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Is clean coal a long-term solution to pollution?


Low-carbon Energy

But even with the 'clean coal' technology that you've perhaps heard so much about, prospects are dubious that CCS could ever be a cost-effective way to provide low-carbon energy.

And there are a number of reasons for this. First and foremost, CCS technology is still exceedingly expensive and largely unproven. The United States' highest profile CCS operation, FutureGen, touted by both the Bush and Obama administrations, has been shuttered after draining nearly a billion dollars in funding.

And even if the technology needed to safely pump coal exhaust underground were secured, there'd still be the problem of volume. All that CO2 has to go somewhere, and carving out enough underground space for years and years and years of processed gas is a daunting task indeed. Plush, some scientists think injecting all that CO2 underground may pose acute environmental and health risks, while others are concerned it may actually incite earthquakes. For these reasons -- primarily the volume issue -- two Texas scientists recently labeled the technology "profoundly non-feasible" in a comprehensive study.

Add to the mix that coal itself is a very finite resource -- though industry reports conclude we have enough of the stuff left in the United States to meet current power demands for an estimated 200 years or so, industry reports have been shown time and again to be overly rosy. In fact, many analysts believe we'll soon hit 'peak coal' production, and worldwide, supplies will quickly diminish. Already European nations once rich in coal (England, Germany, etc) have seen their domestic production rates decline dramatically, and have been forced to import the stuff from China, Australia, and the U.S.

Furthermore, the quality of the coal that we mine is declining, as we're using up the good stuff with high concentrations of energy and we're left with dirtier stuff that burns much less efficiently. And even that will become harder and more expensive to get at as worldwide demand booms and supplies are exhausted.

To recap: Clean coal would still require extraordinarily dirty mining and excessive shipping programs. The technology itself is unproven, and may have environmental problems of its own. Finally, even if the technology were perfected, coal has a finite supply, and relying on it as any part of a long term solution to pollution is folly indeed. In other words, 'clean coal' is only a long term solution for politician's campaign platforms -- nothing more.