When Joe the Plumber donned a baseball cap displaying the words "Clean Coal" last fall, he may not have known it, but he was participating in a public relations effort sponsored by the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity. So far, that campaign has been a smashing success.
The phrase "Clean Coal" was chanted over and over again by coal partisans at hundreds of political gatherings during 2008. Many rallies for candidates were transformed into pro-coal rallies.
According to the Hawthorn Group, the Washington, D.C., public relations firm that created and deployed the pro-coal campaign, the public's attitude toward coal dramatically shifted from 2007 to 2008, thanks to the PR effort. In a 2007 survey, 46 percent supported and 50 percent opposed the use of coal to generate electricity. Just one year later, 72 percent of those surveyed supported coal, and only 22 percent opposed coal. Hawthorn surely earned its fees: Opposition to coal was cut in half and support for coal-powered energy escalated.
This shift encouraged elected officials and political candidates -- including the presidential and vice presidential candidates of both major parties -- to embrace the concept of clean coal.
In his recent state of the state address, South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds, R, touted two new coal-fired energy facilities proposed for his state, repeatedly describing them as environmentally safe. One of the plants is known as "Next Gen," short for Next Generation, a moniker that highlights plans for this facility to use so-called clean-coal technologies.
Rounds isn't the only governor in his region to back coal. North Dakota's John Hoeven is an outspoken believer in clean coal as is Montana's Brian Schweitzer, while Wyoming's Gov. Dave Freudenthal says clean coal holds great promise. The Western Governors' Association endorses coal.
But in an era of global warming, when we urgently need to reduce our carbon emissions, it makes sense to ask whether building more coal-fired power plants is a good idea. Is there really such a thing as an environmentally acceptable "next generation" coal plant?
Right now, the answer is no. Burning coal to produce energy releases pollution and particulates that cause respiratory ailments, acid rain and smog. Washing coal before burning it and using scrubbers in smokestacks helps alleviate some of these problems, and these techniques are certainly an advance over yesteryear's carefree, pollution-strewing approach. But washing and scrubbers fail to remove carbon dioxide, a major cause of global warming.
Electricity produced by coal is responsible for 40 percent of the carbon dioxide pollution -- hundreds of millions of tons -- annually released in the United States. This represents more than 80 percent of the greenhouse gases emitted by our electric-generation sector. Coal creates most of the nation's electricity, but it also causes more global warming than any other electric source.
If we are to prevent coal-caused emissions from increasing global warming, we need new technologies. Carbon-capture and sequestration is one possibility. It would enable plant operators to capture CO2 before it escapes the energy-production process, preventing or slowing its release into the environment. But this approach would surely pile on costs to utilities, and it has not been successfully used on a commercial scale.
Another possibility is the Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle, a process that turns coal into gas. Two IGCC plants operate in the U.S., but high costs and unreliable technology put this proposed solution in the "maybe" category.
Many scientists have said that the technology to create carbon-free coal-fired power plants -- if such a thing is possible at all -- might be 15 to 20 years in the future. But we can't afford to wait that long. Global warming experts say that we have to start curbing our carbon emissions now, not in a decade or more.
Al Gore and other critics charge that the coal industry has crafted an illusory message about clean coal; they challenge advocates to identify a single project that has captured and safely stored carbon emissions. Yet in South Dakota, the utilities behind the two new coal plants have expedited their construction schedules. If the plants get built, neither will contain any technology to significantly reduce carbon dioxide emissions. If they are built under this circumstance, how can they be described as environmentally acceptable?
How much time must pass before we demand that "clean coal" becomes more than just a phrase on a ball cap?
Peter Carrels is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a writer in Aberdeen, South Dakota.