This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 23, 2009 - To understand the fight over the future of coal on the U.S. energy menu, you have to pay attention to the words used by those who support burning more coal as a relatively inexpensive, abundant energy source in the United States.
You also must pay close heed to opponents who believe a commitment to "clean coal technology" -- a term that they mock as self-contradictory -- is taking this country down the wrong path.
With demand for electricity growing nationally between 2 percent and 3 percent a year, it may seem obvious that coal is destined to play a central role for many decades. The United States has coal reserves to last several hundred years.
The topic has become particularly relevant in Missouri as the Legislature is debating whether to allow AmerenUE to begin charging its customers for financing a 1,600-megawatt nuclear power plant while it is under construction, which could begin in a few years.
An alternative to a second nuclear power plant in Callaway County near Fulton, Mo., could be for AmerenUE to build more coal-fired power plants to add capacity to its baseload generating units. Yet burning coal is fraught with hazards to human health and the global environment.
Clean coal campaign
Industry researchers and some scholars argue that coal provides a relatively low-cost way to produce electricity -- as long as its harmful emissions of carbon dioxide and heavy metals such as mercury, lead and beryllium can be drastically reduced.
"We are all about using technology that protects the environment," said Cullen West, the Midwest spokesman of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity , which represents producers, movers and consumers of coal such as Peabody, Arch Coal, Union Pacific Railroad and Ameren. "But we don't want to do it in a way that hurts the economy. You don't have to sacrifice the environment. It's not one over the other."
The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity is taking a lead role in the coal industry's public relations campaign of $45 million a year to ensure that the jobs of an estimated 360,000 workers are protected. Coal-based businesses earn more than $190 billion in revenues each year.
West said the coalition accepts that coal emissions cause greenhouse gases that may contribute to global warming as well harm human health. But the coalition does not want to curtail the mining or burning of coal in electric power plants.
Instead, it wants to move toward cleaning up coal at a pace that does not threaten new power plant construction and the current use of coal in existing power plants.
Much of the coal-dependent supply chain from mine to electric utilities is preparing for a long fight for public support and in Washington. The coalition is spurred on by recent developments -- including Obama's election and increased public concern about global warming and carbon dioxide emissions from power plants.
And this coalition has deep pockets.
Obama has said he favors a cap-and-trade system for reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 80 percent by 2050. West's coal group believes cap-and-trade could drastically raise prices for coal-based electricity.
West said the coalition's position is that if Congress and the Obama administration act to cut CO2 emissions in some manner, as expected, they should follow 12 principles.
Among them: do not hurt U.S. competiveness in the global economy; "establish a legal, regulatory and long-term liability framework to safely store CO2"; spread U.S. carbon dioxide-reducing technology abroad; allow credit for verifiable early actions that avoid, reduce or capture and store manmade greenhouse gases; and adopt a uniform federal standard for emissions.
While the U.S. Senate voted 95-0 to reject the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, the international convention to regulate emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases has gone into effect. It expires in 2012.
Talks on a new treaty are under way. The U.S. is expected to take a more positive and effective position toward controlling CO2 and other fossil-fuel emissions this time around.
Negotiators will work hard to revise the treaty in a way that will allow the United States to become a full participant. While the U.S. is no longer the largest emitter of carbon dioxide, after being surpassed by China last year, it remains No. 2.
But many environmentalists believe the industry's clean-coal initiative is a public relations ploy to protect business as usual while gradually cleaning up coal-fired emissions. Even the Academy Award-winning Coen brothers have got into the debate with a short video making fun of the clean-coal PR campaign.
And consider this comment from Josh Mogerman, of the Midwest office of the Natural Resources Defense Council in Chicago.
"Clean coal -- the term itself -- there doesn't seem to be a shared definition," Mogerman said. "In our opinion, there is no such thing."
Mogerman said industry and the federal government must first make a "real concerted effort" to remove carbon dioxide from coal emissions. Until then, coal-fired power plants should not be built to meet the steadily growing demand for electricity.
"We don't deal with all the externalities of burning coal that are forced on the public," Mogerman said, citing the recent coal ash spill in Tennessee, mountain-top removal used in the Appalachians to mine coal and the health and environmental issues traced to burning coal.
Focusing on so-called clean coal, environmentalists argue, causes many Americans to believe the problem is being solved when any solution may be many years in the future.
"We need to completely transform our energy sector," said Mogerman. "We need to think of the many ways we can conserve, instead of continuing to focus on coal as the solution to our energy needs. We need to completely transform our power grid and make into a smart grid. We need giant wind farms. We need aggressive energy efficiency. We need to have better building codes.
"To move forward with power plants that are a part of the problem is disingenuous."
What About Carbon Capture?
Even though the Obama administration plans to revive the FutureGen project in Matoon, Ill., as a research development for clean-coal technology, most observers believe that capturing and effectively using carbon capture and sequestration is 10 to 20 years in the future.
In an interview last year, Steven Leer, president and CEO of Arch Coal, the No. 2 coal producer in the U.S., said that the most effective way to reduce the bad effects of burning coal, which supplies about 40 percent of the world's energy, is for industry and the federal government to develop carbon capture and sequestration.
This technology, which takes carbon dioxide out of the coal stream and buries it in the earth, will be very costly and complex to make commercially viable, Leer said.
Studies have shown that CCS can be the most effective way to mitigate the carbon dioxide problem, Leer said. He referred specifically to a report, "The Future of Coal - Options for a Carbon-Constrained World," issued by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2007.
"The federal government estimates that we have between 500 and 900 years of storage capacity in the earth for the output of carbon dioxide at current levels," said Leer in the interview that appeared in the Post-Dispatch. "We are fortunate as a country that we have very favorable geological formations."
For Mogerman of the Natural Resources Defense Council, focusing government and private-sector efforts on making coal safe for continued consumption is missing a great opportunity to try experiment with and invest in new energy sources and uses.
"We are going to move more toward a hybrid system," he said. "For instance, as we move into electric cars, we can use the batteries in people's cars that have been recharged overnight to store excess electricity. It's always been a problem to store electricity. We have to start thinking more imaginatively like that."
By the numbers
* Coal production in the U.S. in 2007 totaled 1,145.6 short tons, which is down 1.5 percent from the 2006 record of 1,162.7 million short tons (a short ton is 2,000 pounds, as opposed to a metric ton, which is 2,200 pounds)
* Coal accounted for 49.99 percent of the electricity generated in the U.S. in 2007, which was slightly more than 4 million kilowatt hours; in 2006, coal accounted for 50.4 percent of electric power to produce 3.9 million kilowatt hours
* Coal burned in Missouri power plants produced 82 percent of the electricity generated in 2007; the cost was 6.5 cents a kilowatt hour; in Illinois, which has 11 nuclear power plants, the nation's largest fleet, 58 percent of electricity is coal-generated at a cost of 8.6 cents a kilowatt hour
Repps Hudson is a freelance writer.