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Photo by Taras Kalapun

There’s at least one topic the candidates in the US elections won’t be wrangling over: so-called “clean” coal. That’s because they all support it.

SINCE 2000, MCCAIN HAS accepted nearly three times the donations from the coal industry as Obama and Biden combined ($51,850 for McCain versus $17,100 and $3,000 for Obama and Biden, respectively).

And yet even as Obama raises the progressive voice on a number of issues, he has proclaimed the virtues of “clean” coal as widely and vociferously as McCain.

During the campaign for the Democratic nomination, Obama enthusiastically boosted coal during stops in West Virginia and Kentucky. A mailer distributed ahead of the Kentucky primary read, “Barack Obama believes in clean Kentucky coal.”

In a speech given in my home state of West-By-God-Virginia, Obama pledged to create “up to 5 million new green jobs … including new clean coal jobs” if elected. And recently, Representative Rick Boucher (D-Virginia) opined that “Senator Obama truly is a friend of the coal industry.” (And Boucher ought to know – since 2000 he’s accepted $549,894 from big coal.

That the Democrats are in bed with the coal lobby will come as no surprise to anyone who attended the Democratic National Convention. The “clean” coal lobby sponsored events at the DNC and was widely advertised there. Obama even gave “clean” coal a shout-out during his acceptance speech.

And the recent bi-partisan economic bailout plan contains significant underwritten guarantees for “clean” coal money: about $2.5 billion in loan guarantees to provide for construction of so-called clean coal technologies.

Photo by BK59

Clean coal is a farce.

Trouble is, there’s no such thing as “clean” coal. It’s a marketing myth promoted by the big coal companies in order to rake in more public subsidies. Here’s why “clean coal” is a farce and should be opposed at every turn:

Coal, which makes up 50% of our energy use in the US today, is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the country and on the planet, as well as one of the largest sources of air and water pollution worldwide. This makes coal the dirtiest form of energy on the planet.

Climate warrior and Nobel Laureate Al Gore sees the construction of new coal-fired power plants as the biggest threat to our climate, and has even called for civil disobedience “to prevent the construction of new coal plants that do not have carbon capture and sequestration.”

But although Gore says that carbon capture on coal plants meets his definition of clean energy, most experts and even “clean” coal proponents in industry predict that wide-scale carbon sequestration is at least a decade away. In fact, not one single plant in the US today has carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology. And there is not even one large-scale (300+ MW) coal plant with CCS anywhere in the world today.

Photo by Jen SFO-BCN

Coal plants are dirty and expensive.

The economic feasibility of coal plants is suspect – building new coal plants is expensive and getting more so every day: the estimated costs of building new coal-fired plants have increased nearly threefold since 2006 (from approximately $1250/kW to $3000-$3500/kW).

As energy columnist Joseph Romm points out, a recent study by the California Public Utility Commission “puts the cost of coal gasification with carbon capture and storage at a staggering 16.9 cents per kWh.”

Compare this with the current US average retail price of electricity of 9.5 cents per kWh. Romm surmises, “energy efficiency along with lots of low-carbon generation sources beat [coal with CCS] easily now or will very soon.”

Romm also points out that making even a modest dent in global CO2 emissions using CCS would “require a flow of CO2 into the ground equal to the current flow of oil out of the ground,” a staggering amount that, from an engineering point of view, doesn’t pass the laugh test.

When a new coal plant is proposed, it’s 8-12 years before it goes into operation. In comparison, it takes two years to build a massive wind farm, two-and-a-half years to build a large solar facility, and only a couple of weeks to put solar panels on home and business rooftops.

With all the talk about coal-fired power plants, it’s easy to forget where the coal comes from. The environmental and economic ruin that attend mountain top removal mining operations have plagued Appalachia for decades. One local non-profit, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, reports “Mountaintop removal mining is turning Eastern Kentucky into a despicable latrine….”

