03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Politics of Coal: Don't Write Off "Clean Coal" Yet

I'm giving two lectures this week at the Colorado School of Mines (CSM) titled "The Politics of Coal." In those lectures, I'm trying to map out the debate over the future of coal-fired power plants for students. It has been interesting preparing those lectures, from an academic perspective, while also trying to understand current political debates over the future of coal.

First, let me say that I'm very concerned about climate change: much of my work is directed toward trying to understand how we can move past the politicized scientific debates toward thinking about social and political changes that address the looming climate crisis. But what I've learned -- primarily as a result of working at CSM (which likes to refer to itself as "catholic" on matters of energy production, meaning it supports all avenues and technologies) -- is that energy-related issues are rarely as simple as political debates make them out to be.

The debates over "clean coal" are illustrative. There are those who strenuously argue that clean coal technologies are so much hogwash (see Joe Romm's work on clean coal propaganda at the blog Climate Progress). Others (frequently politicians) are quick to support coal capture and sequestration (CCS) technologies as climate solutions.

Neither is really correct.

It is, of course, good to be wary of "industry" propaganda when it comes to energy issues -- we would be smart to view such campaigns critically. Yet it seems important that the cooler heads in the energy debates also be heard.

A recent report issued jointly by the non-partisan Consortium for Science and Policy Outcomes (CSPO) at Arizona State University and the Clean Air Taskforce offers a careful examination of technologies such as CCS, and aims to determine the state of the technology, along with what it might take to ramp that technology up to "utilities-level" implementation.

The take-away? CCS must be part of our future climate policy portfolio, yet it is only one of many technological innovation pathways that must be pursued. The authors write that "climate change is a systems problem, and solutions will be multiple and largely incremental."

So clean coal is, in one sense, not "real." Or, at least, the promise of it is not. It's not the magic bullet for our climate and energy problems that some hope it would be. There are only a few demonstration projects (all eyes on Mountaineer!), and these are very expensive and small in scale. Utilities, which are incredibly risk averse, will never pursue large-scale innovation in this field on their own.

On the other hand, coal-fired power plants provide around 50% of our electricity in this country, and phasing out coal, if that is even politically possible, is going to be a long, drawn-out process. It would be foolish to ignore CCS one of many possible mitigating technologies in the meanwhile.

It doesn't make sense to put all of our hopes for climate remedies in the CCS basket; nor does it make sense to throw that basket away. With a problem like climate change, it's a question of all hands on deck.