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Clean Coal or Dry Hole?

Posted on Jun 4, 2009

By Eugene Robinson

    President Obama should be applauded for taking climate change seriously, recognizing that the phenomenon can be traced to the burning of fossil fuels and intensifying the search for viable solutions. In one of its centerpiece initiatives, however, the administration may be digging a very expensive dry hole.

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    I mean that literally. The plan is to meet ambitious targets for limiting emissions of carbon dioxide and other “greenhouse” gases through development and widespread use of an unproven technology known as—prepare for your eyes to glaze over—carbon capture and storage. That clunky phrase has a simple meaning: Siphon off the carbon dioxide from the smokestacks of power plants, before the stuff has a chance to warm the atmosphere, and pump it deep underground where it can be entombed forever. Theoretically.

    This idea is fundamental to the “clean coal” initiative that Obama and many in Congress tout so enthusiastically. About half the electricity consumed in this country is produced in coal-fired power plants—which is not surprising, given that the supply is so abundant that the United States has been called “the Saudi Arabia of coal.”

    Power plants fueled by natural gas release less carbon dioxide—but natural gas is more expensive. Nuclear power plants release no carbon dioxide at all—but there’s the problem of what to do with the nuclear waste. It’s no surprise that the climate change policy being developed by the White House and Congress assumes that coal—responsible for 36 percent of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions, according to the Department of Energy—will continue to play a dominant role in keeping the lights on and the air conditioners humming.

    “This is America—we figured out how to put a man on the moon in 10 years,” Obama said last year during the campaign. “You can’t tell me we can’t figure out how to burn coal that we mine right here in the United States of America and make it work.”


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    Maybe, maybe not. It is indeed feasible to capture the carbon produced by coal-burning power plants and bury it. But it is expensive—a power plant capable of carbon capture would cost up to 50 percent more to build than a conventional plant, and that doesn’t take into account the cost of the massive infrastructure needed to transport the carbon to storage sites and pump it underground.

    And would the stuff stay down there? The whole point of the exercise, remember, would be to keep the carbon dioxide from getting into the atmosphere, where it would contribute to climate change. The idea is to confine it in specific types of geological formations that would contain it indefinitely. But scientists acknowledge that they can’t be absolutely certain that the carbon dioxide will never migrate.

    Scientists and engineers will have to prove that the possibility of a sudden, catastrophic carbon dioxide release from a storage site is exceedingly remote. I say “catastrophic” because carbon dioxide is heavier than air, and a ground-hugging cloud would suffocate anyone it enveloped. That is what happened in Cameroon in 1986 when naturally occurring carbon dioxide trapped at the bottom of Lake Nyos erupted and killed 1,746 people in nearby villages. Presumably, storage sites would not be located near population centers.

    Perhaps more difficult will be proving that the carbon won’t seep out slowly, say at a rate of 1 percent or 2 percent a year. There would be no health risk from a gradual escape, but we’d have gone to great trouble and expense, and the carbon dioxide would have made its way into the atmosphere after all.

    Meanwhile, hydrologists are worried that the buried carbon dioxide—mixed with other pollutants produced by the burning of coal—could migrate in unforeseen ways and contaminate sources of groundwater. 

    It may be possible to answer all these concerns, but there’s a larger question: Is this really a good idea? Is this the legacy we want to leave to future generations—thousands of sites, labeled “off-limits,” where we’ve deposited the harmful residue of our toxic addiction to fossil fuels?

    The Obama administration is spending $2.4 billion from the stimulus package on carbon capture and storage projects—a mere down payment. Imagine what that money could do if it were spent on solar, wind and other renewable energy sources. Imagine if we actually tried to solve the problem rather than bury it.
    Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)
  © 2009, Washington Post Writers Group

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By Mbadger, July 8, 2009 at 4:04 am Link to this comment

Clean coal is at best a temporary solution to our global warming problem, its a sweep it under the carpet solution which could have potentially disatrous side effects and feedbacks that we dont know about and are unable to control, instead they should pump that 2billion into solar panel technology, try to make them more efficient.

