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Week of 4.10.09

Issue Clash: "Clean Coal"

Joe Lucas, vice president of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity and David Roberts, a senior writer for the environmental news blog Grist, debate the effectiveness and future of so-called "clean coal."

You're the moderator. Select the questions and answers you want to see by clicking on the name or picture of the person. Rebuttals from each guest can be found at the bottom of each response.

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The opinions expressed belong solely to the participants and do not necessarily reflect the views of NOW, PBS, or local stations. The facts stated by the participants have not been verified by NOW.

Is there such as thing as "clean coal"?

Click a name at left to read that person's answer to the above question in this area.

Joe Lucas: Of course there is. Our opponents like to claim that we invented the term, when in fact clean coal (which is short for clean coal technology) has been an accepted term-of-art for several decades now.

The facts are simple. To date, we have used advanced emissions control technologies (i.e. clean coal technologies) to reduce emissions currently regulated under federal clean air act laws. Sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx) and other emissions have been dramatically reduced over the past several decades. This type of reduction didn't just happen—especially given that our use of coal for generating electricity nearly tripled during this same period. It happened because of the use of technologies.

And like other technologies, clean coal technologies are truly evolutionary. Going forward, this same type of technological innovation will lead to reductions in carbon dioxide emissions.

David Roberts: No. When coal is mined, it destroys the land and surrounding communities. When coal is washed, it produces millions of tons a year of toxic, water-polluting slurry. When coal is burned, it produces millions of tons a year of toxic ash and periodic disasters like the December spill in Tennessee. Coal combustion produces mercury and particulate pollution that leads to some 24,000 premature deaths a year and billions in healthcare costs, with pregnant mothers and young children particularly at risk.

All these problems would go unaddressed by so-called "clean coal," which would reduce just one pollutant, carbon dioxide. And even that promise is a phantom: Not a single commercial coal power plant in America captures or otherwise prevents CO2 emissions.

"Clean coal" is a PR gimmick.


Click a name at left to read that person's rebuttal to his/her opponent's answer above in this area.

Joe Lucas' Rebuttal: Joe Lucas declined to write a rebuttal.

David Roberts' Rebuttal: Mr. Lucas is right about one thing: reductions in conventional air pollutants from coal plants "didn't just happen." They were forced on the industry by federal law. The industry fought those laws tooth and nail for years and has been fined and sued hundreds of times for breaking them. Hardly something to boast about.

Incidentally, those air pollutants scrubbed out of smoke stacks? They end up in toxic coal ash waste—the kind that flooded Kingston, Tennessee last December. Now the industry's fighting efforts to regulate waste ash. And fighting off efforts to clean up its Appalachia-destroying mining operations.

For a "clean" industry, Big Coal sure does seem averse to getting cleaner.

Coal-fired plants provide America with half of its electricity. Are we too reliant on coal?

Click a name at left to read that person's answer to the above question in this area.

Joe Lucas: Coal is a fuel that is uniquely positioned to meet the needs for base load (constant, steady, on-demand) power. It is domestically abundant—we have more energy in the form of coal than the Middle East has oil. It is an affordable fuel and is getting cleaner everyday.

We support the use of all domestic fuels to meet America's growing energy needs. However, energy sources are more likely to be compliments to one another than competitors. Take wind and solar for example. They do not displace coal or other base load fuels because wind and solar are intermittent power sources - only producing electricity under certain optimum environmental conditions. To add these intermittent energy resources to the transmission grid, they have to be backed-up with a non-intermittent resource—like coal. What's more, it would take a one-mile band of windmills spanning across the entire equator (around 25,000 miles) just to generate enough power to meet 20% of America's electricity needs.

David Roberts: Yes. Putting aside the health and environmental effects above, coal is increasingly uneconomic. For one thing, a whole array of new studies suggests that U.S. coal reserves could begin declining within 20 years (not quite the "300 year supply" the industry touts).

As this fact and the inevitability of greenhouse-pollution restrictions become more widely understood, new coal plants are being exposed as risky and unsound investments, which is why nearly 100 proposed plants have been canceled in the past two years. States dependent on coal are already seeing their electrical rates skyrocket, and coal utilities are requesting further rate hikes.

Despite coal industry claims, U.S. coal power is neither "abundant" nor "cheap." It's a sinking ship.


Click a name at left to read that person's rebuttal to his/her opponent's answer above in this area.

