Going After Clean-Coal Technology

In the elusive search for the reliable energy source of the future, the prospect of clean coal is creating a lot of buzz. But while the concept—to scrub coal clean before burning, then capture and store harmful gases deep underground—may seem promising, a coalition of environment and climate groups argue in a new media campaign that the technology simply doesn't exist.

The Alliance for Climate Protection and several other prominent organizations—including the Sierra Club and National Resources Defense Council—launched a multipronged campaign to "debrand" the clean part of clean coal, pointing out that there's no conclusive evidence to confirm the entire process would work the way it's being marketed. In the campaign's TV ad, a technician sarcastically enters the door of a clean coal production plant, only to find there's nothing on the other side. "Take a good long look," he says, standing in a barren desert, "this is today's clean coal technology."

The campaign was designed to combat the well-funded coal industry, which formed a trade association in April to promote the idea of clean coal. Joe Lucas, a vice president for the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, says that the technology does exist, although it's still in early development stages. "With the current research being done, we think we can get the technology up and running within 10 to 15 years," he says. Activists like Brian Hardwick, chief spokesman for the Alliance for Climate Protection, aren't so sure. Hardwick spoke to NEWSWEEK's Daniel Stone about why the idea of clean coal shouldn't be considered a solution. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Why delegitimize clean coal?
Brian Hardwick:
We want people to know that right now, there is no such thing as clean coal. The burning of coal for electricity emits more than one third of global warming pollution, more than cars and trucks combined. Until we have technology that can capture and safely store all the global-warming pollution, it's not clean. We ought not think that we can stake literally the survival of our planet on something that currently is just an illusion.

Where is the technology currently?
There's not a single coal plant in American that captures and stores harmful emissions. In fact, there's not a single demonstration project right now in the United States to try to make that happen. No homes and no business are powered by clean coal. If there's promise and there's possibility, then of course, then we should invest in research and development to really get serious about figuring this out right now. But for now, burning coal isn't part of a solution, it's adding to the problem.

What kind of funding and research will it take to get the technology where it needs to be to satisfy the environmental community?
The scientists seem to agree that if we were to really get to work on making this happen, it could be ready by 2030. It's hard to bring it online when there's not a single demonstration project on it in the United States right now. Instead, that's a large marketing campaign from the coal industry in place of it.

So is your aim to invest in more research to make coal clean, or to disqualify it as a fuel source and focus on only renewables?
We have a whole agenda called Repower America, which is to produce 100 percent of our electricity on clean, renewable, noncarbon emitting sources within 10 years. We believe that a bulk of that is going to come from a massive increase in investment in renewables and a new smart energy grid to move the electricity across the country and through investments in new efficiency standards. Coal can be part of that, but only if this technology can be proven and put in place. For now, we can't build another dirty coal plant that doesn't capture its emissions.

Who should be leading this research, the government or industry?
It's a perfectly fine role for the federal government to invest some money in this technology to see if it's possible and try to bring it online, but the industry itself also needs to step up if it truly wants to be part of the energy future.