Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
Civics & Politics The Environment Health Economics Social Issues Full Archive
NOW on Demand
Week of 4.10.09

Can Coal be Earth-Friendly?

Can America's cheapest and most plentiful energy resource be produced without burning the environment?

It appears that your computer does not have the Flash Player required to view NOW videos. Visit Adobe to download and install the latest version of the Flash Player.

Americans are addicted to coal—it powers half of all our electricity, and is both plentiful and cheap. In fact, some call America the "Saudi Arabia of Coal." But are we paying too high an environmental price for all this cheap energy?

With carbon emissions caps high on the Obama Administration's agenda, coal is in the crosshairs of the energy debate. This week, NOW Senior Correspondent Maria Hinojosa travels to Wyoming to take a hard look at the coal industry there and its case that it can produce "clean coal"—coal that can be burned without releasing carbon into the atmosphere. President Obama has been outspoken in his support for "clean coal" technology, but some say the whole concept is more of a public relations campaign than an energy solution.

As part of the report, Hinojosa talks with Wyoming Governor Dave Freudenthal and Jeff Goodell, the author of "Big Coal," who says that carbon dioxide emissions generated from coal contribute to global warming.

Our investigation is part of a PBS-wide series on the country's infrastructure called "Blueprint America."

In the News

Time: EPA Calls CO2 a Danger—At Last

Council on Foreign Relations: Debating a 'Clean Coal' Future

The Nation: The Dirt on Clean Coal

Washington Post: House Climate Bill Aims to Please Environmental and Business Interests

Washington Post: 'Clean' Coal? Don't Try to Shovel That

New York Times: Is America Ready to Quit Coal?

New York Times Magazine: Capital Pollution Solution?

Viewer Comments

Commenter: Cheryl
Peggy makes a really good point. PBS has recently shown a documentary on mountaintop mining which reports on what mining has done to the water and land, animals and people in W Va.
I hope we as a species have the ability to face how bad the new numbers are on climate change and that our elected representatives will demonstrate the leadership to respond appropriately. It will require big changes in the way many of us have been living.We waited too long.

Commenter: Cheryl
Peggy makes a really good point. PBS has recently shown a documentary on mountaintop mining which reports on what mining has done to the water and land, animals and people in W Va.
I hope we as a species have the ability to face how bad the new numbers are on climate change and that our elected representatives will demonstrate the leadership to respond appropriately. It will require big changes in the way many of us have been living.We waited too long.

Commenter: CS
We humans have two big flaws:
1. Inability to integrate ourselves with other organisms we are connected to, from the plants and animals we eat to the creatures we appreciate
2. Capacity for self-deception. The latest numbers on global warming are beyond alarming. If people won't admit even now that we have an extremely serious situation, then we will not save ourselves.

Commenter: Charles Michael Couch
The best hope we have of stopping Golobal Warming may well be the realization that Carbon is the best material for building almost everything; Carbon Fiber, Carbon Nanotubes, Buckyballs. What we need to develope is ways to recover the carbon from CO2 and release the O back into the atmosphere.

This can't be that hard, the trees do it.

Charles Michael Couch

Commenter: Peggy
Thank you for an excellent program exposing that even with "clean coal" plant technology while some pollutants will be eliminated the same amount of carbon dioxide will continue to be released.
What you did not address in detail and what I think people need to realize is the mining of coal is also destroying our land. I refer to "Living Beyond the "End of the World", Margaret Swedish, Orbis Books, Chapter 3, The End of "Cheap Oil", Page 49, Dirty Coal and the death of mountains.
I think this should be "main stream" information.
Thank you.

Commenter: M. J. Dorismond
I think clean coal is a great idea. At the same time, we should look to see how much power can be generated by dams. We can make more dams like the Hoover Dam to make power from rising flood waters.

Commenter: Realist
People want something for nothing. They want electricity but they don't want to pay a higher power bill. And by higher I am saying that a carbon tax would in some places of the country double power bills. Do you think that will affect the economy? Let's talk plug in hybrid cars. Where do you think that electricity will come from? The electric industry is already anticipating power shortages in many parts of the country and soon. People want to make changes, but we really need to be very careful or we may get more than we bargained for. Personally I believe that God is in control of our world, not us.

Sure I believe that changes should be made to clean up the environment. But at what expense to people? Should we all shut off our lights, turn off our heat and air conditioners and walk every place we go? This winter the temperature was 30 below zero where I live. Maybe we should all move south in the winter. I believe that soon electricity will become unaffordable for regular people.

And Paul Hosman, you scare me. Are you ready to cut back on the population today? You remind me of Hitler who killed Jews because they weren't included in his perfect race.

And lastly, since we are thinking about population, do you remember that people exhale carbon dioxide? Maybe we can tax people for each breath they take. It is a crazy world we live in. I had better shut of my computer now--I am using too much electricity! You should shut off yours too.

Commenter: Concerned Canadian
Where in Canada are they sequestering the co2??

Commenter: Cybernaught
Clean coal is a fiction.

Commenter: Vincent
It's time that we expose the fraud of global warming and the globalist agenda to impose illegal controls based upon false science. Pollution is a threat that we can do something about in our own lives. There are also a great many scientists who believe that warming and CO2 would boost the growth of plant life on the planet. The sun is the single biggest factor in warming however followed by water vapor. CO2 does not cause warming. There are many scientists who are brave enough to oppose the mass of fools who sign on to this "new religion" and dangerous globalist politics.

