By Jeff Goodell
First Published by Rolling Stone, August 2008 (issue 1058)
It took Congress more than three decades to consider a major initiative to ward off global warming, but only a few days to kill it. In June, the Senate rejected the Climate Security Act, which would have put America on track to slash greenhouse-gas emissions by 71 percent by 2050. The bill was specifically crafted to soften the blow to the nation’s coal industry — coal generates more than a third of all carbon-dioxide pollution — by providing coal-burning power companies with $300 billion in subsidies and outright giveaways. But the lavish incentives did nothing to prevent Big Coal from going all out to defeat the measure; one industry-funded TV ad implied that if Congress passed the bill, “we may have to say goodbye to the American way of life.” In the end, virtually every senator from a state where coal is mined or burned voted against the measure.
The fight over the climate bill underscores the biggest obstacle to ending America’s self-destructive addiction to fossil fuels. Despite record profits, the oil industry knows the end is near and is madly diversifying into wind, solar and other energy sources. The auto industry, which has long opposed solutions to global warming, is so weakened by sinking profits and its shortsighted bet on SUVs that it’s hardly a factor in the debate anymore. But coal knows that global warming represents the end of an era: There is simply no cost-effective way to burn coal without cooking the planet. The industry is currently blanketing the nation with ads for “clean coal,” hoping to dupe consumers into thinking that coal is a 21st-century fuel, but it’s all PR bullshit. At the moment, there is only one carbon-containment strategy that works for Big Coal: delay, delay, delay.
No one has been clearer about the urgency of getting the country off coal than James Hansen, the NASA climatologist widely respected as the godfather of modern climate science. At a recent briefing on Capitol Hill, Hansen touched off a political firestorm by arguing that the CEOs of leading coal companies like Peabody Energy are knowingly trashing the atmosphere to fatten the bottom line. “In my opinion,” Hansen declared, “these CEOs should be tried for high crimes against humanity and nature.”
To avert a climate disaster, Hansen believes we need nothing less than a complete phaseout of CO2 pollution from coal plants by 2030. Such a move would require a revolution that would make the Allied mobilization against Hitler during World War II seem like packing for summer camp. There are currently more than 600 coal-fired plants in the United States alone, which generate more than half the nation’s electricity, and developing countries like China are throwing up a new coal plant every week. Perhaps someday a brilliant engineer will figure out a way to remove CO2 emissions cheaply and efficiently from coal plants. But for now, the only viable way to eliminate CO2 from coal plants is to shut them down.
Only five years ago, the coal industry and the Bush administration were assuring us that newfangled coal plants would soon eliminate climate-warming pollution. In 2003, the Department of Energy launched a $1 billion partnership with the coal industry to develop a coal plant with near-zero emissions called FutureGen, which was scheduled to be operational by 2012. In a letter to President Bush, a group of CEOs from the coal and electric power industries also suggested that coal gasification plants, a new kind of coal plant that can capture CO2 emissions and store them underground, would be ready between 2008 and 2010.
Fast forward to today. Earlier this year, after spending for FutureGen had nearly doubled to $1.8 billion, the Department of Energy ditched the project, citing cost overruns. And despite the promises from coal CEOs, not a single new coal gasification plant is in operation in the U.S. In fact, not a single coal plant of any type in America, new or old, is currently capturing and storing a single ton of CO2 underground. In June, Jim Rogers, the CEO of Duke Energy, one of the largest coal-burning utilities in America, admitted at an electric-power-industry conference that carbon capture and storage has been oversold as “a magical technology that solves the carbon problem for coal plants.” Indeed, many energy experts now predict that carbon capture and storage won’t be widely deployed until 2030.
A look at the technological challenges of carbon sequestration explains why. Unlike pollutants such as sulfur dioxide, which is relatively easy to remove with a scrubber installed on the smokestack of a coal plant, CO2 emerges in a diffuse stream that is difficult to filter. To solve this problem, there are basically two choices. Option A: Build gasification plants, which use heat and pressure to gasify the coal, allowing the CO2 to be captured before combustion. Option B: Bolt a CO2 scrubber on the stack of a conventional coal plant. The problem with both options is that they are prohibitively expensive, jacking up the cost of the plant by at least 20 percent and lowering its output by up to 40 percent.
And even if somebody invents a cheap, efficient way to capture CO2 from existing coal plants, you still have to bury it. First, the CO2 gas must be compressed into a supercritical fluid — a process that uses up to 10 percent of the energy created by burning the coal in the first place. And pumping the liquefied carbon gas underground consumes even more energy. But the real problem for underground disposal (“storage” is an industry euphemism) is one of scale. The most significant storage project in the world today is located off the coast of Norway, where StatoilHydro, a large Norwegian oil and gas company, has been pumping 1 million tons of CO2 into a reservoir beneath the North Sea each year since 1996. It’s an enormous engineering project, deploying one of the largest offshore platforms in the world. But compared to the engineering effort that would be required to stabilize the climate, it’s inconsequential. It would take 10 Statoil-size projects to store the annual emissions of a single big coal plant .