Joe Lucas' Rebuttal: Joe Lucas declined to write a rebuttal.

David Roberts' Rebuttal: Here's a detailed plan to meet America's energy needs without new coal plants, using a combination of efficiency and clean renewable power. Here's another, another, another, another, and more. Just last week the Department of Interior released a study showing that offshore wind alone could satisfy U.S. electricity needs.

The pressure to build new coal plants is political—a result of the $40 million PR campaign Mr. Lucas is running—not technological.

The message that there's "no alternative" to coal's enormous health and environmental costs is fear mongering. It's a vote against American ingenuity and resourcefulness.

Such plants are America's biggest source of greenhouse-gas emissions linked to global warming, according to NRDC. What should be done to contain this?

Click a name at left to read that person's answer to the above question in this area.

Joe Lucas: We support a mandatory federal carbon management program. In order for such a program to achieve its goals, it must 1) achieve emissions reductions, 2) promote greater energy independence by maintaining fuel diversity, and 3) ensure that businesses and families are not paying higher than necessary energy costs.

In that regard, technology is the key. Recently, more and more policy makers have adopted the notion that a federal climate policy necessitates developing and deploying carbon capture and storage technologies as the foundation for such a policy. President Obama has talked about this as a part of his strategy. Other distinguished academic, governmental, and non-governmental organizations have indicated that CCS (carbon capture and storage) technology is essential to meeting the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions on a global scale.

David Roberts: Asked whether human greenhouse gas emissions are driving climate change, coal pitchman Joe Lucas famously said, "I don't know. I'm not a scientist." Happily, non-scientists can use Google to find out what scientists think, and they overwhelmingly agree: climate change is urgent and potentially catastrophic. In the face of this kind of problem, "containing" coal's emissions—which equal those of the entire transportation sector—is unambitious at best. Those emissions need to be phased out, as quickly as possible.

It's simple: the industry should be forbidden from building new coal plants unless they meet stringent CO2 emissions standards. And over time, all existing coal plants should be required to meet those standards as well, or shut down. If coal can compete in a carbon-constrained world, good. If not, it should move out of the way for solutions that can.


Click a name at left to read that person's rebuttal to his/her opponent's answer above in this area.

Joe Lucas' Rebuttal: Joe Lucas declined to write a rebuttal.

David Roberts' Rebuttal: Big Coal sure has a funny way of "supporting" a plan to reduce climate pollution. It has sponsored, with its allies in Big Oil, a decades-long effort to confuse and deceive the public about global warming. It is still funding groups and politicians that work to block mandatory pollution reductions.

With public pressure building, the industry has shifted from battling to co-opting energy/climate legislation, attempting to transform it into a corporate welfare slush fund. An easy tip for spotting subsidy seekers: they repeat the word "technology" a lot! (As Mr. Lucas does several times.)

Do you think the idea of carbon capture and storage (CCS) is the way forward for the coal industry?

Click a name at left to read that person's answer to the above question in this area.

Joe Lucas: Absolutely. Not only a way forward for the coal industry, but, as I stated above—essential to meeting the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions on a global scale.

David Roberts: Put it this way: there is no other way forward for the U.S. coal industry. Coal is effectively made of carbon, so there's no way to use it without producing millions of tons of CO2. The best case scenario for the industry, then, is to be able to capture the stuff and bury it back underground.

But despite the misleading PR from industry, experts agree that CCS is at least 10-15 years out and will be extremely expensive when it finally arrives. Sequestration is arguably important for the developing world, and worth researching for that reason, but it's unlikely to save the U.S. coal industry.


Click a name at left to read that person's rebuttal to his/her opponent's answer above in this area.

Joe Lucas' Rebuttal: Joe Lucas declined to write a rebuttal.

David Roberts' Rebuttal: CCS may well be needed for meeting global carbon reduction targets, though there is considerable debate on that point. (It's a genuine dilemma what to do about the spread of dirty coal in China and India.) But it is crystal clear that America can meet its carbon-reduction goals without CCS.

More to the point: Mr. Lucas' group is fronting an effort to smuggle dirty coal plants into the U.S. under the 10-15-years-off promise of CCS. The industry calls such plants "CCS-ready," much like my driveway is Ferrari-ready.

Watch for the shell game.

President Obama has said he supports "clean coal." How do you think that will shape his environmental policies?

Click a name at left to read that person's answer to the above question in this area.