Commenter: John J Rottersmann
IT seems to me that your shows are sometimes very controversial and I like that.
I want you to know that I have an invention aimed at conservation electric energy in the form of kinetic energy.
I discovered for the last 12 years that the United States who are the biggest consumers of energy don't want to spare any.
I just learned that most power stations work at an efficiency of 30% and even less.
If we could get everything the way Japan is doing for decades,we wouldn't have to import any oil.
Think that the 70% inefficiency is totally transformed into heat and co2.
Qu'on se le dise comme on dit en France.JJR

Commenter: Mike
People look at the weather from one year to the next and say things like "Its been hotter for longer this year than last year. Its global warming!" or "This winter has been soooo cold! Where is this global warming everyone is talking about?"
I don't know why people think that global warming is some huge rapid temperature increase that will destroy the earth. Global warming is really just a small increase of the average temperature over a period of time. So far it has been about 1 degree over the last 50 years. But that 1 degree has been enough to cause havoc on the earth. Large chunks of the ice caps are breaking off, the average ocean temperature is increasing, animal migrations are shifting, the Great Barrier Reef is dieing, the Alaskan permafrost is melting, etc. The signs are all there.
As for "clean coal" there is no such thing. The snowflake white stuff coming out the smoke stakes at power plants is water from the steam generation which turns the generators. CO2 like oxygen, helium, hydrogen and most other gasses can NOT been seen by the human eye. Anytime you burn anything (including fire wood Gumby) you create CO2. Sequestering will work for now, but the earth is constantly moving and shifting. Years down the road that CO2 is going to escape and leech into our ground water. Then we will need to clean our fresh water reserves. No one is thinking long term on this.
As for a solution to all of this, I have none. Wind and solar power will need a major overhaul to our infrastructure, burning anything for power is causing global warming, and nuclear will have long term radiation storage problems. For the most immediate fix we all have to reduce our energy use. Drive less, turn off lights, get more efficient electronics, etc. The next thing to do is plant trees! Trees take all of this CO2 use it to grow then give us humans oxygen which helps us grow. We can slow down or stop global warming just by doing these two simple things.

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: 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: 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: 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: 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: Carolyn Mordecai
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: 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: 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: 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.

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: THOMAS




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: 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: 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: 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: Paul Hosman
People cause pollution.
Pollution causes changes in the earth's ability to cleanse pollution from the atmosphere, oceans, rivers, and land. Obviously, if the rate of pollution is higher than the earth's ability to cleanse itself, adverse changes like global warming, species extinction, disease and conflict occur.
Natural delays such as the slowness of society's leaders and the populace to recognize adverse natural changes and the natural 20 year or so delay between generations allows the adverse changes to become irreversible before society is able to take steps to ameliorate or eliminate those adverse affects. We exceed tipping points from which we can never recover.

People use up natural resources.
We are the ones placing demand on the earth's resources.
The faster we deplete critical non-renewable finite natural resources, the sooner our modern industrial economic system reverts to an agrarian system at a lower standard of living eventually for everyone and the fewer future generations will be able to survive. As this decline occurs, billions of people will experience economic and social misery and pre-mature deaths.
Even renewable natural resources will be depleted when they are used up faster than they can be renewed and mature to an economic or useful size. Trees are one example.

Technology is not a solution.
Some technology temporarily helps us use up natural resources more efficiently and that is good. But net technology causes us to use up those resources even faster! Technology does not create more resources for us to plunder. It merely helps us plunder or deplete them faster!

People cause overpopulation.
So why doesn't NOW dedicate a number of programs to the overpopulation problem already at hand. Until we intelligently reduce the world's population to below the earth's ability to sustain its population at any given standard of living (the earth's carrying capacity), it matters not one wit how much effort we put into increasing the supply of energy or clean energy or decrease the demand by conservation measures. Sure those things help but they are and always will be insignificant and insufficient by themselves. The ONLY solution to our pending economic collapse is to reduce the global population level.
We should have been spending vast money and biological/medical resources to reverse nature's opt-out reproductive process � to develop a reversible genetically engineered automatic sterilization process so that everyone is born sterile and must opt-in to have one child as long as the global government agrees that that child will not cause the earth's carrying capacity to be exceeded!
Failure to do that has probably already doomed us or our offspring to witness that economic collapse and reversion to the agrarian society but if not, it will certainly do that in the near future.
Resources spent by NASA (except for those spent to discover asteroids headed toward earth on a collision course and to design, build, and test interceptors to nudge them out of that course) are a waste of valuable resources.
Resources spent on fertility enhancement are detrimental to society.

It is often stated that the desperately poor have ''as many children as they can to assure they will have surviving sons to support them in their old age.'' In places where the poor are improving themselves, ''they begin voluntarily to have fewer children.''
I am not convinced that "�to assure they will have surviving sons to support them in their old age" is correct. It is often given as the reason � even by the people themselves - but I suspect it is just plain lack of education as to the adverse affects of too many children on their local society and themselves. The very process of improving themselves includes education. And it may well be that that aspect is what causes them to "�begin voluntarily to have fewer children." Also, the biological sexual urge is difficult to delay or diminish or forego in the absence of a good reason to do otherwise � provided by education of longer term consequences. And finally the dependence of women on men for economic survival is another reason they have many children. I suspect these reasons actually play a far more important role than support in old age.

In any case, programs on the need to reduce our global population are desperately needed.
I hope NOW will do its part!

Blueprint America Rockefeller Foundation Thirteen/WNET
Can Coal be Earth-Friendly?

In Your State: Clean Coal Initiatives

Issue Clash: "Clean Coal"

How Green is Your College?

Audio: Stream | Download
Buy a DVD
Contact Us

Topics search results will display here.