By Wendy Gabriel
GREEN TIP: As the weather turns colder, turn your thermostat down an additional two degrees to save energy. According to the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, you could save up to 2,000 pounds of carbon dioxide a year and save yourself some money with this simple adjustment.
During this election cycle, we’ve been inundated with the promises of clean coal technology. I have been a little skeptical about the reality of clean coal but heard the term so many times I was beginning to think maybe the coal industry was cleaning things up.
Enter “Heat”. A PBS Frontline program by the award-winning producer and correspondent Martin Smith.
The program “investigates how the world’s largest corporations and governments are responding to Earth’s looming environmental disaster.” You can watch the program online and I highly recommend it. It gave me a crash course in climate change and “clean” coal. I now concur with the assessment from Eric Pooley, former managing editor of Fortune magazine, that clean coal is just a slogan. “Clean” coal is not so clean.
When asked about the presidential candidates’ stance on the issue of clean coal, Pooley explained “Both John McCain and Barack Obama are staunchly in favor of research and development for clean coal technology. They both see a United States that gets 50 percent of its electricity from coal, and they don’t think we can get to a solution unless we find a way to use much of that coal, but in a way that doesn’t spew greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. So they’re in favor of big time R&D, billions of dollars of R&D for the coal industry.”
The program illuminates the many problems with coal. Namely, the devastating impact of greenhouse gases. Every year coal-fired power plants emit up to 2 billion tons of CO2, and that’s just in the United States. When you add China and other countries, the figure jumps dramatically.
If we could harness the CO2 and dispose of it economically and safely, it would be a step in the right direction. But that is precisely what seems to have the industry stumped.
One of the theories is the harnessed CO2 could be buried. But as Jeff Goodell, author of Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America’s Energy Future, points out, “Carbon dioxide is an asphyxiant, so there’s the problem of if the CO2 is buried 2,000 feet underground and there’s some minor earthquake and it can leak up through a fissure and get into someone’s basement, then you could be asphyxiated without knowing.
“And it’s odorless gas; there’s no way to detect it. Is it actually staying there? Or is it just sort of bubbling out somewhere where we’re not watching? So it requires incredibly complex [regulation] and oversight to make sure that this works well.”
Goodell then articulated what I had been thinking as the daunting costs, capture of CO2 and other “clean” coal difficulties were discussed. “…at a certain point, you have to ask, well, if [we’re] going to go to all this expense, why not do a clean renewable power or something that is perhaps the same price or maybe a small percentage more expensive right now but vastly simpler and eliminates all of these technological problems?”
Frontline didn’t even get into the problem on the front end of coal’s journey: The mining of the coal. That’s a whole new discussion about the environmental costs of obtaining the coal in the first place.
I suggest watching the documentary by writer/director David Novack, Burning the Future: Coal in America. It follows the story of the conflict between the coal industry and residents of West Virginia, dramatically illustrating the harsh reality of “clean” coal.
We need to do our part in reducing greenhouse gases. Start today. The Pew Center on Global Climate Change has some great tips for how to reduce your individual greenhouse gas emissions.
Together we can make a difference for our earth!