Joe Lucas: Recently, the President said that if the cost of a federal carbon management program were too high, people wouldn't do it. Similarly, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair said that if you make a country choose between growing their economy or reducing emissions—they'll choose their economy every time. So we need to find a solution that allows us to have both—and President Obama and other policy makers realize that.

By deploying CCS technology we can preserve access to affordable energy. This protects and hopefully creates jobs in the manufacturing sector and helps families balance household budgets. Additionally, a study done with several of the nation's leading industrial unions showed that deploying CCS technologies will create over one million job years—and as one of the union representatives said in describing these jobs, these are jobs that pay enough so that you can afford to raise a family.

So investing in clean coal technologies for carbon capture and storage is clearly a part of the President's energy goals. Doing so meets his three primary objectives of 1) creating jobs, 2) promoting greater energy independence, and 3) increasing environmental protection.

David Roberts: Obama supports "clean coal" for a simple reason: coal-state legislators wield a great deal of power in Congress. No national politician can afford to directly confront the network of industry lobby groups and legislators that defends coal's interests.

Obama will direct considerable federal money toward research and deployment for CCS; it's part of the price he has to pay to bring coal-state legislators on board for serious climate change legislation.

The key issue is whether Obama will allow the coal industry to build new dirty coal plants—plants without CCS. He said on the campaign trail that he will not. We'll see if he keeps that promise.


Click a name at left to read that person's rebuttal to his/her opponent's answer above in this area.

Joe Lucas' Rebuttal: Joe Lucas declined to write a rebuttal.

David Roberts' Rebuttal: Mr. Lucas' first paragraph is absolutely correct, but the second is a head-smacking non sequitur. If we want the transition to a clean, green economy to produce jobs and prosperity, why would we focus on the most costly path forward?

International consulting firm McKinsey & Co. has produced the definitive cost curve comparing various emission reduction strategies. CCS is at the far right—among the two or three most expensive out of dozens of alternatives. The smart strategy is to focus on those at the left, the ones that save rather than cost money. (They also generate more jobs.) That's Economics 101!

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Viewer Comments

Commenter: Jeanne
Not one of those questions had to do with the atrocity of mountaintop removal, where entire mountains are being blown up all over Appalachia. Even old style coal mining (ie deep mines and strip mines) is hideously destructive and dangerous.

What to do with all the toxic coal ash is yet another question. The problem with coal is not only global warming--but a total trashing of the planet and air pollution that causes many respiratory diseases and deaths.

Commenter: Grady Lee Howard
Besides considerations of mercury and sulfur and so on, the ravages of acid rain and asthma, the chemical physics of clean coal is impossible. The cost of sequestering residue from burning a substancew made almost entirely of carbon always exceed the vlue of energy that can be produced from it. The sham of a debate shows the bias inherent in our business dominated society. This is a settled question on the order of the impossibility of perpetual motion, a debate is a concession to vested interests. Be ashamed.

Commenter: Wanda in Indiana
In view of our ever shifting planet, once carbon dioxide is "captured" underground, what is to prevent it from escaping and killing--as happened in the Cameroons in 1986?

Commenter: Phillip
I have no doubt that science can figure a way to burn coal cleanly, but what happens when coal runs out? We need to conserve our natural resources. We should be more focused on sustainable energy. I used to be anti-nuc, but considering the alternatives, that might no be so bad an option after all.

Commenter: Steven in Georgia
Coal -- a great fuel for the 18th century! Incredibly, in the 21st century we're still spreading coal's poisons across the planet. Coal is the worst source of energy -- even nuclear is far superior. Phase out coal!

Commenter: James Manista
As long as the product of burning results in CO2 or other greenhouse gases there will never be "clean" coal, oil, methane, etc., aside from all the other detrimental environmental effects which may be reduced or eliminated. If all fossil fuels were eliminated today, there is already enough greenhouse gas in the atmosphere to ensure climate change for centuries. Our children and grandchildren will be paying many times over for our "efficiencies" with fossil fuels.

Commenter: Steve
Those of us in West Virginia are now faced with the prospect of suffering a new 765KV transmission line (The American Electric Power conglomerate) from St. Albans, WV to NJ. This will provide no electricity to our state but will bring the benefits of cheap power from the dirtiest, and largest, 40 year old coal power generators (at the John Amos Plant) on earth to the people of NJ whose Governor has just naively pledged to reduce NJ's reliance on non-renewable power. It will help commit this nation to coal power for the East Coast for the next 50 years. You might want to look into this as well....

