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Environment

The Coal Quandary

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In the late 2000s, the notion of "clean coal" was widely panned. As Bryan Walsh wrote in a 2009 Time piece:

currently there's no economical way to capture and sequester carbon emissions from coal, and many experts doubt there ever will be.

Critics in the Guardian and elsewhere dismissed "clean coal" as industry greenwash. But such broad denunciations conveniently ignored the billions of dollars the U.S. federal government (under President Obama) had poured into what is known as carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology. So while the term "clean coal" may well be a misnomer, people should be aware that the U.S. Department of Energy has a slew of projects it categorizes as "clean coal research." In a 2010 feature for The Atlantic, James Fallows laid out the rationale for decarbonizing coal: It remained a cheap, abundant and widely-used energy source and will continue to be so "for a very long time." He also surveyed the state of clean coal technology, which led him to China. Fallows reported:

In the search for “progress on coal,” like other forms of energy research and development, China is now the Google, the Intel, the General Motors and Ford of their heyday—the place where the doing occurs, and thus the learning by doing as well. “They are doing so much so fast that their learning curve is at an inflection that simply could not be matched in the United States,” David Mohler of Duke Energy told me.

Fallows took the idea of clean coal seriously because the Chinese--who rely on coal--were investing hugely in the technology to make it cleaner. And they seemed to be making strides. But as I noted in a 2012 piece for Slate, many people were still snickering:

Chris Rock recently joked on Twitter that "clean coal is kinda like clean porn." Several years ago, a Washington Post op-ed scoffed: "Never was there an oxymoron more insidious, or more dangerous to our public health."

Today, some heavyweights in the media are looking past this ridicule and again taking a close look at clean coal. The delicacy of such an effort is obvious in the National Geographic story published in the magazine's April issue. The author Michelle Nijhuis starts off her piece this way:

Environmentalists say that clean coal is a myth. Of course it is: Just look at West Virginia, where whole Appalachian peaks have been knocked into valleys to get at the coal underneath and streams run orange with acidic water. Or look at downtown Beijing, where the air these days is often thicker than in an airport smoking lounge. Air pollution in China, much of it from burning coal, is blamed for more than a million premature deaths a year. That’s on top of the thousands who die in mining accidents, in China and elsewhere.

The point being, coal is a killer, so let's not gussy it up with new language and technological enhancements. The important question, Nijhuis writes,

isn’t whether coal can ever be “clean.” It can’t. It’s whether coal can ever be clean enough—to prevent not only local disasters but also a radical change in global climate.

Indeed, that's an important premise to explore for a story on the progress of "clean coal." Read the rest of her piece to find out if that big question can be answered. Charles Mann, writing in the current issue of Wired, also takes a fresh look at the state of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology. His deep dive feature has a theme similar to the 2010 Fallows piece in The Atlantic, which was framed around the imperative of climate change and the reality of global energy demand. Here's what we in journalism call the nut-graph in Mann's piece:

Many energy and climate researchers believe that CCS is vital to avoiding a climate catastrophe. Because it could allow the globe to keep burning its most abundant fuel source while drastically reducing carbon dioxide and soot, it may be more important—though much less publicized—than any renewable-energy technology for decades to come. No less than Steven Chu, the Nobel-winning physicist who was US secretary of energy until last year, has declared CCS essential. “I don’t see how we go forward without it,” he says.

As the title of Mann's piece indicates, renewable energy in of itself is not considered a viable near-term solution for climate change. (Such was also the position of the 2010 Fallows article.) This will likely sour some greens to Mann's piece, which would be a shame. For it is a rigorously reported, engaging narrative on the tantalizing promise of clean coal. My takeaway from the just-published Wired and National Geographic pieces: The race to avert potentially catastrophic climate change while still meeting the world's surging energy demand is still on.

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