Facebook Twitter Tumblr Close Skip to main content
A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

‘Clean Coal’ Confrontation

Oxymoron or goal within reach? Industry and environmentalists get down and sooty.


On the campaign trail, President Obama embraced the coal industry’s vision of "clean coal" technology. But even before he took office, a coalition of environmental groups (including Al Gore’s) launched ads ridiculing the idea as a myth: "In reality, there’s no such thing as clean coal."

We’re sure to hear more of this debate in coming months. Burning coal creates large quantities of carbon dioxide, the most prevalent of the "greenhouse gases" that scientists say is heating up the planet and Obama has said he wants to reduce.

Is "clean coal" possible? Our answer: Probably, though it would come with a big price tag.

In our Analysis section, we try to shed a little light on the subject.


 American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity TV Ad:


[TET ]

On screen: Clean coal. Promoting energy independence.

Barack Obama: Clean coal technology is something that can make America energy independent. 

On screen: Clean coal. Creating jobs.

Obama: And by the way we can create five million new jobs in clean energy technology.

On screen: Clean coal. Meeting the climate challenge.

Obama: This is America — we figured out how to put a man on the moon in 10 years.

On screen: Clean coal. We can. We will.

Obama: You tell me we can’t find a way to burn coal that we mine right here in the United States of America and make it work.
(Soundtrack of audience members clapping, chanting "Yes we can!")[/TET]

The coal lobby’s most recent issue ad reminds viewers that the new president has voiced strong support for its side. It features a clip of then-candidate Barack Obama speaking last year, saying "clean coal" is an attainable goal that can create jobs and help the environment:

Obama: This is America – we figured out how to put a man on the moon in 10 years. You tell me we can’t find a way to burn coal that we mine right here in the United States of America and make it work.

That’s just the latest from the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE), which represents coal companies, electric utilities and others who profit from mining, hauling and burning coal. Throughout 2008 it ran ads lauding the promise of "clean coal" as the energy source of America’s future. One spot featured individuals saying "I believe" in a variety of fuzzy goals – the future, technology, protecting the environment. The newest ad ends with Obama supporters chanting "Yes we can."

No We Can’t?

In the opposite corner is the Reality Coalition, a collection of environmental groups spearheaded by ex-Vice President Gore’s Alliance for Climate Protection. Its TV spot, which delivers the kicker  "In reality, there’s no such thing as clean coal," began running last month.

It’s a negative message delivered with some wit. The ad shows a man in a hardhat charging through a door to learn about "clean coal" technology, only to find a barren landscape on the other side. Print ads also portray "clean coal" as a ridiculous notion. In the subterranean reaches of a busy D.C. metro station, the group has put up a sequence of wordless posters showing a mermaid, a little green alien and Bigfoot each holding a lump of coal. Nearby panels repeat the message that "there’s no such thing as clean coal," and add other info: "There are no homes in America powered by clean coal," "There are roughly 600 coal plants providing electricity in the U.S. Not one of them captures and stores its global warming pollution," and more.

Besides the Gore group, the Reality Coalition also includes the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources  Defense Council, the National Wildlife Federation and the League of Conservation Voters.

Both sides say their ad campaigns are national in scope; Brian Hardwick, a spokesman for the Reality Coalition, said his group’s ad was running on CNN, Comedy Central, the several popular Sunday morning talk shows and other widely viewed programming. But neither side would tell us how much they were spending. "There are a whole lot of people gunning for us," Cathy Coffey, the Northeast Region Communications Director for ACCCE, told FactCheck.org. Hardwick told us only that "We expect to spend what they’re spending."

Accuracy Quotient?

We find no factual misstatements in these ads, but that’s because they contain practically no factual claims. Obama did indeed say positive things about "clean coal" during the campaign, often in coal-producing states. (The snippets in ACCCE’s TV ad come from an October rally in Virginia coal country.)

Reality Coalition TV Ad:
"Clean Coal Plant"

 [TET ]

Man in hardhat: Clean coal. Heard a lot about it. So let’s take a tour of this state-of-the-art clean coal facility.

