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Is Clean Coal Story Worthy?

By Keith Kloor
Nov 12, 2010 2:41 AMNov 20, 2019 1:20 AM


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James Fallows has a cover story on the inevitability of coal in The Atlantic magazine that is a must-read. The piece cogently lays out why coal is king and why it must be made to be clean. The story is already prompting knee-jerk annoyance in predictable places. More on that in a minute. Here's the the nutgraph--the premise of the story, where its purpose is explained (my emphasis):

The proposition that coal could constitute any kind of "hope" or solution, or that a major environmentalist action plan could be called "Coal Without Carbon," as one I will describe is indeed named"”this goes beyond seeming interestingly contrarian to seeming simply wrong. For the coal industry, the term "clean coal" is an advertising slogan; for many in the environmental movement, it is an insulting oxymoron.

But two ideas that underlie the term are taken with complete seriousness by businesses, scientists, and government officials in China and America, and are the basis of the most extensive cooperation now under way between the countries on climate issues. One is that coal can be used in less damaging, more sustainable ways than it is now. The other is that it must be used in those ways, because there is no plausible other way to meet what will be, absent an economic or social cataclysm, the world's unavoidable energy demands.

Fallows goes on to make a convincing case for why coal is here to stay for the foreseeable future. He then follows with a section on what the implications of this are for climate change (bad!). The third and final section is on the carbon sequestration challenge and how this is being taken up in collaborative (but embryonic) partnerships between the U.S. and China--all below the mainstream media radar. Somehow, David Roberts at Grist thinks the article is unfairly bearing down, like a speeding coal train, on hardcore coal critics. I suspect that this is one of the quotes from the Fallows piece that convinced Roberts the focus of the story was all wrong:

"Emotionally, we would all like to think that wind, solar, and conservation will solve the problem for us," David Mohler of Duke Energy told me. "Nothing will change, our comfort and convenience will be the same, and we can avoid that nasty coal. Unfortunately, the math doesn't work that way."

I have said before that Roberts is a very smart guy, but he might want to consider his own emotional investment in an argument and whether it's preventing him from accepting cold reality. For, according to Fallows, here's the deal (my emphasis):

The math [Mohler] has in mind starts with the role that coal now plays around the world, and especially for the two biggest energy consumers, America and China. Overall, coal-burning power plants provide nearly half (about 46 percent this year) of the electricity consumed in the United States. For the record: natural gas supplies another 23 percent, nuclear power about 20 percent, hydroelectric power about 7 percent, and everything else the remaining 4 or 5 percent. The small size of the "everything else" total is worth noting; even if it doubles or triples, the solutions we often hear the most about won't come close to meeting total demand. In China, coal-fired plants supply an even larger share of much faster-growing total electric demand: at least 70 percent, with the Three Gorges Dam and similar hydroelectric projects providing about 20 percent, and (in order) natural gas, nuclear power, wind, and solar energy making up the small remainder. For the world as a whole, coal-fired plants provide about half the total electric supply. On average, every American uses the electricity produced by 7,500 pounds of coal each year. Precisely because coal already plays such a major role in world power supplies, basic math means that it will inescapably do so for a very long time.

To Roberts' mind,

the "coal is inevitable" talk offers aid and comfort to an establishment that's doing virtually nothing to rein in dirty coal or support clean alternatives.

Roberts is pissed that that this wasn't addressed in the story. He also contends that the piece was framed as rebuke to critics of coal. Fallows, in a detailed and respectful rebuttal at his blog, counters:

I think [Roberts] is responding to something I didn't write.

People should read the Fallows piece in its entirety and make up their own minds. I'll just say that Roberts' criticism is the latest example of environmental/climate commentators taking issue with the premise of a particular story--because it doesn't have their preferred frame.

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