The Dirtiest Fight

Clean coal could present Obama's biggest energy challenge

For President Obama, the biggest challenge to solving America's energy problems isn't creating green jobs or building new infrastructure. It's calling bullshit on "clean coal."

During the inauguration, the coal industry blanketed the airwaves with a devastatingly effective ad that featured Obama himself buying the fantasy that technology can make coal pollution-free. "We figured out how to put a man on the moon in 10 years," Obama said at a campaign rally in Virginia. "You can't tell me we can't figure out how to burn coal that we mined right here in the United States of America and make it work."

The truth is, there is no viable way to scrub carbon pollution from coal plants. The industry touts a technology called "carbon capture and storage," which can, in theory, collect carbon dioxide from smokestacks and bury it underground. But the process is prohibitively expensive, and burying the CO2 risks creating vast and potentially hazardous waste fields ["Big Coal's Campaign of Lies," RS 1058]. Contrary to Obama's optimism, it's unlikely the technology will be ready for commercial deployment within 20 years, much less a single decade. Of the 80 or so new coal plants currently planned for construction, few have serious plans to capture and bury carbon emissions.

All of which means coal will remain one of the planet's dirtiest sources of energy. Mountaintop-removal mining continues to level huge swaths of Appalachia, and air pollution from coal plants causes thousands of premature deaths each year. Burning coal also generates about one-third of the carbon-dioxide pollution in the U.S. That means if Obama wants to tackle the climate crisis, he'll have to do more than build wind turbines and install solar panels: He'll have to wrestle Big Coal.

"If Obama is serious about dealing with global warming, his top priority should be to stop construction of new coal plants that don't capture and store most of their CO2," says Joe Romm, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. So far, at least. Obama doesn't seem to be pursuing clean coal seriously. Early versions of his economic-stimulus plan included $2.4 billion for research into carbon capture — well short of what the industry wants. And his top energy appointments are hardly friends of Big Coal; his energy secretary, Steven Chu, once called coal "my worst nightmare."

But the blowback will be fierce — not just from Republicans, but from coal-state Democrats. If the past is any indication, coal boosters will try to scare the public with wildly overblown studies that predict massive job losses and impending blackouts if coal is curbed. "We will not be put off from action because action is hard," Obama declared on January 26th, announcing his push for energy independence. Taking on Big Coal will be the real test of that resolve.