(Goes through door labeled "Clean Coal Facility Entrance," revealing barren landscape.)

Man in hardhat: Amazing! Machinery’s kinda loud, but that’s the sound of clean coal  technology. And while burning coal is one of the leading causes of global warming, the remarkable clean coal technology you see here changes everything. Take a good long look. This is today’s clean coal technology.

On screen: In reality, there’s no such thing as clean coal.[/TET]

But the Reality Coalition’s ads are true as well. There are no commercial "clean coal" plants operating currently in the U.S.

The larger question posed by these dueling ad campaigns is implied rather than stated outright. Can coal can be "clean" in the future? Is "clean coal" a laudable, achievable goal as Obama and the coal miners and electric utilities would have us believe? Or is it a ridiculous oxymoron on par with "controlled chaos," as Gore and other environmental groups suggest?

This is partly a matter of opinion, and it’s certainly a matter of speculation. We don’t know what the future will bring. But we expect to see this debate play out in months to come, and we can offer some basic facts about what research has produced so far.

Solving the Coal Conundrum

Here’s the problem: Coal is an abundant domestic source of energy; the U.S. is frequently called the Saudi Arabia of coal, in fact, and there’s enough to last for centuries. It currently provides a bit more than 50 percent of the nation’s electric power, and it plays a huge role in meeting the voracious energy needs of nations whose economies have been growing briskly, such as China and India.

But of all the nation’s coal-fired power plants (there were 616 of them as of 2006), none can be labeled "clean," which, these days, is defined as being free (or nearly so) of carbon dioxide emissions. Globally, the CO2 that comes from the burning of coal, mainly to generate electricity, accounts for about 20 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, coal-fired electric utilities in the U.S. put out close to two billion tons of CO2 each year. 

Figuring out how to burn this easily available source of energy without causing major CO2 pollution is similar in some ways to the acid rain problem of decades past. Most coal-fired plants in the U.S. now scrub much of the sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide from their flue gases, rather than letting the chemicals escape to react with other substances in the atmosphere and lead to severe damage to forests and other living things. Carbon, though, is a tougher problem.

Most methods being studied to "clean" coal fall under the loose heading of "carbon capture and storage," or CCS, which involves stripping the CO2 out of the coal-burning or coal-gasifying process and piping it deep underground. A study published in 2007 by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology concluded that CCS is "the critical enabling technology that would reduce CO2 emissions significantly while also allowing coal to meet the world’s pressing energy needs."

Carbon capture can occur at three different points. One is pre-combustion: When coal is gasified before it’s burned, an almost pure stream of carbon dioxide can be created, segregated and pumped away. The best-known of the methods in this category is IGCC, or Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle, in which gasified coal is used to run a turbine to produce power. To increase efficiency – because it takes additional energy just to fuel this operation – waste heat from the process is captured as steam and used to create more power.

IGCC is used in industrial processes today, but the CO2 isn’t captured.  That’s because there’s no penalty in the U.S. for releasing it into the atmosphere. However, some companies have plans on the books to change that. A joint venture between BP and Rio Tinto, called Hydrogen Energy, is working on a CCS plant in California that could burn coal using IGCC technology to separate the CO2 and capture it.

Other research has focused on trying to strip the CO2 from the gas that remains after coal is burned, which is similar to what’s done with the precursor chemicals to acid rain. Tenaska, Inc. has plans for a large  coal-burning plant in Texas that will capture carbon from its flue gases.

Yet another technology, called oxyfuel, can be deployed during the actual combustion process. It involves burning coal in a mix of carbon dioxide, water vapor, and pure oxygen, and eliminates cumbersome steps for separating the resulting CO2 from other substances. Last year a plant in Germany became the first full-cycle oxyfuel demonstration project to begin operating; it provides power for about 1,000 homes. Its waste CO2 is being compressed, transported and buried two miles below a depleted gas field.