Hundreds of mountains have been leveled, leaving ecological devastation (links to lots of photos here), poverty and unemployment in their wake.

Photo by ojbyrne

Egregious Stupidity

There’s something egregiously stupid about destroying a multitude of renewable resources – i.e. food, fiber and fuels which can be obtained sustainably from a forest, not to mention the manifold beneficial effects of biodiversity, watershed health, microclimate regulation, erosion control, and natural CO2 sequestration forests offer – in order to extract a heavily polluting, rapidly exhausted, and non-renewable resource.

This desecration of God’s Creation is perennially justified by the argument that “coal mining creates jobs” and is “good for the economy.” However, Grist Magazine has reported that the number of jobs created in Kentucky by coal has dropped by 60 percent in the last 15 years.

As noted by the non-profit Appalachian Voices, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics since the 1950’s the number of miners employed in West Virginia dropped from around 145,000 to just over 16,000 although during that time period coal production has greatly increased. Nationwide, coal jobs have dropped 80 percent in the past half-century, even as our coal production has increased.

Coal mining has been going on in Appalachia for a long time now. Yet Appalachia has long been and remains today one of the poorest, if not the poorest region in the nation. So it seems appropriate to ask, “Just when is coal mining going to start being good for the economies of places like West Virginia, southwestern Virginia and eastern Kentucky?”

With the bi-partisan support for so-called “clean” coal, no matter who moves into the White House next January, progressive environmental activists will have our work cut out for us if we are going to create a sustainable and clean-energy future based on wind, solar, renewables, increased efficiency, and – most importantly – demand reduction through economic re-localization.

Editor’s Note:

Be sure to read the author’s previous essays for The Crisis Of Too Much Energy and How Local Self-Reliance Will Overthrow The System.

Activism + Politics Sustainability


About The Author

Josh Kearns

Josh Kearns is a bona fide hill-billy who currently runs AqueousSolutions, an NGO devoted to developing and promoting self-reliant forms of water purification. He's been a researcher in environmental chemistry and ecological economics and is into techniques for high quality self-reliant living like organic farming, natural building, permaculture and bluegrass music.

  • Theodore Scott

    Great article! On a side note, I used to work in a nuclear power plant. Nuke plants are controversial, but they are much cleaner than coal. Coal plants even release more radioactivity into the environment. That is MORE RADIOACTIVITY than a NUCLEAR PLANT! And, because they don't have the same rules as nuke plants, they are not as closely monitored. Sources: ” target=”_blank”>…” target=”_blank”>… From the second link: "The population effective dose equivalent from coal plants is 100 times that from nuclear plants."

  • Zwindel

    Wind farms are ugly and noisy, solar is incredibly expensive and cannot be made on a larger scale due to the lack of availibility of the metals they are made from. Either way, neither can be used for most homes due to weather. You guys won't go with nuclear, the safest, cleanest energy in the world (although 85% of France does), so we are left with only oil, nat gas, and coal. It doesn't matter how clean an energy is if we can't implement it. We are going to use coal as a primary energy for the next 50 years, so why not do what we can to make it as clean as possible?

  • zwindel

    I'm assuming you deleted my comment because I didn't agree with you. You should explain that only "me too" posts will be accepted.

  • Tim Patterson

    Great post Josh.

  • Uncle B

    Nice to see you American folks say it like it really is for a change! I guess that now that your government has pushed you over a barrel spread eagled, broke you open like a cheap shotgun, and had their way with your life savings in your 401K's and already absconded with the money, deflated your dollar to ass-wipe value and kicked you right the hell out of your homes with dirty unfair lending practices it is time to whimper, but when the price of oil goes to $14.00 a gallon just before Christmas, you will cry out loud! and when the jobless and foodless anarchists living in the streets grab you an render your fat asses for diesel fuel to go raping and plundering your country, you will certainly scream, but when they burn your lungs to a crisp and spray you with mercury from their coal fires you will truly know hell on earth! Coal is a non-renewable, non-sustainable, dirty burning CO2 emitting diaster-fuel, we need better methods of exploiting it, but further processing males it more expensive to use – not satisfactory for the greedy exploitative capitalist hoards that run the country. We are a doomed nation, preparing to bar-b q any future we may have had using solar, to save a buck!


    very informative – liked that you did side by side comparisons (donation money, etc). powerful. props!

