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Oil wells or antelope | Poisoning Whales | W Watch | Dirty old king coal | For the record | Updates

Old King Coal

by Paul Rauber

Can W.’s second-favorite energy source ever come clean? Even though she’s been hearing about “clean coal” for 20 years, Citizens Coal Council director Carolyn Johnson still bursts into laughter when the subject comes up. “It’s such an oxymoron!” she says, “There is no way to clean it up.”

Coal is our preeminent fuel, generating more than half of the nation’s electricity, but it’s hard to imagine a dirtier energy source. The billion-plus tons of coal burned each year in the United States create 60 percent of the nation’s sulfur dioxide emissions, a quarter of its nitrogen oxide, a third of its mercury, and nearly a third of its carbon dioxide--the single-largest contributor to global warming.

If President Bush has his way, we’ll burn even more coal in the future. In February he boosted coal as a key solution to the nation’s energy problems: “We have got to understand that we need to work on the supply side,” Bush said, “and coal is in abundant supply here in America.” While his administration slashes funding for renewable energy and conservation initiatives, it proposes lavishing 2 billion taxpayer dollars on clean coal over the next ten years. Another $2 billion, that is, because that much has already gone to the endeavor since 1984.

The Clean Coal Technology Program is corporate welfare in its purest form. Its scores of projects focus on reducing emissions of nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide (“nox and sox,” as they’re known in the trade), and “gassifying” coal for more-efficient combustion. The goals are laudable, but with the coal industry netting half a billion dollars a year, why should the public pay to clean up its mess?

At the rate taxpayers subsidize coal, we might consider burning money for energy instead. According to Lexi Shultz, staff attorney for U.S. Public Interest Research Group, “Clean coal has been reviewed by the General Accounting Office seven times, and seven times they found a history of waste and mismanagement.” The GAO’s most recent report found eight clean-coal programs afflicted with “serious delays or financial problems,” with two of them in bankruptcy, despite the infusion of $79 million in public funds. “It’s one of the most poorly run programs in the federal government,” says Shultz. This has attracted the attention of congressional budget hawks; last year representatives Edward Royce (R-Calif.) and Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) attempted to scuttle the program. “There is nothing new being developed under the Clean Coal Technology Program,” said Ryan, “except for new ways to squander taxpayers’ money.”

And despite its name, clean coal results in a dirtier environment. While it can cut down on nox and sox, it does nothing to reduce the amount of poisonous mercury or global-warming CO2 that coal plants spew into the atmosphere. Btu for Btu, coal emits twice as much CO2 as natural gas; when Bush backtracked on his campaign pledge to limit CO2 emissions, the coal industry was the prime beneficiary.

The coal industry, in turn, has been generous to Bush and his party. In the last election cycle the industry gave out $3.9 million, $3.4 million of it to Republicans. Bush also owes a political debt to coal-intensive West Virginia, which was one of three traditionally Democratic states that tipped last year’s election his way. In addition, West Virginia’s Senator Robert Byrd (D), who styles himself “the granddaddy of clean coal,” is the ranking Democratic member of the Senate Appropriations Committee; for Bush, a hefty contribution to Byrd’s favorite charity can only help prospects for passage of his budget in the Senate.

The likely legislative vehicle for clean coal this session is Byrd’s S. 60, a smudgy Valentine to the coal industry that has even less to do with pollution reduction than past clean- coal programs. Byrd’s bill defines as “clean” any coal that burns more efficiently or produces less pollution; how much more or less than what is not specified. It would repeal provisions of the Clean Air Act for power plants with clean-coal technology, which could result in new “clean” coal plants that pollute more than plants built in the last ten years, and provide incentives to convert clean natural-gas burning plants to dirtier coal-burning systems.

“The goal of the program is to promote the use of coal,” says Shultz. “To the extent it does, overall emissions are almost certain to go up.” In other words, the more clean coal succeeds, the dirtier our air becomes.

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