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Dirty past, hazy future

Source:  Copyright 2009, The Environment Report
Date:  March 30, 2009
Byline:  Lester Graham
Original URL: Status DEAD

You are being targeted by lobbyists. The coal industry and environmentalists are both trying to influence what you think. In the first part of our series on the future of coal, Lester Graham looks at the campaigns for-and-against coal:

You probably don’t buy coal directly. But you pay for it when you pay your power bill. 50% of the nation’s electricity comes from coal-burning power plants.

The problem with that is, coal pollutes.

Not as much as it used to. Some traditional pollutants have been reduced by 77% since the 1970 Clean Air Act.

Although the government forced it to reduce some some of the pollution, the coal industry brags about the progress and encouarges you to believe in the future of “clean coal.”

(American Coalition for Clean Coal advertisement)

Joe Lucas is the man behind that ad. He’s with the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity. Lucas says the meaning of the phrase “clean coal” is evolving.

“The use of the term ‘clean coal,’ it is a term of art. Up until now it has been technology that has reduced traditional pollution emissions and increased the efficiency of power plants and going forward we’re rapidly approaching the point to where it will be technologies for capture and storage of carbon.”

But right now, no power plant captures carbon dioxide. And carbon dioxide is the main greenhouse gas contributing to climate change.

That’s why environmentalists scoff at the coal industry’s use of ‘clean coal.’

(Cohen brothers advertisement)

The guy behind that ad is Brian Hartwick. He’s the spokesman for the “This is Reality” campaign.

“In reality today there is no such thing as ‘clean coal.’ There is no commercial coal plant that captures its carbon pollution not to mention the other environmental impacts that the coal industry has. So, we launched an effort to try to bring out the truth about coal in response to the marketing campaign that the coal industry had so that people could come to their own conclusions about whether or not they thought coal was indeed clean.”

Clean or not, we have a lot of coal here in the U.S. It’s relatively cheap. And when pushed, a lot of environmentalists concede we’ll need to rely on coal for electricity generation for some time to come.

During last year’s campaign, candidate Barack Obama aknowledged that to people at a rally in Virginia, but indicated we need to find a way to really get to ‘clean coal.’

“Why aren’t we figuring out a way to sequester the carbons from coal. Clean coal technology is something that can make America energy independent.” (applause)

And President Obama has followed up on that. In the stimulus plan, 3.4 billion dollars was set aside to find ways to make coal clean.

There’s more to clean up. Sulfur dioxide, or SOx, contributes to acid rain. Nitrogen Oxides, or NOx, helps cause smog. Those have been reduced, but not eliminated. And then there’s toxic mercury and particulate matter – or soot. All of it harms the environment and public health.

President Obama’s Secretary of Energy, Steven Chu, is a big proponent of cleaner energy sources such as wind and solar. But he says we need to find a way to use coal.

“Right now as we’re using coal it’s not clean. But, I firmly believe that we should invest very heavily on strategies that can take a large fraction of the carbon dioxide out of coal as well as the SOx the NOx, the mercury, particulate matter.”

But until that technology is in place, ‘clean coal’ is no more than what the coal industry calls an “evolving term of art.”

For The Environment Report, I’m Lester Graham.

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