Why Is It So Hard to Clean Up Coal?

Two words: money and politics.

<a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/redarrow101/4414917091/">John Mueller</a>/Flickr

For indispensable reporting on the coronavirus crisis and more, subscribe to Mother Jones' newsletters.

The dream of taking the crud out of coal has been around for a long time. As far back as 1918, a West Virginia United Mine Workers leader extolled the “absolute necessity of producing clean coal.” Back then black soot was the main problem. Today, scrubbers are trapping most of coal’s visible grime before it leaves the smokestack, though what’s left is still enough to sicken hundreds of thousands. The industry has resisted calls to clean up further, and the White House last year ordered a key clean-air rule delayed until 2013; still, the technology is available to handle most of coal’s dangerous byproducts—but what about invisible, climate-wrecking CO2? Here’s why that’s harder to tackle.

Energy: To de-carbonize a coal plant, you must first separate out the carbon, then store it somewhere. That requires a lot of energy, meaning you have to burn coal to clean up coal. “That’s by far the biggest barrier to the whole thing,” says Revis James of the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), an industry group. The “energy penalty” for carbon capture and storage (CCS for short) can be as high as 28 percent.

Cost: With current technology, CCS increases the price of coal-generated electricity as much as 94 percent—and in the absence of a price on carbon, there’s zero incentive for companies to invest in it. Even if they did, it would be cheaper and simpler to just apply the technology to natural gas plants: A new coal plant with CCS runs $135 per megawatt-hour ($75 without), while a carbon-capturing natural gas plant costs about $109/mwh.

Politics: Coal companies have generally been more interested in promoting the idea of clean coal than actually making it happen. Case in point: As the debate over a climate bill ramped up in 2008, members of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, an industry-funded group, had pledged $3.6 billion to developing CCS technology. These companies made a combined total of $297 billion in profits between 2003 and 2008—in other words, for every $1 in profit, they committed to spend a penny on clean-coal research. Now, with no new carbon regulation on the horizon, there’s even less incentive to push toward clean-coal innovations, says EPRI’s James. “People feel like they can invest in other research priorities.”

Thank you!

We didn't know what to expect when we told you we needed to raise $400,000 before our fiscal year closed on June 30, and we're thrilled to report that our incredible community of readers contributed some $415,000 to help us keep charging as hard as we can during this crazy year.

You just sent an incredible message: that quality journalism doesn't have to answer to advertisers, billionaires, or hedge funds; that newsrooms can eke out an existence thanks primarily to the generosity of its readers. That's so powerful. Especially during what's been called a "media extinction event" when those looking to make a profit from the news pull back, the Mother Jones community steps in.

The months and years ahead won't be easy. Far from it. But there's no one we'd rather face the big challenges with than you, our committed and passionate readers, and our team of fearless reporters who show up every day.

Thank you!

We didn't know what to expect when we told you we needed to raise $400,000 before our fiscal year closed on June 30, and we're thrilled to report that our incredible community of readers contributed some $415,000 to help us keep charging as hard as we can during this crazy year.

You just sent an incredible message: that quality journalism doesn't have to answer to advertisers, billionaires, or hedge funds; that newsrooms can eke out an existence thanks primarily to the generosity of its readers. That's so powerful. Especially during what's been called a "media extinction event" when those looking to make a profit from the news pull back, the Mother Jones community steps in.

The months and years ahead won't be easy. Far from it. But there's no one we'd rather face the big challenges with than you, our committed and passionate readers, and our team of fearless reporters who show up every day.

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate

We have a new comment system! We are now using Coral, from Vox Media, for comments on all new articles. We'd love your feedback.