There’s no such thing as ‘clean coal’

As concerns about the adverse effects of burning fossil fuels on our climate became more widespread, the coal industry launched a marketing campaign to try and resurrect the image of coal, the burning of which is one of the biggest sources of greenhouse gases. So the friendly sounding term ‘clean coal’ was brought in. But the more accurate term is ‘clean coal technology’ because the adjective ‘clean’ really modifies ‘coal technology’ and not just ‘coal. What is being talked about are ways to minimize the release of the greenhouse gases.

[Clean coal is] a marketing term, introduced about a decade ago as concern about global warming began to mount. At the time, advocates of the use of coal for power generation began using the term to refer to a process, not a product, that would result in fewer harmful emissions. Generally, references to “clean coal” are references to what are called “carbon capture and storage” processes, or CCS. CCS does what it says on the label: Captures the carbon dioxide emitted from burning fuel and stores it somewhere, as you might store the byproducts of other forms of energy.

Clean coal as a buzzword has taken off but what it actually means is still not widely understood. But you cannot possibly expect Donald Trump to take the trouble to understand what he is talking about. When he talks of clean coal he seems to think that what is being mined is a new and better kind of coal or that they are going to wash the old coal under a faucet and get rid of the icky black stuff, as when he said in his rambling speech in Phoenix yesterday,”They’re taking out coal. They’re going to clean it.”

It is still not clear if the CCS processes will work as advertised because they have still not been implemented on a large scale. There are a lot of logistical and economic issues involved in how to capture, ship, and store the waste. But politicians, and this includes Trump’s predecessors as presidents, like to talk as if it is a solved problem.


  1. invivoMark says

    I recall being taught back in 2005 that “clean coal” had nothing to do with reducing carbon emissions or greenhouse gases at all. As a term, it has definitely existed for longer than a decade, as the WaPo article suggests: it was discussed at least as far back as 1985, as a method to reduce acid rain caused by sulfur and nitrogen found in coal. Discussions of reducing carbon emissions were merely tacked on more recently.

    The DOE, at least, confirms what I remember being taught:

    Wikipedia does as well.

  2. tbrandt says

    Nobody is building coal plants in the USA these days because it’s too expensive. Coal can no longer compete with solar, wind, and natural gas (at least for new construction--it still makes economic sense to run some of the big, old plants). There is no chance whatsoever that coal plants with the added expense of carbon sequestration will be economical.

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