Columns, Opinion

WEIL: Clean coal is anything but

The phrase ‘clean coal’ was repeated about 10 times during last week’s vice presidential debate, not as prevalent as ‘maverick’ but more so than ‘doggone.’ It was echoed by Gov. Palin and Sen. Biden. Unfortunately, clean coal is an issue embraced by both sides of the aisle, as it is a promise of ‘alternative’ energy to appease our country’s unquenchable thirst.
To be quite frank, I hadn’t a clue what kind of extraction procedure would be deemed ‘clean.’ By its very nature, coal emits more carbon than any other fuel, at around 6,000 pounds CO2 per unit volume. Washing the coal or sequestering the carbon – putting the carbon back into the ground – both involve hefty investments from the technology and capital sectors, and the production of these technologies would produce emissions galore. The best-case scenario estimates for the viability of commercial clean coal power stations in the U.S. say 2020 is the earliest we could be seeing any ribbon-cutting. And who knows what state of emergency we will be in 12 years down the road?’ Even then, to sequester the 3 billion barrels of CO2 produced by a large coal-fired plant over its lifetime needs a space the size of a huge oil field.’ ‘ ‘
Moreover, the adjective ‘clean’ cannot accurately describe anything related to coal production. Many a Joe Six-Pack live in coal-production areas, and Mr. Six Pack knows that no matter what method is used to clean the coal, the stripping and the mining will continue to destroy habitats and will endanger the health of locals. The physical dangers of mining are quite serious, as seen most recently in the entrapment of Utah miners in 2007. Even more widespread and dangerous are the illnesses like pneumonia and black lung ‘-‘- yes, you heard about that one in ‘Zoolander.’ About 24,000 people die prematurely from coal-fired plant-related respiratory illnesses per year, according to the American Lung Association.
The environmental hazards are equally drastic. Mountaintops are literally blown off with explosives for the fuels. Landscapes across states like West Virginia have been severely damaged by this process as rivers and streams flow brown with runoff from the industry.
If the dangers of coal mining are obvious but not new, and if the technology is still being developed, why won’t the candidates give up on the idea of a clean coal industry? We as a nation still cling to the idea that coal equals jobs. This is a 19th century connotation, but the industry does employ around 80,000 Americans and the powerful coal lobby has a stronghold in Washington.’
As I’ve said before, and as many more qualified assessors of energy policy have said, what we really need is reduced demand for energy. Whether this comes from economic incentives, which the recession may indeed support, or from governmental initiatives, it is going to be the answer. We don’t need new technology to sequester things or space in Nevada to send our nuclear waste. We just need that extra push to cut back on consumption and energy use.

Rachel Weil, a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences, is a weekly columnist for The Daily Free Press. She can be reached at

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