Friday, May 30, 2008

Dream of 'clean coal' seems farther away as feds, utilities take more steps backward than forward

Despite an advertising campaign by the coal industry and lip service from the three main presidential candidates, the idea of "clean coal" is only that. And prospects for making it a reality are "lagging badly," The New York Times reports.

"In the last few months, utility projects in Florida, West Virginia, Ohio, Minnesota and Washington state that would have made it easier to capture carbon dioxide have all been canceled or thrown into regulatory limbo," Matthew Wald writes. "The failure to start building, testing, tweaking and perfecting carbon capture and storage means that developing the technology may come too late to make coal compatible with limiting global warming."

We've reported on the Energy Department's pulling the plug on the proposed FutureGen plant in Illinois, which was supposed to prove the technology. The department, citing cost overruns, wants to divvy up the work into smaller projects, including power plants now on the drawing board, but faces political opposition in Congress. More important, though, are the long-term concerns, which Wald summarizes nicely:

"Scientists need to figure out which kinds of rock and soil formations are best at holding carbon dioxide. They need to be sure the gas will not bubble back to the surface. They need to find optimal designs for new power plants so as to cut costs. And some complex legal questions need to be resolved, such as who would be liable if such a project polluted the groundwater or caused other damage far from the power plant."

Unless those questions are answered soon, electric companies may "build the next generation of coal plants using existing technology," Wald writes. "That would ensure that vast amounts of global warming gases would be pumped into the atmosphere for decades." One alternative is an intermediate step, coal-gasification plants that would be more efficient and emit carbon dioxide per kilowatt. Duke Energy has proposed such a plant in Indiana. (Read more)

LEARN MORE ABOUT IT: The prospects for carbon storage, climate change and the future of mountaintop-removal strip mining of coal will be among the topics at "Covering Climate Change and Our Energy Future in Rural America," an Oct. 15 workshop that will precede the annual conference of the Society of Environmental Journalists conference in Roanoke. The conference home page says the workshop is open only to SEJ members, but the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues will offer sponsorships to coalfield and other Appalachian journalists to attend. Check the Institute's home page for details, to be posted soon. For an agenda of the workshop, click here.

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