Sunday, February 03, 2008

BUMMED OUT OVER 'CLEAN COAL' CANCELLATION: Told there's no Santa Claus, carbon dioxide not to go away anytime soon


Artist's conception of imaginary clean coal plant alleged to be able to cure global warming. Even the Bush administration wasn't prepared to back that whopper.

Last week DD took readers back to our nation's dreadful plans for Fischer-Tropsch energy plants, repackaged as the deception called 'clean coal' here.

In the US it has become the practice to call dirty and backwards sources of energy clean and environmentally sound. Hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles can be written about 'clean coal' plants and their allegedly miraculous technology.

Clean coal plants won't pollute! We'll just shove all that carbon dioxide generated into the ground. So it sounds less 'iffy,' we'll call it "sequestration." As easy as smearing a grease stain onto a tie, said one scientist on the take.

Or someone will just buy all that annoying carbon dioxide, as the developers of a Fischer-Tropsch plant in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, tried to get the rubes to believe last year. Stuck into the Department of Energy's environmental impact statement on the proposed plant, it looked so ridiculous even DoE was compelled to print a retraction.

No one would be buying a mountain of carbon dioxide, $2.28 million tons/year, as if that was even a solution.

Other nuts suggestions have included turning the carbon dioxide into baking soda! Who among us can say that they do not like baking soda?

The coal industry lobby has successfully played to the zest politicians and journalists feel for grand and fantastical solutions. They love to believe that if someone says an exceedingly large and difficult problem -- like nullifying the generation of carbon dioxide in fossil fuel preparation and burning -- can be done handily, then it must be so. While knowing absolutely nothing about science or chemistry, if the solution can be described in one sentence to a paragraph, they're enthusiastic.

What has resulted is an arc of events in the development of Fischer-Tropsch plants. Initial claims are made, all fanciful. Great news is spread. The government signs on! The United States will achieve energy security from its vast coal reserves and global warming will no longer be a problem for us!

Then reality finally sets in and costs skyrocket as it hits home that no one has any practical and reliable technology for disposing of the astonishing quantities of carbon dioxide generated by Fischer-Tropsch processing. Oh, sorry, make that 'clean coal'!

"The idea is to capture carbon dioxide emitted by coal-fired power plants and then pump it deep into the earth to avoid further buildup of the gas in the atmosphere," wrote Alex R. Revkin for the New York Times today, emitting the standard script.

Then the qualifier was deliverd, now forced by the cancellation of a Fischer-Tropsch project in Illinois last week.

"But several experts said the plan still lacked the scope to test various gas-separation technologies, coal varieties, and — most important — whether varied geological conditions can permanently hold carbon dioxide.

"Coal companies are desperate for this option to work, given how much coal remains to be mined ..."

"Many experts say that neither the original plan nor the revamped effort, nor the few projects underway in other countries, are sufficient to set the stage for pumping tens of billions of tons of compressed carbon dioxide into the earth or sea bed starting 10 or 20 years from now," continued Revkin.

"Vaclav Smil, an energy expert at the University of Manitoba, has estimated that capturing and burying just 10 percent of the carbon dioxide emitted over a year from coal-fire plants at current rates would require moving volumes of compressed carbon dioxide greater than the total annual flow of oil worldwide — a massive undertaking requiring decades and trillions of dollars ..."

But you knew all this if you've been reading DD's dissections of 'clean coal' -- the rebranding of old Third Reich energy tech -- as something new and dandy for the future.

If you actually take the time to read much of the mainstream press on the subject of 'clean coal' you can sometimes come away with the fairy tale misperception that global warming is virtually cured. In some way, the burning of coal -- a chemical process which produces a great deal of carbon dioxide -- has been willed away in the US.

And then a FutureGen Fischer-Tropsch is suddenly cancelled in Illinois because the laws of nature don't care if politicians, businessmen, lobbying groups and journalists all believe that the problem of what to do with carbon dioxide has been solved.

Clean coal as part of a realistic energy policy is just another piece showing abject failures in critical thinking in this country. There is always good reason to be skeptical of miraculous solutions, a skepticism many now abandon because they believe it gets in the way of dreaming nice things about the future.

"White House killing of FutureGen is appalling," wept the opinion page editors of the Dallas Morning News. Only theoretically, Texas stood to gain from FutureGen, being one of those states where the Fischer-Tropsch plants C02 would be pumped into the ground.

Surprisingly, the Charleston Daily Mail in West Virginia, a state that is at the center of the coal industry, realized 'clean coal' as peddled was "a boondoggle."

"Deputy Energy Secretary Clay Sell explained that while most observers expect the cost of the FutureGen project to increase, it has little prospect of commercial viability," wrote the newspaper.

The newspaper's opinion page, obviously, is still interested in coal. But it recognized there's as yet no solution for making it clean.



On Fischer-Tropsch 'clean coal' plants:

US looks to old Herr Kohle for energy security.

Clean coal alleged to save America in Illinois.

An energy policy fit for wartime. World War II, actually.

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