When you think about what it would mean to bury the CO2 from even a fraction of the coal plants in the world, the scale of this undertaking gets downright absurd. Vaclav Smil, an energy expert at the University of Manitoba, argues that “carbon sequestration is irresponsibly portrayed as an imminently useful option for solving the challenge” of global warming. Smil points out that to sequester just 25 percent of the CO2 currently emitted by stationary sources — mostly coal plants — we would have to create a system that would produce twice as much fluid every year as the world’s crude-oil industry: an undertaking that would take decades to accomplish.
Then there’s the question of safety. “If it’s done right,” says Susan Hovorka, a sequestration expert at the University of Texas, “the risks of burying CO2 are minimal.” But if it’s not done right, the buried carbon gas could migrate through cracks in the earth and, at high concentrations, create deadly pools of an invisible, odorless asphyxiant. Improperly stored CO2 could also trigger earthquakes or damage freshwater drinking supplies by pushing up salty brine from deep aquifers. Given the risks, Big Coal is likely to pass off the liability for these high-tech CO2 dumps onto the public, pushing for a version of the Price-Anderson Nuclear Industries Indemnities Act, which assures power companies that if their nukes melt down, they won’t be liable for the full cost of the disaster.
The hurdles to carbon sequestration have done nothing to stop the industry from selling the public on the myth of clean coal. Around the same time that the Energy Department killed FutureGen, a coal-industry front group called the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity launched a $35 million media campaign to clean up coal’s image. The ads, produced by R&R Partners, the same Las Vegas agency that came up with the “What Happens Here, Stays Here” campaign, use the iconography of cool modern technology — jets, Mac computers, scientists in clean white lab coats — to re-brand coal as a wholesome energy source, as comforting and deeply American as a cheeseburger.
The trouble with “clean coal,” however, is that it’s just an advertising slogan. The industry’s front group touts the fact that some pollutants from typical coal plants have fallen by two-thirds since 1970, even while the use of coal to generate electricity has tripled. What they don’t tell you is that the industry fought the laws that mandated many of those reductions — and that a big coal plant emits as much carbon pollution each year as a million SUVs. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, annual emissions from a typical coal plant also include 10,000 tons of sulfur dioxide, the major cause of acid rain; 10,200 tons of nitrogen oxide, a major contributor to smog; 500 tons of small particles, which cause lung damage; 225 pounds of arsenic; 114 pounds of lead; and 170 pounds of mercury, which can cause birth defects.
Then there’s the environmental impact of mining, especially in Appalachia, where “mountaintop removal” has already polluted 1,200 miles of streams and swallowed up entire communities. By the time the industry is finished, the EPA projects a loss of more than 1.4 million acres — an area the size of Delaware.
The industry’s ad campaign is designed, in part, to generate support for the 65 new coal plants that are currently in development in the United States. But despite the PR blitz, public sentiment is beginning to turn against coal. Big banks like Morgan Stanley and Citigroup are factoring future carbon costs into financing deals for coal plants, making it more expensive to borrow the billions needed to build them. James Hansen and Al Gore, as well as grass-roots environmental groups, are pushing for a moratorium on the construction of new coal plants that don’t capture and store CO2. And Big Coal has suffered some landmark defeats. In June, a Superior Court judge in Georgia — hardly a green mecca — halted construction of a $2 billion coal plant unless it finds a way to limit CO2 pollution. And in Kansas, Gov. Kathleen Sebelius recently vetoed a Republican-approved air permit for a new coal plant. “Building additional coal plants now is likely to create a significant economic liability for Kansas in the future,” she said, noting that renewable energy sources — especially wind — represent the state’s engine of the future.
Indeed, by the time the coal industry expects to develop technologies to capture and bury CO2, virtually every form of renewable energy is likely to be cheaper than coal. And in the case of wind and large-scale solar, it’s likely to be a lot cheaper — not to mention easier and quicker to build. “By the time the first carbon capture and storage project comes online, we can have 17,000 megawatts in operation,” says Robert Fishman, the CEO of Ausra, a Silicon Valley startup that is building large-scale solar plants. “Solar thermal power is ready now, commercial scale, and cheaper now than carbon capture and storage will ever be.”
To ward off the renewable future, Big Coal’s strategy is to wrap itself in the electoral map. The swing states in this year’s election — Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Missouri — all burn a lot of coal. Not surprisingly, John McCain is already pandering to coal interests. In June, he appeared at a town-hall meeting in Missouri with the CEO of Peabody Energy to promise the industry $2 billion a year in public subsidies to accelerate “clean coal” technology. Barack Obama has not yet offered a similar deal, but he’s unlikely to lay down any hard truths about coal between now and November 4th: Not only does he hail from the Big Coal state of Illinois, but Billy Vassiliadis, the CEO of the Las Vegas agency responsible for the “clean coal” ads, is on his Nevada steering committee.
The question, of course, is what happens after November 4th. When it’s time to take another stab at global-warming legislation, Big Coal will lobby hard for loopholes and issue dire warnings about the fall of America if lawmakers mess with coal. But perhaps when George Bush heads back to his ranch in Texas, it will finally dawn on voters that we live in the 21st century, not the 19th. Maybe then we’ll see Big Coal more clearly for what it is: not the engine of progress but the engine of our destruction.
© 2008 Rolling Stone
To learn about citizen activism to thwart coal industry expansion, see Coal Moratorium Now!