  • Eric

    You say that we can build a "massive" wind farm in 2 years. Yes, 2 years after all the regulatory issues have been cleared and the appropriate permits issued. Then you have to actually source the turbines. In case you didn't know, there is currently a huge demand for wind turbines with most of the leading manufacturers up to a year behind in meeting demand. Manufacturing enough wind turbines for a "massive" wind farm takes a long time. Coal is here to stay for the next several decades. It's just not possible to flip a switch and have it be gone. We have to wean ourselves off it – why not continue working towards implementing a cleaner solution? Just because it may not be commercially viable for a few years doesn't mean we should stop working on it or supporting it.

  • Bones

    I think you're forgetting hydroelectric power. You roll your eyes at other renewable sources of energy; would you roll your eyes at the Hoover Dam? Oh, and don't count out geothermal energy. If we're going to turn the earth into heat, why not take out the middle steps of mining and burning?

  • John Woods

    Clean coal? An oxymoron?

  • Kelly

    You went from "YOU American folks" to "WE are a doomed nation"

  • El Guapo

    hydroelectric is only feasible in some areas of the country, and is not necessarily an environmentally friendly energy source. Think of the animal habitats destroyed by large dams.

  • El Gazpacho

    Wind farms aren't the prettiest thing in the world. Granted, neither is a destroyed mountain, but there are other factors, such as wind variability, turbine production capacity (like eric says), etc. that make it more complicated than coal = bad, renewable = good

  • Tim Patterson

    wind farms do require a lot of work – which means a lot of new jobs, which is a good thing. we can't afford to keep shoveling subsidies to the coal industry, and mountain-top removal is a crime against God and humanity that needs to stop now.

  • Tim Patterson

    zwindel, i think your comment was being moderated and is posted above.

  • Tim Patterson

    nuclear can be a bridge fuel to renewables, but we can't afford to keep burning coal for 50 years, or even 10 years – it's too dirty, and it's impossible to make it clean. personally i think wind farms are beautiful. and it's not true that solar and wind can't be used for most homes – wind is limited, but solar can be used just about everywhere.

  • Tim

    You are too cheery, man. Seriously, nuclear is the only option that isn't a pipe dream at this point. All the so called "negatives" of nuclear power are pure political fabrications and undeserved stigma. Chernobyl seems to be a favorite reference for the modern nuclear naysayer. This of course is a most fallacious citation, as modern Western nuclear plants do not use the same flawed technology which led to the ultimate meltdown of that particular facility. The only nuclear incident in our country's history, at Three Mile Island, did not result in the release of any contamination, e.g. it was completely contained. As for the nuclear waste argument, we have more than adequate methods for storing this material until such time the technology for efficient recycling/reuse becomes available. By then you will have states begging for the waste to be stored in their facilities because the stuff will be worth it' s weight in gold. I find it extremely suspect that people who claim to be staunch supporters of "clean" energy, fail to recognize the viability and practicality of nuclear as the only truly attainable source of clean power in the foreseeable future.

  • William White

    The thing to do now is enforce conservation. Stop allowing inefficient structures, outlaw ride on mowers, tax yachts, snow mobiles, dirt bikes, large homes, outlaw air travel, limit fuel purchases to force efficiency and dump free trade. Time to stop pissing in the well!

