just seen it and It seems pretty solid. I dont know though? He is a billionaire after all. Can he be trusted? His complete plan is at http://www.tboonpickens.com

    I wonder if either candidate will embrace his plan. Wonder what every one else thinks>>???

  • At Sat Jul 12, 05:27:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Dear Pastormike,

    I’m not very impressed with Obama’s energy plan either. As posted on his Website, it’s a smorgasbord that includes every buzzword dear to every interest group with a stake in energy or the environment. As I’ve outlined in this post, it emphasizes corn-derived ethanol and the mirage of “clean coal”—both subjects dear to special interests in Illinois.

    That’s not surprising. Obama’s chief energy advisor, Jason Grumet, was Executive Director of the National Commission on Energy Policy (NCEP), a bipartisan group of twenty experts that produced a similar “plan” in 2004. Like Obama’s website plan, the NCEP plan is noncommittal and tries to satisfy everybody. Obama’s current policy reads like the NCEP plan with a tilt toward Illinois.

    That’s not leadership, and certainly not national leadership. Leadership requires making hard choices between alternatives with different consequences. In foreign policy, Obama famously did exactly that in his 2002 speech opposing the invasion of Iraq and his 2007 speech repudiating uncritical support for President Musharraf of Pakistan.

    We are at a crossroads in energy today. We can continue to squeeze out every drop of the Earth’s fossil fuels for burning, from coal, from oil shale, and from tar sands. The result will be cities that look and smell like Beijing on a bad day and a climate that is irreversibly ruined.

    Or we can transition to an energy economy based on electricity made by nuclear, wind and solar means, with an assist from hydroelectric and geothermal sources and a boost from biofuels in a pinch. That result would give us astoundingly clean cities, better health, a stabilized climate, and a return to our countryside of the fresh smell of spring and nighttime views of the Milky Way.

    We have to choose, and we have to choose soon. Sitting on the fence is not a choice.

    Obama is a brilliant man, the best leader I’ve seen in forty years. I doubt he would leave such important questions undecided except for political reasons, or unless he just hasn’t had time to focus on energy yet. (I had wished that he would take a week or two off to rest and reflect after effectively securing the nomination, but he never did.)

    If Obama thinks he has to waffle on energy in order to win the general election, I’ll trust him, but I won’t like it. I would much prefer that he come out with a bold vision first, so the electoral mandate I hope he’ll receive would propel that vision further. We’ll just have to see.

    One reason why I’m willing to trust Obama more than McCain is that Obama is non-ideological. McCain recognizes that good batteries are the key to an electric-energy economy. But his approach is to offer a $300 million reward and rely entirely on private-sector initiatives.

    That’s not what we need. We need someone who actively seeks out the best and the brightest people in the field, grabs them by the scruff of the neck, puts them together and puts them to work. To do that, we need powerful and diverse incentives and clever legal and governmental arrangements. I’ve suggested a National Battery Development Consortium for the purpose.

    I hope and I trust that Obama will put something like that together and at least give an electricity economy a change to prove its merit. But we may have to wait until after he becomes president to see.


  • At Mon Jul 14, 09:07:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Chris said…

    Great article.
    The thread of air pollution is a bigger one than the problems from nuclear energy. In Germany they started to build new eco coal plants. But the air pollution is still bigger than from any other sector like Gas.

  • At Mon Jul 14, 11:52:00 AM EDT, Blogger jay said…

    Dear Chris,

    Thanks for your support.

    I object to the term “eco coal plants.” Like “clean coal,” it is an invention of the coal industry’s public-relations apologists. A more accurate—albeit more cumbersome—term would be “coal plants fitted with technology effective enough and cheap enough to reduce their environmental destruction to a level seen as acceptable by politicians and industrialists in light of their short-term goals.”

    The word “coal” does not normally belong in the same sentence with any word beginning with “eco,” unless the word “not” or “disaster” is interposed between them.

    Only people who have lived a few decades and have traveled widely can understand how rapidly coal pollution is destroying our world. I’ve traveled a lot the past fifteen years, sometimes for work, and more often (as I near retirement) for pleasure.

    The single most astounding thing I have seen in my travels is the ubiquity of visible coal pollution in the Northern Hemisphere. You can no longer see across the straits in Hong Kong. The Aegean Sea, including every city on its margin, is full of coal pollution. Sometimes you can even smell it. As you cruise the “Mexican Riviera” (the east coast of the Gulf of California), every city you visit sits in a pall of it. Coal pollution from the massive Four Corners Plant (which burns over 38,000 tons of coal per day) muddies the views of the Grand Canyon from its North Rim. You can see the same coal pollution from the air throughout northern New Mexico. While flying over St. Louis, you can often smell coal pollution from local power plants through your airplane’s compressor as you cruise at 30,000+ feet.

    The only visible relief is in France, with its near-80% nuclear power. The air over the Loire Valley looks and smells clean and pristine, in stark contrast that that over the rest of Europe.

    You don’t need scientific instruments to see the environmental damage that coal is doing every day. All you need is your five senses and some memory of what the Earth used to be like.

    It helps if you know how thin and fragile our atmosphere is. When you fly at cruising altitude, you are traveling at the upper limits of the Earth’s atmosphere. That’s why you would need those oxygen masks in the event of a decompression.

    As you look down at the roads and cities passing below, think how thin a layer is our atmosphere, which sustains all life on Earth. Then think how rapidly we are filling it up with sufur dioxide, mercury, particulates, hydrocarbons, carbon dioxide, and other greenhouse gases.

    The Beijing Olympics may be a blessing in disguise. The Chinese are doing everything they can to clean up the air there, but it won’t be enough. I hope that many Americans who go to the Olympics will also visit Shanghai, in which no special precautions will be taken. There they can see how bad it really can get.

    China is notorious for its coal pollution and its plans to build one new coal-fired power plant per week for the foreseeable future. Maybe if millions of people from around the world see the future of their own cities (and countryside!) in a coal economy they will begin to understand the relative merits of nuclear, wind and solar energy.



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