DISCLOSURE – “CLEAN” COAL IS DIRTY
A British journalist has a point to make.
Fred Pearce, Greenwash Column, UK Guardian: “Who came up with the term "clean coal"? It is the most toxic phrase in the greenwash lexicon… It is, of course, oxymoronic. Coal is about acid rain and peasouper smogs, asthma and mercury contamination, radioactive waste emissions and ripping apart mountains, killing trees, lung cancer and, of course, global warming.”
Pretty straightforward, right?
Yet coal industry advocates continue to dangle the seductive promise of “clean” coal in their bids for the permitting of new plants.
Politicians from here to down under seem to desperately want to believe in it. Both John McCain and Barack Obama, Austalia’s progressive Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, German Chancellor Angela Merkel (who as a scientist should know better) and former UK business secretary John Hutton have all recently made promising references to “clean” coal.
The EU is planning to spend billions on pilot projects.
They are all clinging to the simplest math: Global climate change aggravated by coal-fired power plants PLUS (1) cheap, (2) abundant coal PLUS (3) the scientific concept of capturing coal plant emissions and burying them EQUALS (4) cheap, abundant, clean energy.
Former British chief scientist Sir David King: "[It is] the only hope for mankind".
Newsflash: Time to redo the math. (And refer to The Future of Coal from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology)
(1) There is no cheap coal: The cost of new wind installations rivals the cost of new coal plants. Where wind is most abundant, the long-term financing cost of coal plants makes them more expensive. When the excessive cost of installing “clean” coal technology is factored in – if such technology is ever developed at commercial scale – it will make such plants prohibitively expensive.
What was that about coal being uniquely cheap? (click to enlarge)
(2) There is no abundant coal: Recent research suggests world coal reserves, while probably greater than those of oil or natural gas, are clearly finite. By the time “clean” coal technology is perfected, it is entirely likely a peak in coal reserves will be foreseeable. (Some say it already is.)
(3) Coal plant emissions-capture-and-storage (CCS) does not exist at commercial scale. It is only a concept. There is at present the ability to capture SOME greenhouse gas emissions and other toxins and bury them with SOME safety in deep sea geologic cavities or old oil formations.
The actual product of burning coal is not energy, that’s a byproduct. The actual product is carbon dioxide (CO2). The point: Using coal to generate electricity inevitably creates A LOT of CO2 emissions.
The cost of equipping coal plants to capture large quantities of emissions is so great it has prevented CCS systems from being built.
There is no proven, long-term, safe storage and the cost of insuring trial sites - because the risk of failure is so high - has prevented almost all the storage sites that have been planned from being built.
Finally, mathematician Vaclav Smil calculates it would take a transport and pipeline infrastructure equal to the one now used to move all the world’s oil and gas supplies to facilitate the sequestration of the world’s coal plant greenhouse gas emissions. Building such infrastructure would take a very long time and be very expensive.
(4) Cheap, abundant, clean energy is available NOW from wind and solar and it will soon be available from hydrokinetic (ocean, wave, tide) energies. Expanding the infrastructure for such cheap, abundant, clean energy will, as a bonus, facilitate the transition away from fossil fuel-powered personal transport to electric vehicles, eliminating another source of climate change-inducing greenhouse gases.
Old Energy advocates frequently repeat the canard that New Energy is not available in adequate quantity. True - because Old Energy advocates for 3 decades obstrcuted the building of it. Give New Energy a level playing field and 10 years and then do the math again.
Why are so many people so completely wrong? The coal industry has had centuries to instill its propaganda. And it is not slowing down its efforts. The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE), a coalition of US coal mining companies and electricity utilities, continues to spend tens of millions of dollars to promote "clean" coal through advertising and insidious promotional activity.
From NationalSierraClub via YouTube.
Because there is no such thing as “clean” coal and no real hope of it in the foreseeable future, activists want coal plant builders to disclose to their investors and financers the truth about the harm using coal as an energy source to create electricity does to the environment and the extent to which it aggravates global climate change.
New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo recently announced he had convinced coal power Dynegy to join Xcel Energy in committing to make such a disclosure. AES Corp., Dominion Resources Inc., and Peabody Energy Corp. remain in Cuomo’s sites.
Former Vice President Al Gore: “[This represents] a new model to combat global warming.”
Much welcomed and heralded, this news is both less and more significant than the news stories make it out to be.
