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Obama: The Making of a Clean Coal President

Political and Economic Opportunity, Green Cooperation Cement Obama's Position

By David Sassoon

Feb 10, 2010

Brune is an interesting choice for the Sierra Club at this difficult moment for the environmental movement. Skilled in corporate campaigns that successfully have pressured industry to make meaningful concessions, Brune brings a vocabulary of direct action to a fairly staid organization with a vast national field infrastructure. Observers are watching intently what he will do with the organization's highly successful Beyond Coal campaign. In his book, Coming Clean, he had this to say about clean coal:

"But when you hear coal advocates describe 'clean coal' as a way to fight climate change, put your BS detector on alert. The dirty secret of 'clean coal' is that, after more than twenty years of government and industry research and billions in subsidies, not a single coal plant in the world can be called clean. Not a single power plant has ever captured all of its carbon dioxide emissions, much less compressed the carbon and stuffed it underground. ...

"Why, then, does 'clean coal' have so many powerful and vocal advocates? It boils down to profits, politics and relentless PR."

And now a Clean Coal president.

It looks like a period of regrouping and defense for climate advocates has begun, with the IPCC also under siege and snow even falling heavily in Washington this week. As with CCS, in return for a carbon price signal and performance standards for coal plants, green groups were ready to concede amendments to the Clean Air Act to limit the reach of EPA into the CO2 emissions of the utility industry. Even though the climate bill is on hold, Republicans, with some help from Democrats, are smelling blood and going after EPA anyway, to get what their coal and oil industry campaign contributors want without conceding anything.

With Obama's unequivocal support of clean coal, his EPA — thanks to a 2007 Supreme Court ruling on the Clean Air Act — is now the last thing standing in the way of open season for the coal industry to expand without concern for carbon regulation.


See also:

New US-China Energy Agreement Aims for '21st Century Coal'

Will West Virgina's CCS Demo Make a Dent in 'Clean Coal's Problems?

Obama Administration Releases First Funds for Elusive 'Clean Coal'

Carbon Capture and Storage Still a Pipe Dream?

Who's Responsible If a CO2 Storage Site Leaks?

Scientists Suggest Storing CO2 in Offshore Basalt Formations

(Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)


I voted and campaigned for President Obama too! I heard him say he would do exactly what he is doing concerning coal. During the campaign he didn't say he would do away with coal or forget about clean coal legislation. I have fought tooth and nail to blog and defend our President every step of the way. When I heard that he was going to turn his back on the coal producing states I didn't know what to tell my relatives and friends that are totally dependent on the (coal fields). Besides, some states like WV would be totally destroyed if he turned his back on coal. During the recent recession our state of WV wasn't hit as hard because the mines continued to produce. People continued to have work. This was a good thing because I don't have to tell you that Appalachia has it's share of problems, poor, sick, etc. We didn't suffer as bad as some of the other states like Florida or California. I was totally thankful for that and am elated that the decision of my favorite President is not to turn his back on me, my family, and my state of WV. Coal does cause pollution but, we need to find ways to work around this and keep people in jobs. Before we close down all coal fields someday we can be retraining people into new jobs in the clean coal industry. We have modern windmills in the mountains of WV, also. These feed electricity into Washington, D.C. I'm glad our President is thinking with his head and not totally following a "clean everything up this minute" agenda. These things will take years but, we go forward a step at a time. Kudos to President Obama for a wise decision that will help the climate situation and also. help people keep their jobs!

CCS is not only for coal

The US has lots of shale gas, and lots of CNG imports are hitting our shores, both of which could be pressed into service for electrical power generation instead of coal. The CO2 from nat gas can and should be sequestered as well. I love solar and wind, but the wind doesn't always blow, and the sun doesn't always shine. These two modes cannot provide the baseload capability for an electrical grid. Their unpredictability, especially wind, makes grid management difficult.

I Agree

Regardless of how many windmills we build, if we are also still producing fossil fuel of any variety we need to capture most of the carbon dioxide produced when it is burnt. Carbon dioxide will continue to be removed from the atmosphere to the deep ocean by the downwelling polar currents but only at about 6% of today's emission rate. If we release more than that atmospheric concentration will continue to rise.

I was concerned about trying to capture carbon dioxide from vehicles if battery life, cost, range and charging time do not improve enough to make electric vehicles attractive. But I have recently been looking at using potassium hydroxide solution to capture carbon dioxide as the carbonate and bicarbonate, which is very basic well known chemistry. At the limit of solubility I estimate 11 kg of liquor could hold the carbon dioxide from the combustion of 1 litre of fuel. I reckon that makes it feasible as long as the liquor is changed out every 100 miles or so and sent for processing to recover and sequester the carbon dioxide and reform the hydroxide. My guesstimate for the total cost of the scheme is about 70 pence per litre of fuel consumed, which I would certainly pay if there was no other way. Most of the cost is collecting spent and distributing fresh liquor.

It is not crucial that the vehicle carries enough hydroxide solution for a long journey because most trips are only a few miles and these account for a large proportion of the emissions. But it is important that the vehicle can occasionally make these long trips without delays for battery recharging. On a long journey it would be possible either to make several brief stops to exchange spent liquor for fresh or to simply exhaust the absorption capacity and allow carbon dioxide to escape to atmosphere.

Who Should Pay for Carbon Capture?

Many object to carbon capture because they object to coal, but this linkage is mistaken. Going for carbon capture does not mean subsidising coal. Indeed coal companies should be made to pay for capturing the carbon dioxide produced when their fuel is used. That would certainly give a huge boost to the economics of competing lower carbon technologies. See my website at for more detail.

The International Energy Agency (an intergovernmental organisation) say that stabilising climate in 2050 will cost at least 70% more without carbon capture.

Recent reports from the World Future Energy Summit

say that “speakers pointed to the maturation of CCS and many successful pilot facilities around the world. And they set the expectation that the industry is now ready to see production facilities built in large numbers.”

When fuel producers are obliged to place contracts for carbon capture and sequestration for a proportion of the carbon in their fuel, as I propose, I think there will be power companies from around the world competing to take their money. I hope we will be left wondering what all the fuss around cutting emissions was about.

Two problems with CCS

(1) The US fleet of coal plants is nearing retirement age (see and ).

(2) Coal is not renewable, meaning it will run out sooner or later. Maybe rather than later.

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