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The Dirty Truth About Clean Coal


Critical electoral votes have made it a potent campaign issue, but it's still years away

Get ready for the selling of "clean coal." A $40 million industry-sponsored marketing and lobbying campaign has launched, with one national television spot featuring a farmer, a teacher, and a woman in a white lab coat declaring: "I believe"—while a voiceover describes how coal can be burned in an environmentally friendly manner.

With coal-rich swing states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia critical to the Presidential race, both Barack Obama and John McCain have endorsed the idea that coal is well on its way to becoming a benign energy source. Obama's primary campaign in Kentucky sent out flyers in May showing the smiling Democratic candidate, a coal barge, and the message "Barack Obama believes in clean Kentucky coal."

The catch is that for now—and for years to come—"clean coal" will remain more a catchphrase than a reality. Despite the eagerness of the coal and power industries to sanitize their image and the desire of U.S. politicians to push a healthy-sounding alternative to expensive foreign oil and natural gas, clean coal is still a misnomer.

Environmental legislation enacted in 1990 forced the operators of coal-fired power plants to reduce pollutants that cause acid-rain. But such plants, which provide half of U.S. electricity, are the country's biggest source of greenhouse-gas emissions linked to global warming. No coal plant can control its emissions of heat-trapping carbon dioxide. "Clean coal' is like a healthy cigarette,'" says Blan Holman, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center in Charleston, S.C. "It doesn't exist."

CARBON CAPTURE

That fact won't mute the marketing bluster. All the talk relates to the idea of separating CO2 from the coal-burning process and burying it in liquid form so it won't contribute to climate change. "When [Obama] says clean coal,' he's talking about coming up with a system to put carbon back into the ground from whence it came," says Jason Grumet, the candidate's principal adviser on energy and the environment.

Corporations and the federal government have tried for years to accomplish "carbon capture and sequestration." So far they haven't had much luck. The method is widely viewed as being decades away from commercial viability. Even then, the cost could be prohibitive: by a conservative estimate, several trillion dollars to switch to clean coal in the U.S. alone.

Then there are the safety questions. One large, coal-fired plant generates the equivalent of 3 billion barrels of CO2 over a 60-year lifetime. That would require a space the size of a major oil field to contain. The pressure could cause leaks or earthquakes, says Curt M. White, who ran the U.S. Energy Dept.'s carbon sequestration group until 2005 and served as an adviser until earlier this year. "Red flags should be going up everywhere when you talk about this amount of liquid being put underground."

The obstacles don't trouble Joe Lucas, marketing chief at the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, a Washington-area group funded by coal and power companies, which is responsible for the $40 million campaign. "We feel it's a false choice that Americans need to pick between affordable electricity and a clean environment," Lucas says. The industry marketing offensive has included advertisements on CNN during the primary debates as well as newspaper and billboard promotions. In one television ad, folksy guitar strumming accompanies images of families waving. "We have to continue to advance new clean coal technologies," the narrator says. "If we don't, we may have to say goodbye to the American way of life we all know and love."

Companies seeking to build dozens of coal-fueled power plants across the country use the term "clean coal" liberally in trying to persuade regulators and voters. Power giant Dominion (D) describes a proposed plant near St. Paul, Va., expected to generate electricity by 2012, as having "the very latest in clean-coal technology." What the unbuilt facility actually possesses to address global warming is a plot of land set aside for CO2-removal technology—once it is invented and becomes commercially feasible. The plant design will accommodate the technology, says Jim Martin, a Dominion vice-president. These steps, he says, "may actually spur more research on carbon capture and sequestration."

The Presidential candidates will walk a fine line on the issue. Senators Obama and McCain support legislation to address global warming. But "coal is rich in some strategic states that are key to winning the Presidency," notes Eric Burgeson, an energy lobbyist and former McCain adviser.

In all, some 118 electoral votes are in play in the top 10 coal-producing states—44% of the 270 needed to win the election. That likely will fuel plenty of speechifying.

Elgin is a correspondent in BusinessWeek's Silicon Valley bureau .

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