What is clean coal?

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Politics is full of rich oxymorons: peacekeeping missiles, business ethics and Gov. Rod Blagojevich, just to name a few. Add to those one that is being used ever more frequently these days: clean coal.

In America's industrial history, coal has been both dirty and deadly, but it has been anything but clean. The use of coal—in the old way—is still the biggest contributor to the emission of greenhouse gases—the suspected culprit of global warming. Additionally, there are other harmful byproducts of coal including: fly ash, acid rain, mercury, uranium and other harmful metals. And with the recent fly ash spill in eastern Tennessee, the idea of clean coal seems laughable. So what exactly is "clean coal?"

The answers are varied—depending on the time period you're talking about and who you are talking to.

The first example of a "cleaner" version of coal came early in the 20th century, when coal was used to power transportation (trains and boats). There were early experiments with "smokeless" coal by U.S. and British navies who prized this brand of coal for its lighter, lesser-detected smoke. Nevertheless, this "smokeless" coal was no more environmentally pure than its "dirtier" cousin.

And, prior to WWII, anthracite and bituminous coal were used in homes for cooking and heat for the same "smokeless" properties. Because coal was necessary for electricity and heat, the government, in the decades since WWII, worked to develop more efficient methods for use and to improve oversight. Since 1970, the environmental impact has lessened.

Nowadays, though, the term is used to describe its process and technology, the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity offers this definition: "Any technology to reduce pollutants associated with the burning of coal that was not in widespread use prior to the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990."

What is different is the process by which we extract and use coal. Since 1990, technology has rapidly improved and warranted a more specific definition for “clean coal.” Steven Chu, the Nobel Prize winner who was nominated for energy secretary, believes that there is more to be done. Nuclear power and carbon capture and storage (CCS) are seen as cleaner alternative methods to the old-fashioned ways of producing electricity and heat.

Nuclear power plants are not new, but they remain alternatives because they do not produce greenhouse gas emissions. Coal power plants burn coal to heat water and produce steam. This steam turns turbines and generates electricity. Nuclear power plants produce electricity in the same process, except that they use uranium, instead of coal, thus avoiding the byproducts of burning coal. It is odd to consider nuclear power as “clean coal technology” because it avoids the use of coal altogether.

CCS is a new method that literally captures the carbon dioxide, and it can be stored safely in ways so that it would be unable to further contribute to global warming. CCS has been tested in Europe, but major attempts in the U.S. were stopped by the Bush administration.

Despite the various notions behind "clean coal," coal, the material we still burn, has not changed. There is not yet a singular grasp on what clean coal really is or could be. All signs, however, indicate that we should and can be doing things differently.

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Sept. 19 2014 8:34 AM