Coal is not a popular word in environmental circles, but the term ‘clean coal’ has been common currency at least for the past 30 years.
Industries are sprouting up promising a new era of coal, where the dirtiest fuel can be used without much harm to the environment.
But is there anything ‘clean’ about coal? President Obama and his opponent at the last US presidential election both stated they believed so. Yet the process of producing clean coal isn’t quite as easy going as Obama’s rhetoric.
Clean coal is defined as clean because the coal itself isn’t exactly being burned. The coal is mixed with water, chemicals, and oxygen, and then processed into gas.
Turning coal into gas before using it as a fuel removes pollutants including nitrogen and sulphur, taking care of any worries about acid rain. The process has its critics, with some experts on the industry claiming that ‘clean coal’ is a case of false advertising.
They state that, although clean coal plants remove nitrogen and sulphur, they do little to prevent significant carbon dioxide emissions – the main cause of man made global warming. Currently, clean coal projects are not capturing any carbon dioxide being released, and therefore the threat of global warming is not being addressed by clean coal systems in their current form.
However, given that carbon dioxide emissions are what is preventing clean coal being considered ‘clean’ by all, scientific research may be coming up with answers to this problem.
The idea is to pipe off the carbon dioxide and store it in the ground. The theory isn’t new but there is severe competition in finding a practical and cost-effective method of storing carbon dioxide under ground. Caves under the North Sea are already being used to store carbon dioxide although the size of the project at the moment makes it difficult to ascertain its large scale viability.
The challenge in rolling out such an underground capturing system lies in how expensive the process is to do. There were initially projects in the United States aimed at the construction of mass underground carbon storage facilities but they were halted when it became evident that the price of the technology just wasn’t competitive. This inability to make underground CO2 storage a reality is not only hampering the emergence of genuinely clean coal but surprisingly the traditional coal industry in general.
With environmental organisations putting pressure on governments to combat global warming, the absence of any clean version of coal is resulting in the closure of general coal burning plants as industry gradually moves towards renewable alternatives.
This transition towards carbon neutral generation of electricity is welcome but given the high number of jobs dependent on the coal industry across the world, governments would be foolish to abandon the idea of carbon storage.
The result would be mass closures across the coal industry, for which the unemployed may blame on an excessively coercive environmental agenda – that is not good news for the environment in the long run. Investment in carbon storage would save these jobs and provide us with a method of using coal but in a responsible and eco-friendly way.
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