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By knobcreekfarmer, June 11, 2009 at 2:35 am Link to this comment

Who pays for it? Exxon? The price for a home grid-tie photovoltaic system, without battery backup, is over $30,000. Times how many homes in America?

Plus there is not enough of the rare minerals and other raw materials to make that many solar cells anyway.

Times up. The pie’s on our face and who is laughing?

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By coloradokarl, June 11, 2009 at 2:23 am Link to this comment

Solar on every roof and a plugin hybrid in every garage in America by 2015 and we ALL live happily ever after….........

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By christian96, June 8, 2009 at 7:53 pm Link to this comment

Bury the carbon under Washington!  Now, there’s
an idea for you!  Watch “Hillbillies” on The History
Channel at midnight to get an idea how coal miners
use to be treated.  Now, they just take their jobs
and beautiful mountains through mountain-top mining.
Wonderful folks, those coal mine owners.  They better
enjoy their money in this life.  They won’t like the
next one!

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By knobcreekfarmer, June 8, 2009 at 4:35 am Link to this comment

“Whatever happened to hydrogen cars? Jay Leno told Obama on his show that he had one.”

Hydrogen is not a green fuel. Far from it. Hydrogen is energy storage. Energy still has to be generated then stored as Hydrogen. It is not something that can be dug up, trucked and pumped into our cars. It actually takes more energy to produce Hydrogen than the output of energy you get from it. It has a negative EROEI (Energy Return on Energy Invested). Sure, the Hydrogen car only exhaust water but making the Hydrogen is a whole other thing.

Commercial Hydrogen currently is produced two ways. Primarily by heating natural gas to extreme temptress, usually by burning coal, interjecting various chemicals that are exhausted into the air and then extracting the Hydrogen. (This is my version please research it if you choose) Needless to say Hydrogen produced this way is actually worse for the environment that just burning gas… They have also demonstrated extracting Hydrogen from sea water by electrolysis. This is also very energy intensive. The test case I read about had a sea water conversation station that used solar cells to power it. It took over 10,000 square feet of solar cells at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars to produce enough Hydrogen for one small momma-do-stuff commuter car.

I really am not just giving up on all these innovations to “save us” but I also am NOT banking on any of them. I am taking steps toward a more sustainable life and do my best to use as little fossil fuels as possible in the process. It’s not easy and I am making small steps but it is, in my opinion, what we will all have to be doing within our lifetimes.

Think small, local, and start to power down.

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By liecatcher, June 8, 2009 at 3:00 am Link to this comment

I wish an expert on geothermal energy would comment since that’s always there & no side effects.

As soon as Obama started talking about “clean coal technology, I knew he was bought & paid for by “KING COAL”. Clean coal is an oxymoron.

It seems like EXXON has stopped hawking it’s “green” fuel, taking some carbon out of gasoline.

Whatever happened to hydrogen cars? Jay Leno told Obama on his show that he had one.

The ethanol hoax just drives up food prices & is starving millions of people world wide.

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By knobcreekfarmer, June 7, 2009 at 4:20 am Link to this comment


I’m am about the last person to defend the big power companies and have been an advocate for small scale solar (and wind) power generation since the 70’s. The fact remains that we can not store electricity at levels we use.

Peak demand for electricity is 2:00pm - 5:00pm. That’s when all three consumers are “plugged-in.” Business, industry and home. That’s also when it’s hottest in the summer and the AC’s are humming.

If the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing there isn’t much power companies can do but crank up the coal fired power plants. And they have spent many decades developing systems that do amazingly well at keeping us power hungry consumers feed with just how much electricity we want simply by some computer flipping a switch.

Green energy is good and we should all consider investing in it personally on a small and local scale. Whatever works best in your area. Here in south central Indiana we are not well suited for either solar nor wind… Sure the sun shines and the wind blows but not enough to generate the kind of power have traditionally wanted.

I am a realist. I can see that most in America, and the industrial world, are using way to much power. We have developed a business growth model and lifestyles that are not sustainable and any cost. Technology is good but it isn’t going to save us. What is needed is a powering down.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to live in a cave. I like having light at night, this computer I’m using and all my power tools in the shop.

