Clean coal is an oxymoron


After Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer made a fiery speech at the Democratic Convention, some people suggested that he’d make a fine secretary of Energy, no matter who wins the election. But although Schweitzer, a Democrat, may give a good speech, his near-fanatic promotion of coal should give one pause.

The West has long suffered the consequences of being the nation’s energy colony, and Schweitzer’s policies after four years in office indicate he’d promote more of the same. Despite his rhetoric about “clean coal” -- an oxymoron if there ever was one -- he supports building a 19th century-style coal burning plant near Great Falls, Mont.  Called the Highwood project, it would be the largest coal-fired plant built in Montana in 20 years, and it is a standard mercury-emitting, carbon-spewing coal plant -- the very sort that many states have banned. Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, for example, recently vetoed two new coal-fired power plants, choosing to invest in wind energy instead.

With no plans for carbon sequestration, Highwood would produce 2.8 million tons of greenhouse gases.  Global-warming experts such as NASA scientist James Hansen have called for a ban on all new coal-fired power plants as the first step. Schweitzer may have appointed a Climate Change Advisory Committee, but this is all but meaningless if he continues to promote coal as an energy source. 

Schweitzer insists that Highwood will “be one of the cleanest coal plants in the country,” yet he also directed his Board of Environmental Review to adopt weak mercury emissions controls for coal-fired plants. Schweitzer says that Montana needs to produce more energy, even though the state already exports 50 percent of its electricity. The governor may sound like a populist, but he continues to be beholden to King Coal.

Over the past few years, Schweitzer has toured the nation as the leading spokesperson for so-called “clean coal,” appearing on HBO, ABC and 60 Minutes.  His pet project is a proposed $1.5 billion synfuels (coal to liquid fuel) project in southeast Montana.  Squeezing  diesel out of coal is not easy: The project would require strip-mining to produce the fuel for the coal-fired power plants that would generate electricity for the coal-to-liquids refinery that, in turn, would provide the diesel for the massive stripmining project. It’s endless cycle that one environmental group terms “Gov. Schweitzer’s Perpetual Pollution Machine.”

For every ton of coal, this process yields a mere two barrels of fuel -- and produces two tons of  carbon dioxide.  Even if all the carbon produced by the process was captured and sequestered underground -- a highly dubious scenario -- synfuels would still release 4-8 percent more carbon dioxide than gasoline. 

The highly respected journal Scientific American points out that the massive energy required to produce gasoline or diesel from coal results in “more than twice the global warming emissions as regular gasoline and almost double those of ordinary diesel. As pundits have pointed out, driving a Prius on liquid coal makes it as dirty as a Hummer on regular gasoline.”
In stark contrast to government and scientific reports that indicate the heavy environmental and economic costs of these projects, Schweitzer uses the official state Web site to promote synfuels as a cost-effective and environmentally friendly “ultra-clean coal technology.”  Nowhere does the governor mention that this coal will be stripmined in eastern Montana, turning productive ranches and a stunning landscape into an industrial wasteland.  While Gov. Palin’s mantra is “drill, drill, drill,” Schweitzer’s seems to be, “dig, dig, dig.” Neither ends our dependence on fossil fuels. 

 When politicians propose mega-industrial projects of questionable public benefit, we need to stop and ask who exactly will profit from these projects. Any historical analysis of the West indicates that mineral development -- whether oil, coal, silver or copper -- provides limited returns to the place from which it was extracted. The profits quickly flow out of state, while the pollution remains – sometimes for centuries.  Agriculture, on the other hand, provides long-term economic stability.  Sacrificing food production for short-term energy profits benefits international energy companies. It doesn’t help most of us who live in the West.

With the resurgence of the Democratic Party in the West, many Democrats are reluctant to openly criticize their leaders. Although they squirm with every mention of “clean coal,” Montana Democrats remain positively giddy over the prospect of another sweeping Schweitzer victory this November against a weak Republican candidate.  Unity, however, does not mean blind acceptance of misguided policies that will lead to economic and environmental disaster. Did anyone else notice that as soon as Obama said “clean coal” in his acceptance speech, half the audience sat down?

Greg Gordon is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( He writes in Missoula, Montana and is a Ph.D. student in Environmental History.

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