Commenter: jan
Cap and trade is a con. They had something similar in intent in Missouri and I can still remember the former governor more or less stating that the air was too clean. End result was that we now have smog alerts and warnings in an area which doesn't have enough population to produce smog.

Commenter: Karim
I agree coal should be burnt cleanly to reduce pollution, but CO2 is not a pollutant. Link of manmade CO2 emission = global warming is a huge $cam for carbon taxation. Only 3% of CO2 is manmade, the rest is naturally produced by decay and release of dissolved CO2 in oceans. Water vapor in the air is a much more potent greenhouse gas than CO2 which is 0.04% of air. Variability of planetary temperature is due to sunspot activity. Less sunspot activity such as now = less solar wind intensity = more cosmic rays penetrating the atmosphere = more electrons knocked off gases = more water droplets forming around these electrons = more clouds = cooler climate such as we have now. CO2 is a nutrient, not a pollutant. CO2 is essential to the bottom of the food chain in the oceans and on land. More CO2 = more growth of plants and trees absorbing even more CO2. Say CO2 = global warming, then the idea to reduce just 1% of CO2 in the air (carbon-free US) would affect temperature is ridiculous, while 98% of naturally occurring emission continue to happen.

Commenter: THOMAS




Commenter: Jerry B
Proven clean coal technology does not exist today and no one knows how long CO2 pumped underground will stay there. There are however two promising possibilities for sequestering CO2. One is if the exhaust gases are bubbled through water containing algae. The algae can convert the CO2 into hydrocarbons (oil or alcohol) which can then be used as fuel (at which point the CO2 is released again)or be made into plastics etc.
The other way is to bubble the exhaust through sea water to create calcium carbonate cement. For each ton of cement made a half ton of CO2 is sequestered and the process would eliminate heating the cement. Today about a ton of CO2 is created for every ton of cement made.
Coal would still destroy the earth when dug up and contaminate water which is becoming scarce, but it would be good if the exhaust could be cleaned and used to create cleaner burning fuel or cement.

Commenter: Dr. Martin Hertzberg
Your constant regurgitation of the fear-monering hysteria about human caused global warming is a disservice to PBS, science, and the nation. The overwhelming weight of scientific evidence shows that the Gore-IPCC-Hansen theory that human emission of CO2 is causing global warming is completely false. For my analysis see the following:
My analysis is just the tip of the iceberg. For the opinions of some 700 other distinguished scientists see: and click on the 2009
The problem is a scientific one that needs to be analyzed in terms of real data. All we get on your program are interviews with Environmental Lobbyists who keep repeating anecdotal clap trap.
There is a simple way to tell the difference between a propagandist and a scientist. If a scientist has a theory he searches diligently for data that might contradict his theory so that he can test it further or refine it. The propagandist carefully selects only that data that might agree with his theory and dutifully ignores any data that might disagree with it. In the case of the global warming alarmists, they don't even bother with the data. All they have to support their theory are half-baked computer models that are totally out of touch with reality and have already been proven to be wrong.
So for the record, from the El Nino year of 1998 until Jan., 2007, the average temperature near the surface of the earth decreased about 0.2 C. From Jan. 2007 until the Spring of 2008 it dropped a whopping 0.7 C.
Why don't you leave the fear-mongering to the neo-cons? You don't have to be scientifically illiterate to be a broadcaster for PBS, but it seems to help!
The current administration is dead wrong on this issue and will waste billions on carbon credit trading or carbon sequestration that will have absolutely no effect. Their "green energy" initiative is totally impractical and will not produce a drop of the petroleum we need to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. The money would be better spent on infrastructure, education, health care, and social welfare.
For an example of the unintended consequences of environmental hysteria, why don't you try a constructive program on the effect of the world wide ban on DDT in drastically increasing the childhood deaths from malaria in Africa. The WHO has finally reversed the ban but only after millions died as a result. And still, the Environmental Lobbyists have no regrets about their actions in instituting the ban. They are arguing for mosquito netting, and one even argued that it was a good way to reduce the surplus population! Shades of Scrooge.
Dr. Martin Hertzberg
P O Box 3012
Copper Mountain, CO 80443

Commenter: Jim Isham
IRT Wyoming and "Clean Coal Technology", I find it fascinating - and terrifying - that the coal industry would even think that WYOMING, of all places, could possibly be a viable geographic/geological location in which to store CO2 emissions produced from coal fired power plants; Wyoming, and specifically Yellowstone Nat'l Park, w/ its very active seismic activity (read: hundreds of mini-earthquakes annually) is probably one of the LEAST safe places in which to "store" CO2.
What happens to those millions of tons of stored CO2 when the super volcano located in the park BLOWS?; an event, although inestimable, that, according to seismological experts, is YEARS overdue.
Clean Coal Technology ... needs to be *scrubbed* in favor of wind and solar - and maybe geothermal (considering Yellowstone's resources).