All the real and viable green energy technologies put together are not even going to be close to the levels of power generation we get from coal or natural gas that we are using faster and faster. Fossil fuels are finite and are in decline yet population is on the increase. Made possible by cheap and easy energy. Many of the raw materials used in photovoltaics used in wind turbines are getting more expensive and harder to find. Scaling these up may not even be possible.

There is going to be a paradigm shift in our world soon. One most will not like. Sitting in your comfortable home at your new computer reading about electric cars and celsius ethanol saying to yourself that “they’ll come up with something to sell us.” is not a good plan.

Think small, local, and start to power down.

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By ardee, June 6, 2009 at 7:55 pm Link to this comment

Bldng4Jstc, June 6 at 12:01 pm

I am in favor of all the green production of energy you cite. But one must understand that, without the ability to store such energy production the wind farms, which are dependent upon somewhat cyclic wind systems found in nature, thus cannot produce energy as required. Currently our “dirty” means of producing energy are all “on demand” systems. Wind and solar are both not up to this challenge and we need a way to store such energy produced that way for peak power needs.

Many folks fail also to understand that our grid is very outmoded, basically resembles what Edison invented so long ago, and cannot take advantage of green production very well.

All in all a complicated issue and one that needs much motivation, great expenditures and the will to get it done.

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By Bldng4Jstc, June 6, 2009 at 9:01 am Link to this comment

So left I am right:

The idea that major power companies cannot control green energy is not completely true.  Putting solar panels on everyone’s roof is not going to provide a fraction of the electricity needed to power this wasteful nation.  Large solar pv cell farms, thermal cycle plants, enhanced geothermal systems, and wind farms are all needed to meet the electrical demand and can only be created and operated by major corporations.

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By PatrickHenry, June 5, 2009 at 6:14 pm Link to this comment

There is one Israeli I admire.

I believe in bioalgae and industrial hemp use as a biofuel, paper and cotton replacement. 

Save the corn for eating.

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By Bea Moreira, June 5, 2009 at 6:09 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

This is so aggravating!! Obama keeps disappointing me.

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By Harvey Solomon, June 5, 2009 at 6:58 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Pure humbug. This is just another oxymoron from the powder puff President. It’s in the same class as honest politician, we can change, single payer health care, smart bombs, green energy and corporate based democracy. When the American citizens elected George Bush to the presidency for two terms it was clear that their ability to recognize the difference between shit and Shineola was seriously impared. Obama, who is a skilled orator, is failing and will continue to fail every committment to change that he proposed during his campaign for President. The only differences between Obama and Bush are that Obama is not a certified moron and that he doesn’t appear to be interested in cutting brush. In the mean time the United States is going down the toilet bowl while the Congress and the corporations keep pulling on the lever.
The Congress is behaving very much like a bed bug which is a blood sucker and at the same time it shits on its victims. This is exactly what our democratically elected “leaders” are doing to the majority of Americans.

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By JEP, June 5, 2009 at 5:51 am Link to this comment


And a stretch at that.

This is a Bush era “theory”, too.

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By knobcreekfarmer, June 5, 2009 at 2:32 am Link to this comment

The mega-power generating companies don’t want solar and wind because they can not control it (big surprise) which is, unfortunately very true.

Carbon capture and storage might work on a small demonstration scale but I doubt it will “scale up” and at what cost?

“The United States has been called ‘the Saudi Arabia of coal.’ ” That quote comes from a 1971 report, “The Annual Energy Review” published by the Department of Energy.

In the 1960’s it was our national goal to achieve growth of coal production up around 8% per year. If you could achieve that and continue it, coal would last 46 years not 500. President Carter cut that goal roughly in half, hoping to reach 4% per year. That would buy us 75 years.

But more realistically, the growth rate of coal production in the last several decades has averaged 2.86%. 94 years. And now they want to use even more coal for coal gasification and to power ethanol plants.

There was also a little footnote in that 500 year report from the 70’s that says “about half the demonstrated reserve base… is estimated to be recoverable.” So what about the other half? Oh, but what the heck, let’s not worry about that for now.

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