New Clean Coal Hazards Revealed: Could Poison Plants, People


Photo via Twilight Earth
Clean coal seems like such a nice idea, doesn't it? We wouldn't have to close any polluting plants, nobody would have to lose their jobs in the coal mines, and we could go on getting half of our energy supply from the black stuff--we'd just use some Carbon Capture and Sequestration technology that grabs the CO2 from each power plant, and voila! Planet saved, way of life preserved, everyone's happy. Unfortunately, in reality it's never been a good idea. And this new study from the University of Toronto reveals the tremendous hazards and hurdles clean coal presents--including the fact that it could be poisonous to plants, animals, and people.Perhaps the most attractive element of carbon capture and sequestration is that it makes for an incredibly useful political talking point--Democrats from coal-heavy states can make the case that they're protecting jobs and the environment at the same time. According to Green Inc, the study's author, Graham Thomson, notes "The politicians are saying we can do this, and the scientists are saying, 'we don't know.'"

And why would the scientists be skeptical? Because there are many unexplored dangers the technology presents, if implemented on a large scale. The paper breaks down the hazards: (via Green Inc)

  • Scale: Achieving the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's long-term sequestration goals means boosting deep geological carbon dioxide storage from about 5 megatons per year to more than 22,000 megatons annually by the end of the century -- an "unprecedented" undertaking that Mr. Thomson says will involve extensive new facilities and pipelines that would rival the world's oil industry infrastructure.
  • Water Contamination: In a typical carbon-capture scheme, the carbon dioxide is supposed to be injected into deep, extensive saline aquifers, where it dissolves or binds to subterranean mineral deposits. But the quantities being discussed are so large, Mr. Thomson warns, that experts are increasingly concerned that the CO2 will displace the brine, causing it to contaminate groundwater reserves.
  • Water Use: "The process required to capture and then compress carbon dioxide at a conventional coal-fired plant will need much more water than the same plant without carbon capture technology because carbon capture technology is energy-intensive," writes Mr. Thomson, citing an Australian study showing the coal plants with C.C.S. could be a 25 percent to 33 percent more water intensive.
  • Unexpected Leaks: Earthquakes, geological fractures, and old oil wells all represent potential escape routes for CO2 that's supposed to be locked beneath the nonporous rock caps sitting atop saline aquifers. Mr. Thomson says the risks include the release of contaminants buried with the CO2, as well as leaks of a gas that can poison plants, animals and humans.

My colleague John Laumer once argued that we should go ahead and let the coal companies try to turn a profit while implementing CCS--they'd quickly learn that it's not economically feasible, and the faults of the concept would be exposed. The game has changed since he wrote that piece, however, and clean coal is now on the brink of receiving billions of dollars in funding from the climate bill if and when it passes the Senate. And that's on top of the billions in funding it's already received from Obama's stimulus.

Problem being, much like George W's funding for hydrogen car technology, clean coal will be a huge waste of time and resources on a technology that's not going to be feasible any time soon--and that's assuming the numerous, numerous hazards and hurdles to carbon capture are ever cleared. If they're not, so-called clean coal could actually be worse than a waste of money--it could be a serious danger to the environment the technology is allegedly trying to protect. And a danger to human health, too.

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