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Clean Coal: Reality or Myth or…Neither?

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By Jeffrey

The clean coal debate has been raging on for several years now.

Can coal really be utilized for energy in a clean and responsible way or is that the dirtiest lie of all time?

Maybe it’s time for a different perspective on that argument. Afterall, few things in life or so cut and dry.

Regardless of what side of the fence you find yourself on, you may leave this post with some questions about your position…


The above picture is a real picture that my good friend Rick took and emailed to me from his blackberry last Friday.

With his permission, I sent a twitpic of it out to the twitterverse with the caption, "CLEAN COAL MY ASS!"

Let’s just say that twitpic got re-tweeted all over the place through the weekend which resulted in this twitter reply from @AmericasPower. If you don’t know, America’s Power is the newest multi-million dollar ad campaign initiated by the coal lobbies.

The Facts

Mark Twain once said,

"Facts, or what a man believes to be facts, are always delightful – Get your facts first, and then you can distort ’em as much as you please."

Unfortunately that’s too true in most cases.

With that said, here are a few of the party lines on each side of the conversation:

On The Anti-Coal Side:

On websites like TheDirtyLie.com and Coal-Is-Dirty.com you can find facts such as these:

  • "Burning coal contributes 40 percent of U.S. CO2 emissions. Coal is the most carbon intensive fossil fuel."
  • 49 U.S. states have issued fish consumption advisories due to high mercury concentrations in freshwater bodies throughout the country. Coal-fired power plants are the largest source of human-generated mercury pollution in the U.S.
  • "According to the American Lung Association, 24,000 people a year die prematurely because of pollution from coal-fired power plants. And every year 38,000 heart attacks, 12,000 hospital admissions and an additional 550,000 asthma attacks result from power plant pollution"
  • "Both underground and surface mining have devastating impacts on water resources."
  • "Burying the carbon produced from the burning of coal, so called Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS), isn’t as simple as the coal industry would have us think…Oil-giant Shell ‘doesn’t foresee CCS being in widespread use until 2050.’"

On the Clean Coal Side:

AmericasPower.org says:

  • "Half of the electricity that heats our homes, lights our schools, and powers our businesses comes from coal."
  • "Coal costs less than any other major fossil fuel source"
  • "America’s coal-based generating fleet is 70% cleaner (based upon regulated emissions per unit of energy produced)"
  • "America has more than 200 years of available coal reserves."

The Question

Yesterday I was hanging out with Rick and our wives on the lake when we got to talking about the above picture and clean coal.

Rick brought up an issue that the clean coal lobby usually mentions when we got to talking about the livelihood that so many families depend on the coal industry for.

That’s a GREAT point. To abandon coal all together would strip a life and source of income away from countless thousands of people in our country, leaving them with nothing to do and nowhere to go.

"Oh well, collateral damage in for the greater good for the environment", some might say…but I’m not willing to.

The afore-mentioned Coal-Is-Dirty.com chimes in on this topic saying,

"Despite coal industry claims that coal mining creates lots of jobs, the truth is that coal mining employment has been declining for decades, due to increased use of machinery instead of manpower.

In West Virginia alone, coal mining employment has plummeted from 126,000 miners in 1948 (who produced 168 million tons of coal), to just 15,000 miners employed in 2005 (who, with the help of machinery, produced 128 million tons of coal)."

Even if that statement IS true, am I willing to strip the jobs of 15,000 people away in the name of the environment.


The New Perspective I Propose

Here’s the thing…coal will NEVER be clean. Not EVER. What it can be is cleanER!

I not really a big fan of painting things with a different brush than they deserve. Coal is dirty, burning it emits more greenhouse gasses than any other single source, mining it destroys mountains, streams, and rivers…but it DOES give us energy, to which I’m thankful for it.

For that matter, I wouldn’t be writing this post on my computer right now if it weren’t for coal-fired power plants.

So here’s what I encourage you to do: Before you jump on the coal-bashing-bandwagon, think about the families that depend on it and the conveniences it’s given us. Can it be clean? No. Can it be cleaner? Yes.

Does that mean we should sink 800 million dollars into clean coal R&D? I don’t know. What do you think?