As it turns out, putting CO2 underground helps force reluctant liquids lurking there, like oil, to the surface. Selling captured CO2 to oil and gas field operators, as Tenaska plans to do with its Texas plant, and Hydrogen Energy hopes to do in California, can help recoup some of the companies’ investment in CCS technology. There’s been some real-world experience with the sequestration, or storage, part of the equation in other contexts. For example, natural gas produced at the Sleipner Field in the Norwegian North Sea contains unusually high levels of CO2 that must be stripped out. Norway’s high tax on carbon emissions justifies the added cost of piping the CO2 2,600 feet under the sea and injecting it into a 200-foot-thick layer of porous sandstone.  Similarly, the Weyburn project on this continent has been taking CO2 produced at a synfuels plant in North Dakota and piping it to oil fields in Saskatchewan.

Seven regional partnerships under the Department of Energy’s umbrella have been working on the storage issue in the U.S., identifying where the geology is favorable for holding enormous amounts of CO2. Besides oil and gas fields, deep saline formations are also considered excellent candidates for the task. According to DOE, it would take hundreds of years to fill up all the underground space that it considers suitable for permanent CO2 storage.

Potential problems: CO2 storage will never be geologically foolproof, and a regulatory and legal structure (to deal with liability issues) will have to be set up before any proposal can win public acceptance. The Environmental Protection Agency has already been thinking about that: It’s in the process of finalizing rules covering underground injection of CO2 that would regulate site selection, monitoring techniques, construction of wells, insurance requirements, decommissioning and other steps in the process. In addition, transporting CO2 to storage sites could require, as one observer put it, the underground equivalent of "the highway system on steroids."

Will storage sites for carbon dioxide draw as much public opposition as, say, Yucca Mountain, the proposed nuclear waste repository in Nevada that’s continually blocked by lawsuits and other obstacles? Maybe not, since CO2 is far less hazardous. But it’s not entirely benign, either: On Aug. 21, 1986 in Cameroon, 1,746 villagers were suffocated in their sleep when a huge cloud of naturally-occurring carbon dioxide that had been at the bottom of Lake Nyos erupted and blanketed the countryside.

Experts believe that significant research and demonstration efforts using CCS technology, such as those that DOE has funded, need to continue. They were disheartened when DOE last year killed its funding for a planned $1.8 billion demonstration plant, called FutureGen, in Matoon, Ill., citing costs. (DOE spokesman John Grasser told FactCheck.org that the project as announced in 2003 was envisioned to cost about $950 million). The single giant project, which was to be a 285-megawatt "living lab" that would test advanced CCS technologies, was a public-private partnership with contributions from several partner nations such as China. It has given way to several much smaller projects, but Illinois lawmakers have been arguing for revival of FutureGen as part of Obama’s stimulus package.

It’s clear, though, that some CCS technology is already far enough along to put into practice at a commercial level, and a few companies, as we note above, are giving it a shot. But it has a major drawback: It’s frightfully expensive, at least for now.

Who’re You Calling "Cheap?"

Here’s one of coal’s biggest selling points: It generates power at a far lower cost than other fossil fuels. According to the Energy Information Administration, in October, 2008, electric utilities paid $2.19 per million Btu for coal, as opposed to $6.94 for natural gas and $16.68 for petroleum. (The cost for petroleum is certain to be lower now, since the per-barrel price of oil has dropped dramatically, but coal is still much cheaper.)

A 2008 McKinsey study estimates that adding "clean coal" technology would increase the capital cost of a power plant by 50 percent – and that doesn’t include the costs of transporting and storing the captured CO2 or operating costs. 

McKinsey: Compared to a "normal" power plant, CCS adds four additional costs. Firstly, capture equipment needs to be installed. Secondly, the capture process needs to be powered, leading to additional fuel costs. Thirdly, a transport system needs to be built. And finally, the CO2 needs to be stored. All of this requires both additional capital investment and additional operating cost.

