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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Clean Coal

Air Date: Week of

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CURWOOD: By backing away from carbon dioxide limits, President Bush has given a big boost to the nation's coal industry. Coal generates up to three times as much CO2 as other fossil fuels, so coal has a lot to lose. It could cost the industry millions to meet tough carbon dioxide restrictions, but the technology is being developed. The president's budget calls for large investments in, so called, clean coal. The proposal has broad support, but critics say clean coal is an oxymoron and a waste of money. West Virginia Public Radio's Jeff Young reports.


YOUNG: The National Energy Technology Laboratory is the largest fossil energy research organization in the country. Most of the Department of Energy's money for fossil fuel research flows through here and there may soon be a multi-billion dollar boost for projects at the Lab's Morgantown West Virginia facility. In this experiment, technicians listen for the point when coal combustion will cause problems.

MAN: We don't want to hear this because this could be potentially very harmful to the equipment that's worth millions and millions of dollars.

YOUNG: The clean coal technology program here aims to increase the efficiency of coal-burning power plants and to reduce coal's notorious pollutants. Carl Bauer is the lab's associate director. Bower says the program has helped dramatically cut acid rain and smog-causing sulfur and nitrogen emissions. While coal consumption doubled, he says soot from power plants shrank to microns in size while power plant efficiency increased. And Bauer sees big advances on the horizon.

BAUER: We have the goal of increasing efficiencies from today's state-of-the-art being around 40 percent for coal-fired power to around 60 percent efficiencies. And also towards the 2015 and later timeframe having the ability to have an almost zero emissions plant.

YOUNG: Call it the holy grail of coal research. A coal-fired power plant with virtually no pollutants, no contributions to the greenhouse gases implicated in global climate change. Again, Carl Bauer.

BAUER: We are also working, over the last two years at a very laboratory scale right now, looking at using the natural process by which CO2 is absorbed by olivine and serpentine and minerals of their type to form a natural carbonate that is nature's way of dealing with CO2 by making a different form of stone. That brings the timeframe down from thousands of years to less than half an hour.

YOUNG: Clean coal was the brainchild of West Virginia's powerful senior senator Robert Byrd. In the early 80s, acid rain concerns threatened his state's coal industry. As then head of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Byrd set aside some two billion dollars for the development of cleaner burning coal. That was matched by state government and private industry spending for a total of more than 5 billion dollars. But in the 90s, electric utilities weren't building coal-fired plants. They were investing instead in turbines powered by cleaner burning natural gas. The search for clean coal seemed on the decline. Then, two things changed. Natural gas prices skyrocketed and a friend of the coal industry found his way to the White House.

BUSH: Coal is going to help energize America. And that requires clean coal technologies to make sure the good folks of this state can find work. (applause fades)

YOUNG: On the campaign trail in West Virginia, George W. Bush pledged two billion dollars for clean coal investment over ten years. This month, Bush's energy secretary Spencer Abraham visited the National Laboratory to say the president will keep his promise.

ABRAHAM: So today I am here to announce a down payment on that commitment with next year's budget providing one hundred fifty million new dollars for clean coal technology. (applause fades)


YOUNG: In Congress, Senators Byrd and Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Frank Murkowski of Alaska also proposed spending a billion dollars on clean coal research and tax incentives to power plants adopting the new coal technology. Opponents call it an environmentally harmful waste of money.

SHULTZ: The idea that coal can ever be made clean is a myth.

YOUNG: That's Lexi Shultz, an attorney with the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. Shultz says after 17 years of the program, coal is still our dirtiest fuel while research into cleaner fuels is lagging.

SHULTZ: Every dollar that we spend on the clean coal technology program, that's a dollar that can't be spent on technologies that are truly clean and will provide a long term, sustainable energy program. And I'm talking about things like solar power, wind power, both of which are emerging technologies which could really use an infusion of tax payer dollars to support their research.

YOUNG: And no matter how cleanly coal might be made to burn, it still must be mined. Coal mining scars thousands of acres and pollutes hundreds of miles of streams in West Virginia, Montana, and other coal producing states. Environmentalists aren't clean coal's only critics. Some budget-minded members of Congress and watchdog groups regularly target the program for elimination. Cena Swisher of the group Taxpayers for Common Sense says reports from the government's General Accounting Office show why.

SWISHER: The clean coal technology program is probably one of the most wasteful programs that both the GAO and we have come across in recent years. But we're still throwing hundreds of millions of dollars into this program year after year and it hasn't gotten us anywhere.

YOUNG: Renewed interest has rekindled the clean coal debate just as the country nears some big decisions about energy. A working group led by Vice President Cheney will make recommendations soon for a comprehensive national energy policy, and clean coal technology is expected to be included. For Living on Earth, I'm Jeff Young in Morgantown, West Virginia.

(Music: Nils Petter Molvaer "Dead Indeed" SOLID ETHER)

CURWOOD: Coming up, cultured animals. Stay tuned to Living on Earth. Now, this health update with Diane Toomey.



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