Tuesday, January 29, 2008

KING COAL FOR ENERGY SECURITY: Another national disgrace disguised as progress

By now we all know the United States has no energy policy for the future. Rather, it does and it's a humiliating one: Global warming is a conspiracy by other countries trying to squelch the American dream and the right to buy elephantine SUVs. As one journalist covering autos for the Los Angeles Times put it in late December: "[Americans] feel they should be able to drive whatever they can afford, disregarding the fact that the sky ...is a part of the public commons."

Since the Bush administration has been so poor on energy, one standard line of thought might be that the Democrats, by default, must have better ideas. This doesn't seem so. For example, they are as willing to pander to corn growers in the Midwest for the sake of ethanol production as Republicans. And they often appear fairly Republican in their support of old King Coal, or as we'll get to in a minute, Herr Kohle.

In the US, the black diamond has been renamed "clean coal". This is to disguise it as something rather new and innovative, as opposed to what it really is - a variation on the energy policy of the Third Reich in World War II. Then clean coal was known as Fischer-Tropsch synthesis, chemistry to derive liquid fuels for the war machine from it.

Regular readers know DD blog has been on the case of so-called "clean coal" for a bit. In December, we wrote extensively of it here and here.

DD was raised in the heart of the coal country. The coal industry destroyed the environment of Schuylkill County in Pennsylvania. By my time, its benefits had been years in the past. The grandparents had a coal bunker in their basement. A worm drive connected it to the furnace and whenever we came to visit we would have the exciting task of taking a tub of ashes out to dump on an unvisited part of the property.

Only coal's ruins in subsistence mining and waste slag management remained in Schuylkill County. As a kid, one Saturday was spent on the entertainment of driving to Panther Valley in "the county over," as it was said in the local vernacular, to gawk at a part of a small town where houses had fallen into the ground a couple years after the coal industry had undermined them.

It was an image never to be forgotten.

A group of homes, now matchwood, in a hole with no one to clean up the mess because there wasn't sufficient money to ensure the job could be done without putting the rest of the town into an even bigger physical and financial pit.

Another novel attraction was an eternally burning waste slag pile on fire above Tower City.

For a few years in my childhood, Pine Grove, PA -- my hometown -- was served by a coal-fired power plant which belched so much pollution and cinder one had to sweep the sidewalk and porch of its ash. Eventually, it was closed and its waste smokestacks dynamited. That was a big day.

The father of one of DD's childhood pals also showed me anthrasilicosis. He suffered from it after a career of working in a coal mine. Stuck in front of the television, he couldn't walk much and breathed only with the help of an oxygen mask.

Another "benefit" of coal came in winter. Many carried a tub of ashes in the trunks of their cars. If one became stuck on a patch of ice or mired in a snow drift, cinders could be thrown under the tires to boost traction.

In Pasadena I haven't seen the winter beauty of cinders covering everything in well over a decade.

It's somewhat astonishing to now see advertising for "clean coal" running daily on the CNN cable news channel. The lobbying effort is pressing hard and the disguising of coal as something which is good for the future of this country is big business. If you read much of the mainstream press on the subject you can now sometimes come away with the benighted idea that global warming is virtually cured. Somehow, the burning of coal -- a chemical process which produces a great deal of carbon dioxide -- has been willed away in the US.

Coal no longer pollutes! We've made it so just by insisting many times that it doesn't in press releases and news stories!

Carbon dioxide? What's that? Just a minor nuisance, people. It's going to bought by someone and taken away or shoved into the ground. Or it'll be used to make baking soda. Who among us does not like baking soda?

It's amazing that we, as technologically driven Americans with answers for everything, didn't think of such things sooner. Then we could have been spared all this unpleasantness about global warming and Al Gore could have been kept from a Nobel Prize.

Read DD's latest installment on "clean coal" at el Reg here.


Update:

If you've read the piece at el Reg, you know that "clean coal" development fits a pattern.

Costs for Fischer-Tropsch plants in the US are at first low balled.

Then estimates escalate when the fact that there is no cheap and easy way to mitigate their environmental impact can no longer be chased off with blandishments about great technological advances. When this happens, sometimes even the Department of Energy under the glabrous administration of George W. Bush backs off its support.

"The big clean coal development coup Illinois thought it had locked up only last month appeared to be evaporating Tuesday, with members of Illinois' congressional delegation saying the Bush administration was pulling the plug on the $1.8 billion FutureGen power plant of the future that had been awarded to Downstate Mattoon," reported the Chicago Tribune here.

"After a meeting with Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said the Bush administration, which initially proposed FutureGen, 'misled' Illinois lawmakers about the project ... Also in the meeting with Bodman was U.S. Rep. Timothy Johnson, an Illinois Republican whose district includes Mattoon. Johnson said Bodman told the group that he planned to disband the FutureGen alliance of coal and energy companies and go 'in another direction.'"

The Illinois coal country, like that in Pennsylvania and a number of other states, is economically dead. For it, "clean coal" meant jobs and money. When these are the stakes, politicians on both sides of the fence will sell out the environment for an energy policy which is only fit for a country in a permanent state of war.

"There are things where we need to come together and work with the president, said Durbin, in a statement," according to the Kankakee Illinois Daily Journal. Delivered right after the President's State-of-the-Union address, it came before Durbin knew the Department of Energy was going to back out of Futuregen's "clean coal" facility in Illinois.

"[Bush] listed among his priorities the need to fund new technologies that can produce power from coal with significantly lower carbon emissions," said Rep. Tim Johnson (R) to the newspaper right after the address. "It is my hope that he follows through with his promise by supporting the FutureGen project, the clean-coal demonstration project designated for Mattoon (Ill.), with the enthusiasm and sense of urgency that he demonstrated in his speech," he told the newspaper.

As of now, that's not happening. While only in the US can plans for dirty and backwards sources of energy be called clean and environmentally sound by political leaders and important businessmen, the success of them is still not absolutely guaranteed.

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