  • Josh Kearns

    Nuclear is a non-starter – It's super-centralized, so you need a mega-bureaucracy to oversee it. We prefer decentralized, democratically controlled energy forms. It's dangerous; for example plants are vulnerable to terrorist attacks. Contrary to someone's comment here, we don't have any viable good plan to deal with the waste. The commentor may be unaware of the volume of waste we're talking about and the logistical issues of its transport to a 'safe' and sufficiently gi-normous containment site, if said site existed or could be identified. Also, as alluded to at the end of my article, the 'energy crisis' is that we have too much energy, not not-enough: ” target=”_blank”>… There's no good answer to our energy dilemma if you assume "business-as-usual." Business-as-usual has been shown – resoundingly – to be unsustainable and unsatisfactory. Thus business-as-usual has got to go.

  • greenerman

    Interesting to look at the DOE website with its links (and” target=”_blank”>…and compare with this post

  • greenerman
  • billybob

    "It's dangerous; for example plants are vulnerable to terrorist attacks. " I'm so sick of hearing this type of talk. How often is America hit by terrorists? Really? Still crying about 9/11? Seriously, it seemed way too complicated to be completed by a rag-tag group of terrorists. Who or what motive is still a mystery to many, but it's evidence that the American people should quit allowing themselves to be scared. How scared can a nation get when they're afraid to build buildings because it'll be a terrorist target, talk about a bunch of pansies.

  • Wilson

    I'm not an expert – but one should consider the amount of electricity and fuel needed to build/implement and construct renewable energy infrastructure before implementing it. I wonder how much of the solar panels in the market are of the cheap kinda that burn up more energy to construct than they return in their lifecycle. Granted solar panel research has done quite well over the years, and we're getting to the point where the amount of energy used to produce a solar panel is returned by the solar panel itself (if it isn't on sale already – but last I've heard it's only been done in the labs – but I'm not up to date with solar stuff). Put more money into research – train people to use less energy.

  • scotty

    hmmmm if there is a one year backlog on blades, it must be making economic sense somewhere. Why not put all of those out-of-work aerospace people back to work?

  • Chris

    Great post. However, when you say: "There’s something egregiously stupid about destroying a multitude of renewable resources – i.e. food, fiber and fuels which can be obtained sustainably from a forest, not to mention the manifold beneficial effects of biodiversity, watershed health…" you mean, "e.g." or, "for example," and not, "i.e." meaning, "that is," as in a reiteration of your point. Cheers.

  • Cassi

    I'm so tired of people from elsewhere telling those in coal country how to live their lives. I'm from Eastern KY and I've seen the extreme poverty very akin to third world countries. It's sad. Yet everyone proposes to take the ONLY source of industry and income in the region. Without coal these people have nothing. Unless you have a proposition that gives them just as high paying jobs then stop talking about the evils of coal. Eastern KY is beautiful but tragic. To see the poverty even along main roads breaks my heart. If you take coal then you take people's livelihoods. There is no argument to that. Without coal the whole region of Eastern KY and West Virginia is just one big forest. Why do outsiders want to protect the environment by destroying people's lives?

  • cassi's brother

    Cassi, why not protect the environment, because when the earth is gone, all of us will live happy in Eastern Ky and West Virginia!

  • clyde

    Im from WV and would much rather be unemployed in a big forest than to have my kids grow up with poisoned streams and wells.

  • Forrest_Burns

    There is only one energy source that we can use that makes sense. There is only one fuel that will not polute our planet. That fuel is hydrogen. All of the technology to use it is available now. The main reason we are not using it is cost. What if it cost twice as much as fossil fuels, what if it cost three times as much. Isn't our planet worth this meager sacrifice? Now the good news we are already paying this much for fossil fuels . If you do the calculations honestly you can easily see that the true cost of using fossil fuels is more than using solar produced hydrogen. One more thing, hydrogen is much safer to use than gasoline. When we burn a gallon of gasoline we produce 20 pounds of global warming carbon dioxide. A gallon equivalent of hydrogen produces pure water.Sela.

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