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The Clean Coal Con

Environmental Enron

by PETER MONTAGUE

When burned, coal produces three times its own weight in carbon dioxide (CO2) — making it far dirtier than any other energy source, per unit of usable energy. Carbon dioxide is the main human contributor to global warming, so as more people worry about the future of human civilization in a hothouse world, new coal plants are being canceled across the country.

To protect its enormous investment in land, equipment, politicians and environmental groups, the coal industry has bet its future on an untried technology called "carbon capture and storage," or CCS for short. The idea is to capture the carbon dioxide emitted by burning coal, compress it into a liquid, and bury it a mile below ground, hoping it will stay there forever. The coal industry’s fanciful name for this is "clean coal" and even though clean coal does not actually exist anywhere on Earth, the industry has sold the idea so effectively that more than 60% of Americans say they favor it.

To gain permission to build new coal plants, the coal and electric power industries are now promising the moon: "This new coal plant will be ‘capture-ready.’ Just let us build this plant now and we’ll add a CCS unit onto the back end as soon as CCS technology has matured and is affordable." In other words, the industry is saying, "Let us build ‘capture-ready’ coal plants now and someday eventually maybe we’ll be able to capture the CO2 and bury it in the ground, where we hope it will remain forever."

This is precisely the situation at Duke Energy’s ‘capture-ready’ plant being built now at Edwardsport, Indiana.

The 630-megawatt Edwardsport plant will emit an estimated 4300 tons of CO2 per year (unless and until CCS is tacked onto the plant). Therefore, during its 40-year lifetime, the plant will produce 4300 x 40 = 172,000 tons, or 344 million pounds, of CO2.

Duke Energy executives insist that the deep earth beneath Edwardsport is ideal for storing hazardous liquid CO2. At least one major environmental group — the Clean Air Task Force, headquartered in Boston — agrees with them. A recent news report in the Bloomington, Indiana, Herald Times says, "Clean Air Task Force representative John W. Thompson describes the Duke carbon sequestration initiative as a pioneering effort that could provide a template for other companies and countries to ameliorate global warming by safely storing carbon dioxide…." When Duke Energy officials met with the editorial board of the Herald Times recently, the Clean Air task Force tagged along to provide Duke Energy a patina of green.

Edwardsport lies in Knox County in southwestern Indiana, about 70 miles below Evansville. Southwestern Indiana lies atop a geologic feature known as the "Wabash Seismic Zone." Because it was only discovered in recent decades, the Wabash Seismic zone is not nearly so well known as the nearby "New Madrid Seismic Zone" which is famous because in 1811-1812 it spawned earth-shattering quakes that registered as high a 8 on the Richter scale, which were felt in New Hampshire a thousand miles away and rang church bells in Washington, D.C., according to the Indiana Geological Survey.

Here’s what the Central United States Earthquake Consortium has to say about the Wabash Seismic Zone:

"Recent studies have indicated that the New Madrid Seismic Zone is not the only ‘hot spot’ for earthquakes in the Central United States. On June 18, 2002, a 5.0 magnitude earthquake struck Evansville, Indiana with an epicenter between Mt. Vernon and West Franklin in Posey County, in an area that is part of the Wabash Valley Seismic Zone….

"The Wabash Valley Seismic Zone is located in Southeastern Illinois and Southwestern Indiana and it is capable of producing ‘New Madrid’ size earthquake events…."

Just two months ago, on April 18, a magnitude 5.2 earthquake struck in the Wabash zone, with its epicenter 34 miles from Edwardsport. Since then nearly 3 dozen earthquakes have occurred in the Wabash zone, 29 of them strong enough for local people to feel. In other words, the Wabash zone is very active: "A magnitude 1.0 earthquake is probably happening once a week somewhere in the Wabash seismic zone," says Michael Hamburger, an Indiana University professor of geological sciences.

Lubricating the Geology

In the 1960s, the Rocky Mountain Arsenal outside Denver, Colorado began pumping liquid wastes into the ground and inadvertently set off a series of earthquakes by lubricating the underground geology. Scientists studying the feasibility of pumping liquid CO2 into the ground near the Wabash seismic zone in Edwardsport, Indiana will need to show why CO2 could not promote more and bigger earthquakes in southern Indiana and Illinois — and why powerful earthquakes in the Wabash or New Madrid zones will never release Duke’s CO2 into the atmosphere. "Never" is a long time.

So far, government scientists have not set any criteria for deciding what makes a "good" site for burying CO2 in the ground. Without such criteria, claiming that any power plant is "capture ready" is a scam. To be "capture ready," a plant has to be capable of capturing its CO2 but also the ground beneath the plant has to be suitable for storing it in perpetuity.

So… is Edwardsport, Indiana the place where the nation’s best independent geologists would recommend burial of 344 million pounds of pressurized liquid CO2? Or are Duke Energy and the Clean Air Task Force just using the fake promise of "carbon storage someday" to overcome public opposition to a coal plant so they can make a buck? Not so, insists John Thompson of the Clean Air Task Force. "We’re into this plant not because we love coal…. We’re just interested in clean air and clean water," he says.

But wait. Recently the Doris Duke Foundation announced a grant of $845,000 to the Clean Air Task Force to promote carbon capture and storage. Hmmm… Duke Power (now Duke Energy) was started in 1905 by Doris Duke’s father, James B. "Buck" Duke.

Furthermore, in the past couple of years, the Joyce Foundation has awarded three grants to the Clean Air Task Force to promote "clean coal" — $55,000, $60,000 and $787,500. So between them Duke and Joyce have given the Clean Air Task Force $1.7 million to promote carbon capture and storage, even, apparently, in active earthquake zones. Maybe for that kind of money, skating to the dark side on such thin ice begins to resemble a scam of such proportions that it can only be labeled "an American success story" — right up there with junk bond king Michael Milken, Iran-Contra mastermind Oliver North, and Enron’s Kenneth "Kenny Boy" Lay.

PETER MONTAGUE is editor of Rachel’s Democracy and Health News.