During the 2016 U.S. election, Donald Trump stood on the podium during a rally in West Virginia. Trump had chosen West Virginia, historically an epicenter for coal production, to unleash his full support for what he perceived as an ‘American’ energy source. In front of the screaming crowd, he donned a coal miners hat and gave a vague series of talking points on his support of coal.
Since then, Trump has remained consistent on coal, even going so far as to lift restrictions on coal plant pollution of streams. He claims, despite all evidence to the contrary, that coal will provide more jobs and will be safe and clean. Ignoring the fact that the job-to-production ratio of coal is much lower than other sources, and therefore by definition will supply fewer jobs, ‘clean coal’ has had a powerful resurgence since the election. Clean coal is, also by definition, impossible. The process refers to carbon capture, but even with expensive carbon sequestration that only does a partial job, many environmental effects remain intact. Despite the oxymoronic name, ‘clean coal’ has been a thorn in the foot of environmental advocates for years, largely due to corporate influence.
What is Clean Coal, and What is Wrong With Regular Coal?
The first thing to know about coal is that it’s the ‘dirtiest’ of all major energy types. Energy production, depending on the type, releases varying degrees of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. These greenhouse gasses stay in the atmosphere and essentially trap heat from leaving the planet, which leads to what we call climate change. When it’s burned, coal releases significantly more CO2 than any other energy type, including natural gas, solar, wind, nuclear, etc.
According to a 2014 study, coal released a median of 820 carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e), whereas the next largest producer, natural gas, released a median of only 490 CO2e. Rooftop solar released 41, and wind and nuclear both released 12.
‘Clean coal’ technology supposedly focuses on capturing the greenhouse gasses before they are released into the atmosphere. Over the last 5 years or so, the world’s first ‘clean coal’ plant—the Kemper County plant in Mississippi—has been under construction, promising to scrub 2/3 of emissions. The plant was ultimately shut down in June, as the technology was found to simply not be functional. By the time the plant failed, it had already cost around $7.5 billion (started on a budget of $2.4 billion) and was three years behind schedule.
Despite the fact that scientifically and, based on the failure of the plant’s technology, practically, ‘clean coal’ isn’t viable, some claim it’s due to financial interference from the government working against coal. Earlier this year, the Department of Energy was tasked with analyzing the energy grid and judging the viability and economic status of energy types. The final grid report, after Rick Perry’s influence, expectedly sings praises to coal. There was, however, a draft leaked that only included the influence of career employees who didn’t find out what the Department of Energy was after being nominated to lead it.
The draft states that, despite complaints of renewable energy subsidies and government regulation, coal has dropped in influence due to the rise in natural gas. Complaints of grid reliability going down were also shot down, as the report showed that grid reliability had improved in recent years during the fall of coal. Even the final draft, criticized heavily for lack of supporting evidence, mentions the high operational costs of coal production, and acknowledges that they are mostly inflexible. The report also neglects current coal subsidies and doesn’t factor in environmental and long-term benefits of renewable energy sources.
The Clean Coal Lobby
Rick Perry has had massive amounts of personal donations from coal and oil companies, receiving $633,575 between 2001 and 2011 from Energy Future Holdings (a massive coal/oil conglomerate)-more than any other politician. Keeping in mind this is just one of many oil/coal companies to donate to Perry. Perry represents what most people already know to be true about the fossil fuel industry—it’s largely kept in power by private corporate interests and misinformation.
According to the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, one of the primary drivers of the phrase ‘Clean Coal’ is the advertising agency R&R. R&R is known for having been a part of some very influential campaigns, including being the originator of the phrase ‘What Happens in Here Stays Here’ for the city of Las Vegas, Nevada. Their ‘Clean Coal’ campaign has been funded by corporations such as Duke Energy, Peabody Energy, and BHP Billiton—the largest US publicly owned utility company, largest US coal mining company, and world’s largest mining company respectively.
In 2008 alone, the ‘Clean Coal’ campaign spent $35 million from these companies—comparable to campaigns defending smoking in the 1990s. The Clean Coal Marketing Campaign outspent every other climate lobbying agency in the first half of 2008, including efforts both for and against climate change, and even sponsored several presidential debates.
On Its Way Out
Despite the best efforts of coal and ‘clean coal’ lobbyists, coal has been a dying force in U.S. energy production. Less than ten years ago, it made up more than 50% of our energy production, but in 2016 only made up 30%. For the first time since 1949, this placed it second, after natural gas, which made up 34%. Although this year, partially to do with rising gas prices and Trump’s attempts to promote coal, coal moved back to number one, but it’s predicted to equal out with natural gas in 2018 again.
Meanwhile, renewables are growing rapidly, and become more economically viable every day. While the coal industry hasn’t been defeated, renewable energy is creating massive amounts of jobs, exponentially more than can be created in the coal industry due to automation and machine efficiency. Renewable energy retraining has also gained traction as an important tool for out-of-work coal workers. Unlike actually clean renewables, it would be a shame if the US spent massive amounts of money for less of an atmospheric impact that still caused acid rain, mountaintop removal, lung cancer, mercury contamination, and deadly mine shaft accidents.