The Clean Coal Scam

The air is cleaner, water is purer now than when I was growing up. That’s not in spite of the EPA, but primarily because of it.

I had the TV on early this afternoon when a commercial came on for “Clean Coal.” Clean coal? Seriously? Is there really such a thing? I went to the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity‘s website to read up.

New coal plants built today using state-of-the-art technology offer improved environmental performance in terms of both efficiency and emissions reductions. According to the EPA and other sources, coal-fueled power plants are capable of reducing up to 98 percent of sulfur dioxide emissions, 90 percent of nitrogen oxide emissions and 90 percent of mercury emissions in some instances.

Notice the last three words: “in some instances.” Everything preceding those words is suspect at best and potentially meaningless. Like the commercial the website goes through major linguistic acrobatics to imply promises that are never really made.

For example there’s a link associated with “90 percent of mercury emissions” which leads to another page on the site.

According to the Government Accountability Office, sorbent injection systems have achieved, on average, 90 percent reductions in mercury emissions. For more information, go to:

Sounds good. I clicked the GAO link. All of a sudden the cleanliness of coal isn’t quite as evident.

The 491 U.S. coal-fired power plants are the largest unregulated industrial source of mercury emissions nationwide, annually emitting about 48 tons of mercury–a toxic element that poses health threats, including neurological disorders in children. In 2000, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) determined that mercury emissions from these sources should be regulated, but the agency has not set a maximum achievable control technology (MACT) standard, as the Clean Air Act requires.

Sorbent injection systems are used in 25 boilers at 14 coal-fired plants. I’m guessing that’s not all the boilers at those 14 plants, but even if it was that’s only 2.8% of the coal fired power plants! That’s a lot of dirty coal… and by dirty I mean toxic.

The reason the ad I saw was on-the-air was to try and rally support for the TRAIN Act. If you think clean coal is really clean then the TRAIN Act is for you!

Introduced by Rep. John Sullivan (R-Okla.), the Transparency in Regulatory Analysis of Impacts on the Nation (TRAIN) Act would create a special committee to oversee the EPA’s rules and regulations, and require the agency to consider economic impacts on polluters when it sets standards concerning how much air pollution is too much. For the last 41 years, since passage of the Clean Air Act, only scientific and medical considerations have been allowed in that analysis. – Huffington Post

Air is cleaner and water is purer than when I was growing up. That’s not in spite of the EPA, but primarily because of it. I don’t want to see that trend reversed.

5 thoughts on “The Clean Coal Scam”

  1. GEOFF,Do you really think, that republicans will aboloish the EPA, if, they gain the presidency?? I’m really concerned about the “FRACKING” controversy, especially the small earthquakes associated with it and, the poloution of deep water wells/aquafers. The oil industry has bombarded us with beautiful commercials, about how “SAFE”, the procedure is,but, refuses to disclose the dangerous chemicals involved with the process. Abolishing the EPA,would make things a lot easier for them, AND, much cheaper. Can’t have those pesky regulations, interfering with their profit margins, can we??

  2. I have always viewed with some skepticism the idea of clean coal. The idea that you can somehow put coal in a washing machine till it comes out squeaky clean and smelling of lavender is just crazy.

    Coal is inherently toxic it comes from the earth there is a limited supply and to me this is just governments way of getting around the problem of increasing power consumption. Most households in the western world now contain more plugs than books and as we plug more and more electrical items into the socket pushing an already stressed power system that generates 3 billion mega watts of power per year a solution is needed.

    Building 300 million wind turbines isn’t even feasible and as you know the wind is a variable and unpredictable beast. solar works well in the desert but North Dakota and Maine are not two places you would generate enough power to run much on. And as for nuclear power nobody wants a nuclear power station built in their backyard.

    I have lived here for 4 years now and I still can’t do what I did as a child on a hot summers day, come inside and stick my head under the tap to quench my thirst. I made this mistake on my 1st year here and had an experience that can only be described as explosive and a bonanza fortnight for Imodium. I still can’t drink tap water unless it’s been heavily filtered and the thought that someone could deregulate the body that has some regulation on it sends shivers down my spine.

  3. Geoff,

    I’ve always wondered about the claims made simply with the adjective “clean” in front of coal in recent years. I wondered if they’ve invested so much money into old (or new) plants to make that claim and doubted it. Yet, I don’t know much about the industry. You’re simple web-hopping to the source (good thing they provided it!) and explanatory here is quite informative. Thanks!

    Bill – Most Republicans believe in reasonable regulations. A few – particularly libertarians – advocate abolishing the EPA, but would allow states to carry out the same kinds of regulations. In my personal view, the same regulations would still exist and be carried out by someone on the state level. Abolishing the EPA is very unlikely.

    What most Republicans, and some Democrats oppose is oppressive regulations that go beyond common sense or negligible harm. For instance- some CT legislators want to prohibit wood burning furnaces. These are little more than campfires and if it is passed, could limit a reasonable way to enjoy a backyard activity – or provide a fairly safe method to keep warm during an emergency.

    – Chris O’Brien

  4. Geoff,
    you’re spot on! I particularly like your astute citation of the use of “linguistic acrobatics”. Clean coal is the biggest environmental oxymoron every espoused by the marketing/PR groups of an industry lobbying group. What you didn’t read, because even the EPA was fearful of the societal impacts of the final data, was the effects caused by the radionuclide output of the coal industry. Because of how/where coal formed it has relatively high concentrations of radioactive minerals (e.g. uranium containing). The mining, milling, combustion, air emissions, and ash management of coal all expose the population to these radionuclide outputs. Coal truly is dirty in every sense. There’s no way to make it otherwise. Thanks for posting your insights!

  5. Wow, Chris, outdoor wood stoves are NOT “little more than campfires”. Just because you think something, doesn’t mean it’s real. This is a problem in the Fox News Channel generation.


    “Average fine particle emissions (a particularly harmful pollutant) from one OWB are equivalent to the emissions from 22 EPA certified wood stoves, 205 oil furnaces, or as many as 8,000 natural gas furnaces. One OWB emits as much fine particle matter as four heavy duty diesel trucks on a grams per hour basis. The smallest OWB has the potential to emit almost one and one-half tons of particulate matter every year. Indoor wood stoves are several times less polluting than OWBs. Due to the poor combustion conditions, OWBs emit proportionately more benzene, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, formaldehyde and other toxic partial combustion products which have been linked to asthma, heart attacks and cancer.”

    OWB owners burn everything they can stuff into the devices. Plus they contaminate neighborhoods with smoke and other emissions… which is an infringement of private property rights. If that matters to you.

    May you be fortunate enough to NOT have your neighbors install OWBs tomorrow. You will quickly change your mind.

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