Wednesday, June 25, 2008

BusinessWeek: The Dirty Truth About Clean Coal

I get some email questions about "clean coal" so I just wanted to post this article in full and simply say, there is no such thing. Clean"er" coal, yes. But "clean" is simply a political term tossed around people who want to win elections and/or the industry itself trying to sell you some swampland in Florida. The plain truth is economic growth comes before environment costs in some countries and that's what matters in the coal thesis. But for those clutching to clean coal as the next solar, that's just not a reality today. It might never be. But that doesn't mean it is not a great investment [Dec 6: Coal Stocks Quietly in a Bull Market]
  • Get ready for the selling of "clean coal." A $40 million industry-sponsored marketing and lobbying campaign has launched, with one national television spot featuring a farmer, a teacher, and a woman in a white lab coat declaring: "I believe"—while a voiceover describes how coal can be burned in an environmentally friendly manner.
  • With coal-rich swing states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia critical to the Presidential race, both Barack Obama and John McCain have endorsed the idea that coal is well on its way to becoming a benign energy source.
  • The catch is that for now—and for years to come—"clean coal" will remain more a catchphrase than a reality. Despite the eagerness of the coal and power industries to sanitize their image and the desire of U.S. politicians to push a healthy-sounding alternative to expensive foreign oil and natural gas, clean coal is still a misnomer.
  • Environmental legislation enacted in 1990 forced the operators of coal-fired power plants to reduce pollutants that cause acid-rain. But such plants, which provide half of U.S. electricity, are the country's biggest source of greenhouse-gas emissions linked to global warming. No coal plant can control its emissions of heat-trapping carbon dioxide. "Clean coal' is like a healthy cigarette,'" says Blan Holman, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center in Charleston, S.C. "It doesn't exist."
  • That fact won't mute the marketing bluster. All the talk relates to the idea of separating CO2 from the coal-burning process and burying it in liquid form so it won't contribute to climate change. "When [Obama] says clean coal,' he's talking about coming up with a system to put carbon back into the ground from whence it came," says Jason Grumet, the candidate's principal adviser on energy and the environment.
  • Corporations and the federal government have tried for years to accomplish "carbon capture and sequestration." So far they haven't had much luck. The method is widely viewed as being decades away from commercial viability. Even then, the cost could be prohibitive: by a conservative estimate, several trillion dollars to switch to clean coal in the U.S. alone.
  • Then there are the safety questions.
  • Companies seeking to build dozens of coal-fueled power plants across the country use the term "clean coal" liberally in trying to persuade regulators and voters.
  • In all, some 118 electoral votes are in play in the top 10 coal-producing states—44% of the 270 needed to win the election. (and that pretty much sums all you need to know about 'clean coal')
[Jan 14: New Coal ETF (KOL) Introduced from Van Eck Global]

Long a bunch of coal stocks, before
all the cool kids were doing it

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