Is “Clean Coal” Clean?

            When President Obama recently gave his State of the Union Address, he indicated that one of his goals in the future is to eliminate tax breaks for oil companies, and to use those tax dollars to invest in green energy to have our country deriving 80% of our electricity from clean energy sources.  Well, I thought that sounded pretty awesome, not to mention rather ambitious, but then he mentioned that we would need to include “clean coal”.  Clean coal?  Is there such a thing?

            In spite of all the recent talk about wind power, solar power, and nuclear power, coal burning still accounts for over half of our country’s energy production, and is the single largest polluter in terms of producing carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas produced by the combustion of fossil fuels).  The coal industry has a strong lobbying arm in Washington D.C., and as more Americans see a need for clean energy, the coal industry is pushing hard to stay relevant as long as possible by green-washing itself with “clean coal”.  The idea behind “clean coal” involves your standard coal being burnt, but instead of the emissions being released into the air, the carbon is contained and shipped either underground or reduced somehow by methods not yet fully realized by science.  At this point “clean coal” is more of an idea than a short term solution to clean energy.

            A website called coalisclean.com states that “It’s our God-given right to burn coal. American homes and businesses would still be shivering primitively in the dark ages if it weren’t for clean coal’s bountiful flow of cheap, abundant energy.”  It may be cheap, but our continued use will end up costing us so much more in the long run.  And while they may blow the horn to herald in the era of “clean coal”, the science and math of it demonstrate that coal being burnt 50% cleaner than it currently is will not even be a viable option commercially until 2020. 

The drastic effects of carbon dioxide need to be mitigated much sooner than that if the world is going to reverse its warming trend.  Even if global warming is an idea with which you disagree, the very act of mining for coal is disastrous and unhealthy.  As reserves grow harder to reach, methods such as mountain top-removal mining are employed.  This popular method includes exploding scenic mountain tops (along with the native plants and animals residing there), and producing and releasing acid mine drainage into rivers and streams (which inevitably makes its way into the water systems we all use on a daily basis).  Finally, coal mining is flat out dangerous work for the people involved.  Just ask the families of the 29 miners killed at the Little Big Branch mine in West Virginia.  And in spite of today’s technology and safety practices, 2010’s 48 dead miners in America’s 1,500 mines was the deadliest year for coal mining since 1992.  It is abundantly clear that this is an industry that cares little for its own employees, yet alone the people it claims to serve.  Time to evolve, America!

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