It is less significant than the news stories make it out to be because the companies have done nothing more than agree to a standard Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) declaration. The lawyers at Dynegy and Xcel obviously decided including such disclosures protects them more than not disclosing. The disclosure portends no change in practices. It is rather like a doctor obtaining an informed consent. Few patients refuse when they are given no other option.
The announcement is also more significant than the news stories make it out to be because it indicates the Dynegy lawyers have decided it is necessary and it is to be expected that other coal companies’ lawyers will come to the same conclusion.
Ceres, a coalition of responsible investors and public interest groups, says disclosure could turn money toward New Energy. Once the risks become necessary to widely disclose, it may become obvious there are less risky sources of energy.
Disclosure of harm is the first step. Full disclosure, that there is no such thing as “clean” coal, is the big step.
Much more on why coal cannot be clean at Coal Is Not The Answer
click to enlarge
Dynegy to Warn Investors on Risks of Coal Burning
October 23, 2008 (AP via NY Times)
NY AG: Dynegy To Disclose To Investors Climate-Change Risk
Chad Bray, October 23, 2008 (Dow Jones Newswires via CNN Money)
Time to bury the ‘clean coal’ myth
Fred Pearce, October 30, 2008 (UK Guardian)
Dynegy Inc. (David Byford, spokesman); Andrew M. Cuomo, attorney general, state of New York; Former Vice President Al Gore, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Academy Award winner for anti-global climate change work; Mindy Lubber, president, Ceres; Fred Pearce, Greenwash Column, UK Guardian; The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity; Edison Electric Institute
- Dynegy has agreed to put detailed information in its financial filings on any material business risks posed by climate change.
- Coal industry advocates offer the promise of “clean” coal in a bait-and-switch bid for permits to build new plants.
What was that about cheap energy? (click to enlarge)
- From the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s The Future of Coal: The first commercial-scale carbon capture and storage (CCS) plant won't come online before 2030.
- Edison Electric Institute testimony to a House of Representatives committee: commercial deployment of CCS will require 25 years research.
- December 2007: Cancellation by the U.S. Dept. of Energy of the biggest CCS R&D project in the world.
- The Dynegy agreement is the second of its type. Xcel Energy made a similar pledge with with Attorney General Cuomo in August
- 2007: Cuomo subpoenaed 5 major energy companies: Xcel, Dynegy, AES Corp. (AES), Dominion Resources Inc. (D), and Peabody Energy Corp. under New York's Martin Act. (3 to go).
- There is a war against coal going on in Europe, Australia and the U.S.
- A Google search will turn up 1 million+ web pages about “clean” coal.
- Australian Prime Minister Rudd sees "clean” coal as a way to both meet Australia's Kyoto protocol pledges and to assuage industry.
- German Chancellor Merkel sees “clean” coal as a way to cut emissions without violating her country’s ban on nuclear energy.
- U.S. presidential candidates Obama and McCain like “clean” coal as a way to make promises they don’t have to worry about keeping.
- Dynegy is based in Houston and provides wholesale power in 13 states.
- A current confrontation between environmentalists and German utility E.ON in the UK government over a new billion-pound "cleaner coal" power station – Britain's first coal plant for three decades – at Kingsnorth in Kent typifies the use of “clean” coal by the industry. Builders obtain construction permits with the promise to make plants “clean” coal-ready on the assumption the technology doesn’t exist and they will be able to carry on generating with dirty coal.
- Disclosures may include warning investors about coming expensive requirements to limit emissions or pay for them or the possibility of law suits for health-affecting pollution.
- Environmentalists applauded Cuomo’s deal with Dynegy.
- CO2 emissions are higher from coal, per unit of energy generated, than any other fuel.
- Many toxic elements are buried in coal. When coal is dug up and burned, the toxins are released into the earth, water and air.
Click for more info on the National Day of Action.
- Andrew Cuomo, attorney general, state of New York: "Today we raise the bar in the industry and ensure transparency and disclosure in the marketplace…Investors have the right to know all material financial risks faced by coal-fired power plants associated with global warming."
- David Byford, spokesman, Dynegy: “We’re going to continue doing what we’re doing…To the extent that we identify material risks related to climate change, we’ll disclose them as we do other material risks.”
- Fred Pearce, Greenwash Column, UK Guardian: “…a branch of the International Energy Agency that used to be called the Coal Research Centre….[has] changed its name – to the Clean Coal Centre. Thanks to its "industrial sponsors" it is able to "provide unbiased information on the sustainable use of coal worldwide." Right. Like the fact there isn't any?”
- Fred Pearce, Greenwash Column, UK Guardian: Just say no.