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There Is No "Clean Coal," But Obama Is Right about an Energy and Climate Bill

Frances Beinecke

Posted February 3, 2010

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There has been a lot of speculation about energy issues since President Obama made clean energy and climate solutions a central part of his State of the Union Address and his Federal Budget. 

I am glad people are engaging with these issues. After all, the Senate is considering the most important environmental votes of our generation: a clean energy and climate bill that could create nearly 2 million jobs, spur innovation in our economy, cut our dependence on dirty foreign oil, and make our nation more secure.

Still, given the politically charged atmosphere surrounding all major Congressional initiatives right now, it is easy to get confused. Here is my take on a few of the issues circulating in the news these days.

Obama Still Supports Putting a Price on Carbon Pollution

At a town hall meeting in New Hampshire, President Obama was asked if we should pass an energy bill this year and wait until later to tackle carbon emissions. The president acknowledged that passing a clean energy and climate bill could be tough --a comment that some took as a sign that Obama was backing away from a cap on carbon--but then he made clear that he supports putting a cap on carbon emissions (listen to his comments here).

The next day at the White House, President Obama elaborated on these comments, urging Senate Democrats not to take the easy way out by simply offering tax credits to clean energy companies. He called on them to take the more comprehensive approach:  “The market works best when it responds to price.  And if [energy companies] start seeing that, you know what, dirty energy is a little pricier, clean energy is a little cheaper, they will innovate, and they will think things through in all kinds of innovative ways.”

Key Republican Leader Opposes an Energy-Only Bill

As the questioner in New Hampshire indicated, there has been talk of doing an energy-only bill now and putting off a carbon cap until some time in the future.

President Obama opposes that approaches, but so does Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who is leading a bipartisan push for a comprehensive clean energy and climate bill. On Wednesday, Graham dismissed the energy-only idea:

It's the 'kick the can down the road' approach. It's putting off to another Congress what really needs to be done comprehensively. I don't think you'll ever have energy independence the way I want until you start dealing with carbon pollution and pricing carbon. The two are interconnected.

Graham went on to say: "If the approach is to try to pass some half-assed energy bill and say that's moving the ball down the road, forget it with me."

There Is No Such Thing as “Clean Coal”

In his State of the Union, President Obama called on the Senate to pass a comprehensive clean energy and climate bill--a bold statement that my colleagues and I were glad to hear. Then the president went on to say that in addition to investing in renewable power and energy efficiency, he wants to see more so-called “clean coal.”

NRDC knows there is no such thing as “clean coal.” Every single step in the coal power cycle is dirty, from the profoundly destructive mountaintop removal mining to the smokestack emissions, which are responsible for 24,000 deaths a year. NRDC has fought for 35 years to block these filthy practices. But the reality is that coal is relatively cheap and abundant, and it generates on average half of all our electricity. Coal will continue to be a part of our energy portfolio for awhile.

The need to reduce global warming emissions is so urgent that we can not wait until we have political support for replacing all coal plants with renewable sources. We must pass a law now that gets up moving down that path, and NRDC believes that a technology known as carbon capture and storage for coal plants should be included in the bill. This is what President Obama was referring to as “clean coal.”  We don’t think that term is appropriate, but the technology really will reduce global warming pollution from power plants.

Massive Subsidies for the Nuclear Industry Are a Mistake

President Obama called for new nuclear power plants in his State of the Union Address, and he included massive subsidies for the industry in his Federal Budget. This was not surprising for two reasons. First, nuclear power always retains a prominent--albeit quiet--place in federal budgets and every single energy bill includes nuclear subsidies. Second, Senate Republicans have made it clear that in order to get bipartisan support for the clean energy and climate bill, nuclear power has to be on the table.

That said, I think nuclear power is far too expensive and problematic to be an effective climate solution, and it is a mistake to increase subsidies for the industry. Energy sources should compete for public dollars based on how well they provide clean, efficient, and affordable power. On that basis, nuclear power has a long way to go: after more than 60 years of federal subsidies, it continues to be a high-cost, subsidy-dependent, radioactive-waste generating, non-renewable energy source.

NRDC will continue fighting for cheaper, cleaner alternatives, and in this fight, we have Wall Street on our side. The federal government has incentivized nuclear power for years, and yet equity firms and utilities have shown little interest in investing in costly plants (see this post on Climate Progress for shocking examples of cost overruns). We don’t think the fundamentals will change any time soon.

