04/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Clean Coal Con

A confidence game exploits greed, vulnerability and naivete. A "Long Con" in the parlance of the grifter, is a sustained effort over time to make the mark come to know and trust the confidence artist. Using this deep, well-established trust, the confidence artist will make the mark believe even the most outrageous hustles. The mark will be left with empty pockets and a feeling of stupidity once the end of the long con has run.

The Clean Coal Con is a long con. In this con, coal companies, utilities and other corporations with a financial interest in selling coal and energy generated from coal, convince government, scientists and the general population that there is a way to generate energy from coal with no negative environmental impacts. Like three card monte or the shell game, this canard relies on misdirection. In this con, the mark (i.e. you, me, all life on earth which requires a habitable planet) is directed to look at technology being developed for coal fired power plants. This technology, they say, will allow coal fired power plants to burn energy without emitting a whiff of greenhouse gas. See! No greenhouse gas! Clean coal!

But wait. There are no homes in the United States powered by clean coal. The technologies that safely capture and store CO2 have not been integrated into the more than 600 coal fired power plants that produce power at commercial scale. The main hope for capturing CO2 is called Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS). This is a process where, hypothetically, CO2 could be removed from the coal, either before or after burning, converted into a fluid and injected into geologic formations. We have a lot of faith in our ability to slow the emission of greenhouse gases and a big chunk of that has been bet on the successful implementation of such a technology. However, it is still unproven and only a very few pilot, test projects are being conducted. There are many potential pitfalls and technical problems. There are real questions about how such injections might affect the water table and geologic stability. CCS remains, for the most part, an unproven technique worth testing. Clean Water Action is involved in work to monitor and assess the efficacy of this technology, and we hope for good news. But right now, there's nothing worth betting the farm on.

Even in a world many years from now where CCS proved to be viable and effective, there are many other aspects of the fuel cycle of coal which make it dirty, destructive and harmful to health and the environment. In Appalachia, it starts with blowing the tops of mountains to rubble. Mountaintop removal buries and destroys watersheds and leaves ugly, damaged and blighted landscapes in its path. Watersheds are an essential part of the ecosystem, but they cease to exist when buried under tons of waste material from the mining process. "Clean coal" does not address this problem in any way. You could have the best CCS system in the world and this impact continues to degrade huge tracts of land.

Coal-fired power plants use massive amounts of water. According to The Union of Concerned Scientists:

A typical 500-megawatt coal-fired power plant draws about 2.2 billion gallons of water each year from nearby water bodies, such as lakes, rivers, or oceans, to create steam for turning its turbines. This is enough water to support a city of approximately 250,000 people.

When this water is drawn into the power plant, 21 million fish eggs, fish larvae and juvenile fish may also come along with it -- that's the average for a single species in just one year. In addition, EPA estimates that up to 1.5 million adult fish a year may become trapped against the intake structures. Many of these fish are injured or die in the process.

Does "clean coal" technology mitigate this impact? No, it exacerbates it, using far more water than a traditional power plant. Huge draws on our scarce water resources continue to degrade ecosystems no matter how much theoretical CO2 is theoretically pumped into the ground.

As one more non-clean example let's consider coal ash. Coal ash is a residue generated by the combustion of coal. It contains varying amounts of arsenic, beryllium, boron, cadmium, chromium, chromium VI, cobalt, lead, manganese, mercury, molybdenum, selenium, strontium, thallium, and vanadium, along with dioxins and PAH compounds. This toxic mix needs to be handled and stored somewhere. Because it is lightweight and tends to blow around as a solid, it is typically mixed with water and stored in vast, unlined ponds which leach into the aquifer and landfills. There is no U.S. government regulation of coal ash and accidents do happen. One recent example is the Christmas morning in 2008 when residents of Emory, TN woke up to more than 1 billion gallons of toxic coal ash oozing through their community. It was 20 feet deep in some places and spread out over more than 300 acres. It destroyed homes and poisoned rivers and drinking water. This coal ash came from the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston Fossil Plant. But this represents only a small fraction of the millions of tons of coal ash that is stored in more than 600 locations, posing risks to water, wildlife and human health every where it sits. Will clean coal eliminate coal ash? There is nothing in the current technology that indicates it will.

Here is where the reality of coal collides with the reality of our energy needs. There is no scenario anyone can reasonably put forward today that shows how we can immediately stop using coal and meet our power needs. We have too much of our energy infrastructure invested in coal because we failed to make investments in alternatives in the past. We must use it, at least for a while longer, for good or ill. But every new plant that gets permitted is a huge step backwards. Every existing plant that gets its life extended takes a bite out of the future. Our investments in this technology should be limited to mitigating impacts while we pursue smarter, cleaner strategies for our energy future. Our best chance at reducing dependence on coal sooner, rather than later, is energy efficiency. Every watt we waste is another excuse to keep fouling our world with coal impacts.

"Clean coal" may be a perfectly swell marketing label. "Clean coal" may be an emergency escape valve for politicians who have to find a way to rationalize the hard, cold reality of our being stuck with coal for a while longer. "Clean coal" may be a delightful addition to the George Orwell Compendium of Oxymorons which expanded so robustly during the Bush years. But "clean coal" is not reality. The closest we can get, even accepting the currently dubious existence of a viable Carbon Capture and Sequestration technology, is "Clean at the Smokestack But Dirty and Dangerous Everywhere Else Coal." Letting ourselves fall for the "clean coal" con gets in the way of real energy solutions.