Commenter: Gumby
We squinted our eyes at coal yet we burn firewood willy dilly like crazy!! Our chimneys or stove pipes are nothing but hollow pipes without any pollution controls whatsover!! It is time to drag homeowners screaming and kicking on the dirt to install pollution controls in their chimneys and stove pipes like we did with coal powerplants already!!

Commenter: Carolyn Mordecai
I would like to know about making oil from coal and thus perhaps having a cleaner environment. Has any company accomplished that yet?

Since coal is one one of the most available energy resources in our own country, I don't think we should give up our research for clean coal.

Commenter: Roald A.
The entire premise of this show is that it's a forgone conclusion that unnatural CO2 causes global warming, as IPCC reports claim. Is there any particular reason why Dr. S Fred Singer's "Nature, Not Human Activity, Rules the Climate: Summary for Policymakers of the Report of the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change" (NIPCC 2008), which is a collection of peer-reviewed published scientific papers, should not be considered as a 'second opinion' to the IPCC reports?

Commenter: WHAT
This was a terrible one sided attack against the coal and power industry. PBS should be ashamed of airing this story. I was raised with PBS providing informational material, WHAT WAS THIS???

Commenter: George Y
I hope congress doesn't let Coal companies write the laws to regulate like pharmaceutical companies did for drugs I think the ideal situation is to live on the sun and wind created every day instead of digging up the energy created in the past and changing the weather for ever. The best place to store carbon is in the coal and oil. Every city should set up a few blocks for companies where you have to work only with solar and wind energy if you do that you can pay half or no property tax.Maybe it will work like no smoking zones on jets in the 70's or 80's and smoking was mostly eliminated. Lets work to go local and solar with energy

Commenter: Todd Shelton
I think it is not too much too ask for all people in the debate to explain why they are or are not going to include the process of mining as part of the discussion and definition of clean coal. Not to mention it at all really makes me question the integrity of either side.

Commenter: Kenneth Weiss
I just caught the last few minutes of the Now show about coal and it's effect on global climate change. A few years ago it was called global warming before they realized that the earth is in a cooling stage. During the '70's, there was a plan to prevent the global cooling that called for the deposition of coal dust on the polar ice caps to speed up their melting because the earth was getting to cold. The land of Greenland was originally green because it was a farming colony for the Norsemen and Vikings. I believe in 1996, a team of historians dug through several hundred feet of ice to get to a lost squadron of WWII airplanes that parked there due to bad weather and the lack of fuel. Since coal is the product of 300 million year old plants, obviously there was that much carbon dioxide in the atmoshere then and that is well over 299 million years that man has walked or crawled on earth. The North American continent was covered by by ice and glaciers as far south as West Virginia millions of years ago and they have been receding ever since. No one has mentioned the fact that the natural movement of magnetic north (and I don't mean the constant reversal of polarity) has more of a future effect on the earth's temperature and weather than if all hydrocarbons were burned at one time and boiled all the water into water vapor, the most common greenhouse gas. According to National Geograghic Association, it's movement from Hudson Bay in the 1600's to Siberia is only a few hundred years away.(It has already moved one third of the way.) This bs about global warming is just another non-crisis to be worried about just like the ozone warnings we had in the 90's, nuclear holocaust in the 80's acid rain in the 70's, and littering in the 60's.

Commenter: Theresa
Clean coal may be clean, but they're removing mountaintops and polluting the surrounding areas to get at the coal. Haven't we mined the earth enough?

Commenter: Adam Eran
Boy, this sure looks like an open-and-shut case against coal. The coal lobbyist can't even manage a rebuttal in most of the above.

The question seems to be whether our public policies will serve the public or the coal industry. So far the score is bankers trillions, public service chump change, so I'm not exactly optimistic about Obama.

Boy, I sure hope I'm wrong.

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