Two Stanford experts, David Victor and Varun Rai, estimate that the cost of a 300 megawatt power plant with 90 percent CO2 capture would be $1 billion to $2.5 billion. But even a 300 megawatt coal-fired plant without carbon capture, proposed in Wisconsin, was projected to cost at least $1.1 billion last year. Many a clean coal project has foundered on the issue of cost.  And besides, Victor and Rai say construction of power plants in general, dirty or clean, is at a standstill because of the financial crisis

Assuming the economy improves, though, investors’ interest in coal-fired plants with CCS may ignite due to mounting pressure to put a price on carbon emissions in the interest of slowing global warming. Some argue that imposing a simple federal tax on carbon emissions would be the easiest regime to manage. The system that President Obama favored during his campaign, known as cap-and-trade, would impose limits on emissions that tightened over time and would require companies to buy and sell allowances to meet the targets. 

Obama has committed to pushing for a "cap-and-trade program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent [from 1990 levels] by 2050." His campaign website also promoted investment in "clean coal." Under the heading "Develop and Deploy Clean Coal Technology," it said, "Obama’s Department of Energy will enter into public private partnerships to develop five “first-of-a-kind” commercial scale coal-fired plants with clean carbon capture and sequestration technology."

In addition, Rep. Henry Waxman, chairman of the House Energy and Natural Resources committee, has vowed to pass a cap-and-trade bill out of his committee by Memorial Day. And at least some in the industry are pitching in their ideas along similar lines. On Jan. 15, a consortium of business and environmental groups, ranging from Duke Energy to Conoco Phillips to the Environmental Defense Fund, released a blueprint calling for a cap-and-trade system that would cut emissions 80 percent by 2050 – quite a bit less than Obama’s goal, since it uses 2005 rather than 1990 as its baseline, but still substantial. The detailed plan of the U.S. Climate Action Partnership (USCAP), the product of two years of research and wrangling, also contains financial incentives for the first commercial coal plants to use CCS, would require any coal plant permitted after 2014 to emit a maximum of half the CO2 now considered normal. The idea is to help subsidize CCS until the caps are tight enough that companies simply can’t afford to emit CO2.

The idea is also to get started. "We and some industry leaders believe that right now the technology is there," says George Peridas, a climate scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, which is part of USCAP. "We need to begin deployment."

Whatever pricing mechanism were chosen, the idea is that electric utilities and other coal-burners might find it cheaper to invest in expensive "clean coal" plants than to pay the penalty for emitting CO2. And in fact, executives from two of the companies that have CCS plants in the works have said publicly that their projects only make financial sense because of the looming likelihood that sending CO2 into the air will no longer be free. 

Tenaska Vice President Gregory Kunkel, congressional testimony, June 8, 2008: We have developed Trailblazer in anticipation of federal climate change legislation that would support, through placing a price on greenhouse gas emissions and other means, the significant capital and operating costs of carbon capture technology. Without climate legislation, it appears that revenues from enhanced oil recovery CO2 sales will be insufficient to cover all carbon capture costs. With proposed climate legislation, projected compliance cost savings and other effects of climate change legislation, combined with EOR revenues, would provide the needed economic incentives to build and operate Trailblazer.

NRG Energy CEO David Crane, Washington Post, Oct. 14, 2007: The company I run, NRG Energy, emits more than 64 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year — more than the total man-made greenhouse gas emissions of Norway…We do so because CO2 emissions are free…[R]emoving CO2 before or after the combustion process is vastly more expensive and problematic than just venting it into the atmosphere…[W]e need to move as quickly as possible toward implementing the low-emissions ways of combusting coal that are under development or in the case of "coal gasification" technology, are ready for commercial deployment. Effective incentives for these new technologies could easily and readily be included in a cap-and-trade regimen.

Back to "Clean"

Still, a significant bloc of observers, including many environmental activists, believe that getting the carbon dioxide out of coal doesn’t do enough to address the problems with that plentiful fossil fuel. There remain issues such as mountaintop removal, for instance, in which mountain peaks are literally blasted off to get to the coal beneath, with the detritus dumped in valleys and streams of states like West Virginia.

