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Critique of Clean Coal Technologies

Thursday, October 4, 2012

            America currently invests in nearly all the possibilities for cleaner energy that have been proposed. This is a problem because the crisis of climate change is mounting and we must act as soon as we can to prevent the worst of the damage from happening. We do not have the time or resources to waste. That is why we must be very careful in which technology we choose to invest in and why I believe the US government’s investments in clean coal technology needs to stop.

The most recent form of clean coal is carbon sequestration. The idea behind it is the carbon dioxide generated from coal is sequestered, most likely underground, instead of being emitted into the atmosphere. This technology is being developed as a green energy source, one that will help reduce the impact of climate change, maybe even be the entire solution to it. The truth is though, clean coal is anything but clean, and is one of the worst options for clean energy.
            In the debates about the cleanliness of sequestration and other clean coal technologies, the supporters of clean coal and sequestration tend to ignore all of the environmental damage, such as mountain top removal in West Virginia, caused by the extraction of the coal. If it is possible, we should avoid technology that only saves one part of the environment at the expense of another. This is especially bad as there are other forms of energy that cause less harm.
            The technology for sequestration is expensive, possibly increasing the cost of coal by 21% to 91%, nearly double what it is now.1 There is also the problem that coal is a nonrenewable energy and as it runs out the price of any energy from it will increase. Such a price increase makes coal an unappealing option for green energy, as there are other options, such as solar power, that will continue to decrease in cost over time, below the price that clean coal technologies would produce energy at.
Carbon capture and sequestration is also limited to locations where carbon can be stored underground. There are only certain places where people can store carbon underground and be relatively certain of it not leaking out. Furthermore, one of the proposed ways to make carbon capture affordable, is to use the carbon dioxide to help oil companies pump out oil from wells. Oil companies use the carbon dioxide to help force out oil that would otherwise be unextracted. This is one of the proposed methods for making carbon sequestration more affordable, because oil companies would be willing to purchase carbon dioxide.2 This ties the affordability of carbon capture and the use of it with the continued extraction of oil wells.
            Also, the problem with the sequestration of carbon dioxide and other gases is that it may leak. If it is a slow leak, it makes the storage of the gases less efficient. If it is a fast leak, it can actually be very dangerous to the surrounding inhabitants. An example of the danger of a massive leak of carbon dioxide is the escape of a large amount of carbon dioxide from Lake Nyos that killed 1700 people.3 We have simply never done anything like this and we cannot be certain that the large amounts of carbon dioxide put underground will remain there forever. There are ways of mitigating the danger, but there will always be the risk that a large earthquake or some unforeseen occurrence will release the carbon dioxide stored underground. There is also the risk of major leaks during carbon dioxide transportation from production site to the storage facility.
The danger from a possible leak of carbon dioxide, the environmentally damaging effects of the extraction of coal, the higher expense, and the use of fossil fuels makes carbon capture and sequestration not a viable investment. Many alternative energy options, such as wind and solar, have the potential to be long term clean energy solutions, and are actually renewable. To invest in something such as clean coal, which is nothing but a dangerous stall on the road to renewable energy, would be a waste of money and time for the US. We must invest our money in options that are truly clean, renewable, and that will become cheaper over time.

 1. IPCC special report on Carbon Dioxide Capture and Storage. Prepared by working group III of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Metz, B., O.Davidson, H. C. de Coninck, M. Loos, and L.A. Meyer (eds.). Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA, 442 pp.


3. New York Times, "Trying to Tame the Roar of Deadly Lakes", February 27, 2001.


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