We Need to Pass a Clean Energy and Climate Bill Now

In his State of the Union Address, President Obama underscored the importance of passing “a comprehensive energy and climate bill with incentives that will finally make clean energy the profitable kind of energy in America.”

The best way to do that is to pass the Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act now before the Senate. We know that there will be plenty of energy companies trying to redefine their old fashioned technologies as “clean.” But that’s why we need to keep up the pressure to pass the strongest bill possible, one that will cap emissions and create a foundation for the development of a clean energy economy in the United States.

And we need to let our senators know where we stand – for investment in clean energy, not old technologies. This is a landmark bill and it won’t be easy, which is why we need your help and your senators need to hear from you.


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k conradFeb 3 2010 10:50 PM

I loved your article. Very well thought through points. I agreed with most of what you had to say which doesn't happen very often with me. However, I disagree with you on nuke power. Nuke power is cheap, much cheaper, and cleaner than clean coal. Our company is building a carbon capture plant and it is 2.5 times the cost to run as a new nuke plant. New nuclear is the solution to a carbon free future. Renewables definitely have their place but they will not be able to achieve the capacity factor needed to meet demand. New nuclear can, and it can do it carbon free. And reprocessing fuel can significantly cut down on "nuclear waste" (which is actually mostly still usable fuel) and cost costs even further. Please consider these points for your future articles.

Dr. James SingmasterFeb 4 2010 02:29 AM

Mr. Konrad: I am wondering where the "Clean Coal" power plant will be as I just heard about one in Kern County, CA being built by GE. I have warned officials about the hidden problems that seem not to be mentioned concerning "Clean Coal", and NRDC, while having poswtings about the problems, still goes along with the fraud. The Switchboard especially in postings by R. Perks over the past year has gotten attention to ash piles such as the one in Kingston TN that spilled out late in 2008.
Unmentioned in hype about "Clean Coal" using CCS was the huge amounts of water containing a toxic and very flammable capturing chemical that will be stuck in the water in the capturing system and will be waiting to escape or catch fire to make a mess. Spilled out in the environment, that water may create a mess much like the ashes. Also a "Clean Coal" plant may need almost as much water for the capturing process as used in the boilers, which may not sit well in the central valley of Calif. having major water supply problems especially if some of the capturing water escapes. And to get more than 90% of the CO2 captured may take much of the energy that can be gotten from the coal.
But the basic problem is that trapped energy released including that from atoms becomes free heat energy in the biosphere to keep GW growing even from nuclear power, although growing a lot more slowly than other factors causing GW. We have to get to negative carbon to get some control of GW and I have outlined how to do this in numerous comments on many postings on this blog. Search my name on making our massive ever-expanding messes of organic wastes and sewage solids into a resource to get negative heat energy and carbon action by using pyrolysis on those messes. You will also find the citing of a paper by Dr. E. Chaisson indicating why nuclear energy will keep GW growing. Dr. J. Singmaster

Frances BeineckeFeb 5 2010 12:34 AM

Dr. Singmaster,

While it is true that CCS decreases a plant's efficiency, new plants that use the technology can still be made more efficient, consume less water, and even eliminate the production of coal ash altogether, compared to some of the old and dirty coal plants in operation today.

NRDC is very active in ensuring sound regulations, permits and oversight for such plants. We advocate energy efficiency and renewables as the core solutions to global warming pollution. But coal use is very likely to continue for some time. CCS is a way to deal with coal's carbon pollution even while we continue our decades-long fight to reduce and eliminate the other harms from coal mining and burning.

Dr. James SingmasterFeb 6 2010 02:32 AM

Ms. Beinecke: Cite for me the papers showing how the part of coal that becomes ash and its nasty elements, such as cadmium, arsenic, etc. will be "eliminated" as that would be defining the Law of Conservation of Mass, By the time what you describe gets done CCS, much of the energy generated by the coal will be used making the remaining energy very costly to sell with any profit. While the Sci. issue, Sept, 25 claims that the CCS system in small tests may work with considerable efficiency for taking up CO2, large operations may just have to much flow to get more than 95% efficiency in capturing CO2. Maybe we will just have to have one of those plants going and have it make a mess.
And the basic problem pointed out in Dr. E. Chaisson's paper will continue in the adding of more heat energy to its overload already in the biosphere. That's the Law of Conservation of Energy at work.
Dr. J. Singmaster

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