And the notion that coal can be truly "clean" was dealt a major blow just before Christmas when 5.4 million cubic yards of watery, toxic coal ash from a coal-burning power plant burst through a retaining wall, flooding a residential area near the Kingston Fossil Plant in the Tennessee Valley. The ash, contaminated with heavy metals and other toxic substances, forced residents to evacuate, destroyed several homes and left contamination that will take months to clean up.

For these critics, coal will never be "clean," and pursuing that illusion will only take time, attention and dollars away from development of renewable sources of energy that are inherently "cleaner." The several environmental groups that cooperated with industry in the U.S. Climate Action Partnership were cast as traitors to the green movement by many of their ardent colleagues.

They have a point, too. And we take no position on the merits of CCS technology and the other issues involved in getting coal to burn without creating a carbon dioxide problem; as we noted earlier, we can only say that it’s possible to do, though the cost will be high. But it’s worth noting that, given coal’s domestic abundance, the influence of huge corporations that are invested in the stuff, and the importance of coal-producing states – think Pennsylvania and Ohio, for starters – in the political process, it’s likely to be around as an energy source for a long time.

As evidence, note Steven Chu, Obama’s Nobel laureate Secretary of Energy, who called coal "my worst nightmare" for its climate consequences in a presentation at Berkeley in April 2007. His views now take a back seat to Obama’s, of course, and at Chu’s confirmation hearing Jan. 13 it seemed the nightmare had receded a bit, or at least become more politically astute. Chu told the Senate Energy Committee that, "if the world continues to use coal the way it is using it today, not only in the United States but in Russia, India and China, it is a pretty bad dream."

But no longer a nightmare, perhaps, because Chu also told the senators he didn’t oppose new coal-fired power plants, at least as an interim step, and committed to pushing for more funding for CCS projects. 

–by Viveca Novak


 Katzer, James, executive director. "The Future of Coal: An Interdisciplinary MIT Study," Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2007.

Garber, Kent. "Stimulus Debate Could Clarify How Much Obama Supports ‘Clean Coal,’" U.S. News & World Report, 9 Jan. 2009.

Mufson, Steve. "At Hearing, Chu Tempers Comments on Gas Tax, Coal," The Washington Post, 14 Jan. 2009.

Hebert, H. Josef. "Waxman promises quick action on climate," The Associated Press, 14 Jan. 2009.

Jha, Alok. "World’s first carbon capture pilot fires up clean-coal advocates," The Guardian, 5 Sept. 2008.

Victor, David, and Varun Rai. "Dirty Coal is Winning," Newsweek, 12 Jan. 2009.

Content, Thomas. "Power plant cost to top $1 billion," Journal Sentinel, 14 June 2008.

Dewan, Shaila. "Tennessee Ash Flood Larger Than Initial Estimate," The New York Times, 26 Dec. 2008.

Kunkel, Gregory P. “Testimony of Dr. Gregory P. Kunkel, Tenaska, Inc.,” House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources, 12 June 2008.

Crane, David. "We’re carboholics. Make us stop," Washington Post, 14 Oct. 2007.

"Cameroon Marks 10th Anniversary of Lake Tragedy," Agence France Presse, 21 August 1996.

Energy Information Administration, U.S.Department of Energy. "Frequently Asked Questions–Electricity," Web site accessed 22 Jan. 2009.

Pew Center on Global Climate Change. "Coal and Climate Change Facts," Web site accessed 22 Jan. 2009.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "Underground Injection Program: Geologic Sequestration of Carbon Dioxide," Web site accessed 22 Jan. 2009.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "Acid Rain: What is Acid Rain?" Web site accessed 22 Jan. 2009.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "The Future of Coal: Options for a Carbon-Constrained World," 2007.

U.S. Department of Energy. "Carbon Sequestration Regional Partnerships," Web site accessed 22 Jan. 2009.

McKinsey & Company. "Carbon Capture and Storage: Assessing the Economics," 2008.

Obama, Barack. "New Energy for America," barackobama.com, Web site accessed 22 Jan. 2009.