The Myth of Clean Coal
Barack Obama seems to be following a dirty legacy when it comes to his official energy policy, a policy that has left Appalachia with fewer mountaintops every year.
The price of oil per barrel fluctuated dramatically in the past year, and the U.S.’s dependency on foreign crude has become less stable as tensions in the Middle East have escalated. Over his long campaign, Obama laid out his strategy on how to deal with the crisis, which has been exacerbated by the war in Iraq and the potential confrontation with Iran, not to mention the oil speculator’s dubious role in the money game. But sadly Obama has been echoing old solutions to our new 21st century environmental troubles. Mainly, where is our energy going to come from if oil supplies dwindle or prices skyrocket again? And how will this all affect the dire reality of climate change?
President Obama supports an array of neoliberal strategies to deal with the country’s volatile energy situation. He is not opposed to the prospect of nuclear power, endorses capping-and-trading the coal industry’s pollution output, and supports liquefied coal.
Well, that’s a maybe on the latter.
“Senator Obama supports … investing in technology that could make coal a clean-burning source of energy,” Obama stated an email sent out by his campaign in June 2007. “However, unless and until this technology is perfected, Senator Obama will not support the development of any coal-to-liquid fuels unless they emit at least 20 percent less life-cycle carbon than conventional fuels.”
You did not just read a lofty proclamation from the new White House change agent, but a well-crafted rationale meant to appease the environmental movement. Meanwhile, back in his Senate days, Obama’s record relays a much different position on the issue.
It was only six months before the aforementioned email that Republican Senator Jim Bunning and Obama introduced the Coal-to-Liquid Fuel Promotion Act of 2007. The bill, introduced in January 2007, was referred to the Senate committee on finance and would have amended the Energy Policy Act of 2005 as well as the Energy Policy and Conservation Act to evaluate the feasibility of including coal-to-oil fuels in the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and provide incentives for research and plant construction.
Shortly after the introduction of the bill, Tommy Vietor, Obama’s spokesman, defended the senator’s proposal, "Illinois basin coal has more untapped energy potential than the oil reserves of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait combined. Senator Obama believes it is crucial that we invest in technologies to use these resources to reduce our dependence on foreign oil."
It was at the onset of the Nazi era that coal-to-liquid technology came to the forefront of modern energy science. In the latter part of the 1920s, German researchers Franz Fischer and Hans Tropsch developed the initial processes to liquify the dark rock into fuel. The procedure was utilized throughout World War II by both Germany and Japan. In fact, coal-to-liquid technology largely fueled Hitler’s bloody campaigns throughout Europe, as Germany had little petroleum reserves but held vast amounts of coal deposits throughout the country. Not too unlike the United States’ fossil fuel conundrum of today.
By 1930, Fischer and Tropsch had applied for several U.S. patents, yet it wasn’t until earlier last summer that the first U.S. coal-to-liquid plant was set for construction in West Virginia. But while liquid coal may help replace petroleum based fossil fuels, it is certainly not an answer to global warming.
“The total emissions rate for oil and gas fuels is about 27 pounds of carbon dioxide per gallon, counting both production and use,” states the Natural Resource Defense Council. “[T]he estimated total emissions from coal-derived fuel is more like 50 pounds of carbon dioxide per gallon — nearly twice as much.”
Has Obama had a change of heart, or has he just flip-flopped around like a suffocating trout for political leverage? The answer to that question may reside along the nuanced path we are getting all too used to seeing President Obama traverse these days. As his presidential campaign website read in late October 2008:
“Obama will significantly increase the resources devoted to the commercialization and deployment of low-carbon coal technologies. Obama will consider whatever policy tools are necessary, including standards that ban new traditional coal facilities, to ensure that we move quickly to commercialize and deploy low carbon coal technology.”
The apartheid government of South Africa was the first to use liquid coal for motor vehicles, and it seems, despite the “low carbon coal” rhetoric, that Obama may be poised to carry on the dirty legacy of liquid coal.
The move from foreign oil to locally mined coal, “low carbon” or otherwise (no coal energy has zero carbon emissions), would only change the dynamics of the U.S.’s massive energy consumption, not its habits, which is at the heart of our current energy woes.
Plus the coal has to come from somewhere. As a result of our consumptive lifestyles, the mountaintops of the Appalachia region, from Tennessee up to the heart of West Virginia, are being ravaged by the coal industry — an industry that cares little about the welfare of people or the land that it is adversely affecting with its industrial mining operations.
The concept of “clean coal” is nothing more than unabashed greenwashing.
The debris from the mining pits, often 500 feet deep, produce toxic waste that is then dumped in nearby valleys, polluting rivers and poisoning local communities downstream. No state or federal agencies are tracking the cumulative effect of the aptly named “mountaintop removal,” where entire peaks are being blown apart, only to expose tiny seams of the precious black rock.
There has been little to no oversight of the wholesale destruction of these mountains and Obama has not addressed the ruin in any of their bullet point policy papers on “clean coal.” Any new coal burning technology, whether it be liquidification or otherwise, would surely rely on the continuation of such brutal methods of extraction, and carbon output would still be significant. And it is not just the burning of coal that is damaging to the environment.
On December 22, 2008, a coal slurry impoundment at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston coal fired power plant in Harriman, Tennessee spilled more than 500 million gallons of toxic coal ash into the Tennessee River.
The epic spill was over 40 times bigger than the Exxon Valdez in Alaska. Approximately 525 million gallons of black coal ash flowed into tributaries of the Tennessee River – the water supply for Chattanooga and millions of people living downstream in Alabama and Kentucky. The true adverse effects of the spill are still not known.
The fight in West Virginia to stop mountaintop removal has been heating up in the past few weeks as 13 radical environmentalists, led my veteran activist, Mike Roselle, protested by chaining themselves to bulldozers at the Massey Energy Corp. site in Raleigh County on February 3. The group was arrested and cited for trespassing on private property.
"Trespassing is certainly a serious offense, but destroying a mountain is more serious," Roselle said of the arrests. “I am going to be here until this issue is resolved. This is a serious environmental crisis that we face [today].”
During his confirmation hearings, U.S. Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, was asked about how the Obama administration would handle US coal production.
“The fact of the matter is it powers much of America and there are lots of jobs it creates," said Salazar, who is no foe of the mining industry. "The challenge is how we create clean coal. I believe that we will move forward with the funding of some of those demonstration projects so we can find ways to burn coal that don’t contribute to climate change."
And so the rhetoric spins.
President Obama may receive high marks from the League of Conservation Voters and be touted by the Sierra Club for being marginally better than his predecessor on the environment, but when it comes to his position on the U.S.’s coal extracting future, the president’s position is not only wrong, it is absolutely disastrous.
JOSHUA FRANK is co-editor of Dissident Voice and author of Left Out! How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush (Common Courage Press, 2005), and along with Jeffrey St. Clair, the editor of the brand new book Red State Rebels: Tales of Grassroots Resistance in the Heartland, published by AK Press in July 2008.