Clean Coal…is this an oxymoron?

There is considerable conversation these days about clean coal…much of it is an excuse to delay the immediate funding and implementation of more clean and renewable energy sources in America.

But I don’t hear many asking…Is it possible to have clean coal?  and what does this really mean?

Some people within the coal industry and those who benefit from it, say yes clean coal technology exists. We can sequester carbon emissions and reduce contaminants this way. Even if this argument can hold water, and that is suspect, one important aspect of this is rarely addressed by coal’s supporters and that is the dirty business of acquiring the coal before it arrives at the coal plant to be burned….and this is not clean coal!

Very briefly (and you can learn much more about this by watching the film, Burning the Future Coal in America), over the last decades mountain top coal removal has become the preferred method for extracting coal but the consequences are devastating in many ways. Water ways, and surrounding eco-systems, are polluted. Drinking water is poisoned which has horrendous medical consequences for the local residents-who not coincidentally are often poor. Mountains are destroyed, forever taking with them plants and animals that are all part of a delicate balance. Flooding often results from the changed geography

Here are some photos of what mountaintop coal mining looks like. This is happening in the pristine Appalachian Mountains, in West Virginia and Kentucky. The Appalachians have some of the highest bio-diversity in the US and the EPA estimates that by 2012, 2,200 square miles of forest will be cleared for mountaintop coal removal. We are up in arms about the Amazon rain forest being cut down, but it is happening here in the U.S. as well. We claim to want to reduce carbon levels and we are chopping down forests….

Now imagine this, 1,000 tons of explosives are used daily in both Kentucky and W. Virginia to destroy these mountains. Not only is this catastrophic to the land, the plants and animals but local communities have to live with this too. These blasts release sulfur compounds that are a health hazard…they even corrode buildings. In the period 1985-2001 724 miles of streams were buried from the valley fills that are created from the blasted dirt. The effects of this on the eco-system are devastating.

Since over 50% of our electricity comes from coal, and it’s the single biggest air polluter in the U.S., one thing that we can do is become aware of our energy use. Do we really need so many lights on, or our computers running 24/7?  Another really important step that we can take is to support renewable energy alternatives. Wind and solar can power this country, we just need to make a commitment to it and to insist on a transition to energy sources that are less damaging to the environment and to ourselves.

So the next time you hear someone talking about clean coal see if they are offering any “clean” solutions to getting the coal out of the ground in the first place.