Oh No, “Clean” Coal?!

January 27, 2010, was a significant day for me: President Obama delivered his first State of the Union Address and I posted a PowerPoint presentation, The Truth About “Clean” Coal, on our organization’s website.

It started out as a good day—a major project was completed at last and I got to soak in some good old Obama inspiration.

I listened to the inspirational President lift the spirits of the American people and I felt hopeful about where our country was headed…until he started discussing the environment.   He promised to pursue offshore drilling, nuclear, and clean coal?! 

“Clean” coal?!

My heart sank.  After months of research and exposing the truth about “clean” coal, and the fact that it does not exist, our President promised to his hopeful nation that he would pursue the oxymoron.  

The problem with the term “clean coal” is that although there are “cleaner” versions of coal, those cleaner versions have major negative impacts on both the environment and the public’s health. The term “clean coal” is currently being applied to technology that decreases carbon dioxide emissions to slow global warming and prevent climate change.  For example, there are some coal plants, such as integrated gasification combined cycle plants, that are more efficient than the more traditional and more common pulverized coal plants (1).  You’ve also probably heard about carbon capture and sequestration, however, it has yet to be proven. And if it is successful, in its current form it is estimated to increase capital costs by 50% (2). The effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of “clean coal” are still unclear.  But the major problem with calling these technologies “clean” is that the environmental and health impacts caused by the mining, processing, and transportation of coal are unaccounted for (3).

For example, mountaintop removal coal mining is destroying mountaintops, wildlife and ecosystems. This process pollutes our air, causes birth defects across the globe, and contaminates our water, just to name a few of the horrific impacts.  

So what do we need to focus on instead?  Reminding ourselves that coal, like oil, is an energy source that will eventually be depleted, and that we need to transition completely to renewable energy sources.  Experts claim this is possible for our country to achieve in the next 50 years (without the use of nuclear power, Mr. President!) (4).  In fact, Germany, a country that is leading the way with clean energy technology and transitioning to renewable sources, calculated their economic benefits of renewable energy in 2006 to total more than 9 billion Euros ($12.7 billion).  Included in these numbers were very importantly the savings to the country by avoiding environmental and health damages caused by fossil fuels (3.4 billion Euro / $4.8 billion!) (5).

There has been concern for what happens to the coal workers who live in the communities that depend 100% on their coal industry.  First off, I want to point out how admirable these people are.  Not only do they risk their lives every single day at their jobs, but they expose themselves and their families to more extreme, long-term health risks.  In addition, poverty, school closings, and unemployment are common in coal producing counties.  

For example, McDowell County has produced more coal than any other county in West Virginia, yet the median household income is $19,931 and 37% of residents live in poverty (6).  Still these citizens stand by their companies and their country; they are truly American heroes.  What I suggest is to go to these poverty stricken, coal-dependent counties and provide a government subsidized training program for clean energy jobs, such as solar panel installation, green building construction, etc.  Many of these people are unable to invest the time or money in training for a new job, and after all they have risked, they are well deserving of the government giving back to them.  

Although initially I was devastated when I heard President Obama say “clean coal,” it helped me realize the importance of the project I had completed, and the importance of educating our country, that there is no such thing as “clean coal.”  

To view the complete PowerPoint, click here.


(1) www.ucsusa.org/clean_energy/technology_and_impacts/energy_technologies/how-coal-works.html
(2) www.thedailygreen.com/environmental-news/community-news/clean-coal-55012801
(3) www.appvoices.org/index.php?/air/alternatives_overview
(4) alternativeenergy.procon.org/viewanswers.asp?questionID=001271
(5) www.worldwatch.org/node/5430
(6) www.appvoices.org/index.php?/mtr/economics