Clean Coal is Not Clean

Proponents of Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) technology like that Duke and Vectren desire to use at Edwardsport, Indiana, loudly proclaim that IGCC is the answer to global warming since the technology makes its easier to capture carbon dioxide. Once captured, their pitch is that it can be “sequestered” for thousands of years in deep geological formations. Out of sight, out of mind.

In December 2006, the US Department of Energy finally admitted in a supplement to an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for an IGCC plant in Pennsylvania that, “DOE has considered the potential to reduce project CO2 emissions using geologic sequestration. This is not a reasonable option because sequestration technology is not sufficiently mature to be implemented at production scale during the demonstration period for the proposed facilities.”

This admission is consistent with most recent research done by government and private sources as it relates to sequestration. In fact, most recent research tells a story that makes the whole idea of sequestration questionable, at best, and perhaps even dangerous for those who may live near the areas where CO2 is dumped underground.

Three areas of concern have emerged in recent studies.

1. CO2 injected near earthquake faults like the region of SW Indiana which is in the New Madrid fault zone, may actually increase the potential for earthquakes due to CO2’s ability to lubricate geologic plates, making it easier for them to move when subjected to pressure from beneath the earth’s surface.

2. Injection of CO2 can ultimately damage groundwater used for drinking by a chemical conversion when the CO2 is injected causing an increase in acidity which leaches dangerous chemicals like metals out of the formation. Those contaminants often find their way to groundwater. Such a chemical conversion could render entire aquifers unusable as drinking water which people depend upon.

3. Huge financial and energy investment in sequestration. Most of the debate about IGCC has evolved around whether it is possible to convert coal to a synthesis gas in a manner that can be used to generate electricity more cleanly than conventional technology called pulverized coal. The real reason utilities are seeking to build these plants is to capture enormous federal and state taxpayer funded subsidies. For instance, Duke and Vectren were recently awarded more than $133 million in federal tax credits to build their costly and dirty plant.

This wrongly labeled “clean coal” has proven to be somewhat cleaner from an air pollution standpoint than pulverized coal but missing from the debate has been a real assessment of what to do with the captured chemicals that are by-products of the process, what the cost of actually building and operating these facilities will be on a commercial scale, how much of the energy produced will be required to run the sophisticated chemical processes required thus reducing the overall efficiency of the plants and what is the actual cost of capturing the CO2 and permanently storing it in some underground geological formation.

As it currently stands, not a single one of these IGCC proposals addresses any of these issues in any great detail. Not only that, but most IGCC proposals are not even promising carbon capture, let alone sequestration.

Add to that the fact that the costs of building proposed IGCC plants has completely gone through the roof. In Minnesota, government documents have recently revealed the cost of Excelsior’s Mesaba IGCC has gone to at least $2.155 billion for a 603 MW facility. That’s a whopping $3.5 million per megawatt, higher than projected cost for nuclear plants these days. It is also true in Indiana where Duke Energy president, Jim Rogers told the media a couple of months ago that the cost of their Edwardsport IGCC plant had increased in cost to build from $1.3 billion in early 2006 to what is now in excess of “$2 billion” for 630 megawatts. That is a per MW cost of $3.17 million and rising. Neither of these facilities have projected the cost to capture and sequester carbon which most estimates suggest will be at least another 50% in construction costs and a big unknown as to what it will cost to actually capture and store the CO2 in operational costs.

Using the conservative 50% figure, the cost of the Edwardsport plant to construct could rise to $4.75 billion or more than $7.5 million/MW. Contrast that with the ill fated Marble Hill Nuclear plant which was forced to stop construction in 1984 due to its rising costs. PSI (now Duke) said originally in 1973 that Marble Hill would cost $700 million for 2,260 MW ($309,000/MW). When it finally went through hearings in 1977, the cost had doubled to $1.4 billion ($619,000/MW). When the state of Indiana forced PSI to stop construction by telling them they would not guarantee that they would allow the plant to be placed into PSI’s rate base, the construction costs had risen to $10 billion ($ 4.4 million/MW).

The comparison with IGCC technology and nukes is valid. Both were risky ventures that required significant government support to be economically feasible at all. Both stood to make their sponsors extremely high profits since they are guaranteed a profit based on their level of investment. (With Marble Hill the allowed rate of return was about 8%, now Duke and Vectren seek a 12% rate of return.)

When the cost of building coal plants rises to a certain level, ALL alternatives should be on the table. Ecological destruction when mined, multiple health problems when burned and contaminating our drinking water when the waste is dumped into aquifers and streams are abundant reasons why alternatives to coal should be pursued.

Who can list a single “Coal community” as prosperous? Indeed, it is the opposite. Coal is the bane of those forced to live near coal, not our economic salvation.

JOHN BLAIR is president of the environment health advocacy group, Valley Watch and earned a Pulitzer Prize for news Photography in 1978. He can be reached at:


JOHN BLAIR is president of the environment health advocacy group, Valley Watch and earned a Pulitzer Prize for news Photography in 1978. He can be reached at: