Clean coal challenge

    Energy independence is a common goal between presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama. And while their plans differ on how to get there – both candidates agree that coal is going to be part of the equation, and they are willing to invest billions in making the industry more environmentally friendly. Companies and the public make require greater convincing.

    Energy independence is a common goal between presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama. And while their plans differ on how to get there – both candidates agree that coal is going to be part of the equation, and they are willing to invest billions in making the industry more environmentally friendly. Companies and the public make require greater convincing.

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    Transcript:

    On a highway in Pittsburgh billboards remind drivers that they are in coal country. One from Consol Energy shows a lit up Pittsburgh skyline, and reads – “our coal is behind everything you do.” It’s mostly true – more than half of the electricity in the state comes from coal powered plants. Which is why Tom Hoffman, Consol’s senior vice president for external affairs, says the candidates are placing such an emphasis on coal.

    Hoffman: The presidential candidates are going to be faced with a situation where they’re going to have to deal with coal. They’re going to have to develop coal policies that allow coal to continue to be a part of the energy mix because it’s what we have.

    And the hunger for more energy is growing. Guess who’s campaign paid for the following advertisement.

    Ad: Clean coal is important to America and to Pennsylvania. For Pennsylvanians coal means thousands of jobs, economic growth, more affordable electricity. for America, coal means energy independence. And clean coal means cleaner air.

    If you didn’t guess John McCain that’s probably because his opponent doesn’t sound too different.

    Obama: Why aren’t we figuring out how to sequester the carbons from coal? Clean coal technology is something that can make America energy independent.

    Barack Obama includes clean coal research as part of his $150-billion dollar renewable energy development plan, and John McCain said he is willing to invest two billion dollars per year to develop clean coal. The US Department of Energy estimates that if America keeps burning coal at the same levels, the country has enough coal to last about 250 years. Both candidates want to take advantage of these resources, but also stick to their environmental goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Their solution is the “clean coal” concept – capturing carbon dioxide emissions before they go into the atmosphere and storing them underground. Hoffman at Consol says a 2-billion dollar annual investment for 10 years, like McCain proposes, would be sufficient to build a carbon capture and storage plant.

    Hoffman: Unfortunately, the situation that we face today from a financial market standpoint may put a lot of things onto a different time track.

    While a demonstration plant may be possible, getting coal companies to use the technology is another hurdle.

    Gabriel: Bottom line, it’s fear and loathing in the board room.

    Mark Gabriel, a principal at engineering consultant R W Beck, spoke at a coal conference earlier this month in Pittsburgh. He says companies’ fears of raising customers’ bills prevent them from taking the clean coal plunge.

    Gabriel: You’ve got issues of recovery, you’re got issues of technology. Anytime you make a big investment you have people saying, gee, should we spend that money.

    Gabriel also points out that coal has an image problem as a dirty form of energy – making consumers loath to invest or pay a premium for coal-based energy. Joseph Minott, the executive director of the Clean Air Council, says that’s because coal is dirty.

    Minott: There’s nothing you can do to make coal clean. It’s a very dirty process from the extraction to the processing to the burning.

    Still, Minott concedes that there’s no avoiding coal’s role – especially considering that China is building about a coal plant a week.

    Minott: I think we need to be supportive of research that will address carbon emissions and the other negative aspects of coal. My only concern is that with limited federal dollars and state dollars, I want that money to be put in wind and energy efficiency and not in coal.

    But we may have no choice, says Frank Princiotta, the director for air pollution prevention and control at the US Environmental Protection Agency. Globally, carbon emissions are increasing at about three percent per year – and if the United States wants to prevent those emissions from accelerating global warming, the country has to act on all fronts.

    Princiotta: If you’re serious about this problem, you have to look at all the sectors – transportation, industrial, building, power generation – and you have to look at multiple technologies within each of these sectors.

    Princiotta says implementing existing strategies – like wind power, and energy efficiency – can only reduce carbon dioxide emissions about half-way to the levels needed to slow global warming. But even if the next administration and the coal industry dedicate themselves to developing clean coal, there remains the final hurdle – the technology. Edward Levy, the director of the Energy Research Center at Lehigh University, says the development could take decades.

    Levy: The political process has to have the patience and the will to fund the research to allow the researchers to develop the technologies, to demonstrate them at full scale, and then to encourage industry to actually build the first few commercial units.

    The goal for adopting this technology wide scale is at least 10 years away. So although John McCain and Barack Obama may support the early steps, neither will still be in office to see it through.

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